Scientist Wants to Test Abraham Lincoln's Bloodstained Pillow for Cancer

By Eliza Strickland | April 20, 2009 11:00 am

Abraham LincolnCardiologist and author John Sotos has a theory about why Abraham Lincoln was so tall, why he appeared to have lumps on his lips and even why he had gastrointestinal problems. The 16th president, he contends, had a rare genetic disorder — one that would likely have left him dead of cancer within a year had he not been assassinated [Time]. But for Sotos to prove his case, he needs a snip from a historical relic: a piece of the bloodstained pillowcase on which the dying Lincoln rested his head after he was shot at Ford’s Theater on April 14, 1865.

The piece of cloth is displayed under glass at the Grand Army of the Republic Civil War Museum and Library in Philadelphia. Sotos has asked the museum’s board for a sample of the pillowcase, which is stained with both blood and brain matter. But the board is fiercely debating whether to concede to his request. “This is the Shroud of Turin of Civil War history,” said Andy Waskie, a board member…. “We are guardians in trusteeship of this extraordinarily important artifact. On the basis of pure science, the testing is of interest. We have not eliminated it as an option . . . but we want more information” [The Philadelphia Inquirer].

Sotos believes that Lincoln had a rare genetic condition called multiple endocrine neoplasia, type 2B, which leads to thyroid or adrenal cancer. But people with the condition usually die young, while Lincoln was 56 when he was shot. Still, Sotos believes that Lincoln may have been in declining health during his final years in office. If Lincoln was seriously ill and knew it, Sotos said, that might explain stories of his premonitions about death. “I don’t think it was mysticism, I think that was him knowing what his body was telling him,” Sotos said. “Then if you’re a historian, I think you have to say … how does that affect how you run the war, your clemency toward soldiers who may have deserted their post, the way you reconcile with the South?” [Time]

Other historians have suggested that Lincoln suffered from other ailments: the genetic disorder Marfan syndrome has been offered as an explanation for his height, and others have proposed that spinocerebellar ataxia caused his awkward gait. But none of these hypotheses have been tested, because no genetic material has yet been released for testing. The last known wishes of the Lincoln family – to leave the president alone – came in 1876 after a group of Chicago counterfeiters tried to steal his remains from his memorial in Springfield, Ill., and seek a ransom for $200,000 along with the release of an imprisoned cohort. They were unsuccessful; Lincoln’s coffin was later encased in steel and concrete to prevent further theft attempts. That left artifacts from the assassination as the only source of DNA [The Philadelphia Inquirer].

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Image: Library of Congress

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Health & Medicine
  • cathy

    should be “none of these hypotheses HAS been tested…”

  • Eliza Strickland

    Actually, most grammar authorities say that “none” can be treated as either a singular. A common example: None of the cake WAS left…. None of the cookies WERE left.

  • Jumblepudding

    So if somebody went back in time and stopped John Wilkes Booth, Lincoln would have dropped dead soon after anyway. Funny how the space time continuum takes care of itself.

  • Nick

    No no no. Who *cares* if he would have dropped dead in a year any. Just sequence his DNA and archive that for future uses (Futurama head-in-a-jar, Evil Real Holographic Robotic Lincoln is baaaack, etc) and be done with it. That I think should be the over-riding priority here – to sequence the remaining DNA of great men, to preserve it for the future.

    Think about it: nowday, we routinely see and do what would have gotten us burned alive at stakes as witches, tortured in the inquisition, or at the very least Galileo’d – things that would have been dismissed as preposterous poppycock 100 years ago by a (science)-fiction editor. Things Jules Vern wouldn’t have put in his novels for fear of being laughed at. So 100 years from now, a recording of Lincoln’s DNA may prove useful.

    p.s. no one has figured out yet why time runs only forward – physics equations work equally well in either direction.

  • MessengerBoy

    Nick, what makes you so sure time only runs forward? Maybe you are moving forward (or backward) and time is standing still.

  • Kin

    You ought to concede what you said didn’t actually make sense and you were throwing out mysticism.

  • graysuede

    I think Nick needs to concede that the idea of referencing science with Futurama is comedic, so don’t characterize a joke as as mysticism. People are too serious.

    As a historian, I believe this could be a great find for a fresh interpretation of Lincoln. Finding out Lincoln had a terminal disease could completely alter the perception of Lincoln and his conduct in the war. Maybe then we could move beyond the tendency to romanticize Lincoln as an American hero and understand him better as a man.

    I hope the experiment is permitted, but I must say, I hope it’s for reasons other than recording Lincoln’s DNA for prosperity.

  • sookie49

    “This is the Shroud of Turin of Civil War history,”

    The Shroud of Turin has been subjected to destructive scientific testing so why not a pillowcase.

  • Chris

    I say…who the hell cares if Lincoln had cancer? What difference does it make. If he did, it’s a little too late to save him. How much do you want to bet that the next season of House will have some one with the same symptoms as Lincoln, who’s about to die, but saved at the last minute when it’s found that he has huge kidney stones that caused bleeding in his lungs and his toes to fall off.

  • Leslie

    If what the author says is true, that Lincoln’s DNA is as yet untested. then his family DNA may be researched. Teh results may be surprising.

    He is suspected to be melungeon, a distinct tri-racial family group, making Lincoln the first black president.

    I would think a small portion of the pillowcase could be sacrificed for that kind of information.

  • martha

    if you dont care if he had cancer or not, then why cant they test to see if he did or not?

  • Sam

    I think it’s very possible that Lincoln had cancer but I doubt it was the kind Sotos thinks it was. When one looks a photo differences in Lincoln between 1864 and 1865, it’s perfectly believable that he had some kind of cancer. But he could have had pancreatic cancer or brain cancer or some other form for all we really know, and those seem much more likely. Most people who had the kind that Sotos talks about died young and were physically weak. Lincoln was quite old for his day and yet he was unanimously described as being unbelievably physically strong throughout his life. For whatever reason, Sotos seems to discount this historical accounts of Lincoln’s physical strength, or he seems to believe that they’re exaggerated. According to reports, even the doctors who performed Lincoln’s autopsy were amazed at the the mass, density, and tone of his muscle tissue. I’d be curious to see them do the test just confirm if he had some kind of condition, cancer or disease at all, regardless of if it’s what Sotos thinks it was. Keep in mind that there was a time when many were sure that Lincoln had Marfan syndrome, and that idea has been generally dismissed by most serious Lincoln scholars.

  • http://sientistswanttocheckabrahamlincolnsbloodstainedpillow kiki

    I am very young and I do not get what a lot of people are saying but I do belive that many people are getting many types of new disies and infections and for all we know it could be somthing totaly different since sotos hasent been able to check for it .

  • Kassie

    This is just about stupid. Like really? Does is matter? And if he did have a disease that causes a person to die young, why didn’t he die at forty? He got shot at 56… the bullet entered behind his left ear and stopped behind his right eye. There was no hope for good ole Abe to live. Some people need a swift kick in the rear. How important would that information be of a man who died in 1865? (Commenting on some commentors… So are they going to go back in time and save Abe? Hahaha. I think not.) He died… God made it that way… They could not have cured the cancer anyways… Or gave him medication for a disease. Sounds like a scientist who wants to waste a few million dollars on a NO-guarantee hunch that would be a waste of time.

  • chris

    I say Hell yes let the scientist test the pillow, if they are willing to pay big bucks to the museum to cut from it. It does matter. a lot of good books can be witten on the subject. I think it is of great interest. If you don’t care about Lincoln or History naw I guess it doesn’t, but I do, so I say let the pillow cutting begin.


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