Tuesday Turnip: 9 Little-Known Facts about Honest Abe

David K. Israel
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Lincoln was the only President ever to obtain a patent. In 1849 he invented a complicated device for lifting ships over dangerous shoals by means of "buoyant air chambers." Much to Lincoln's disappointment, U.S. Patent No. 6,469 was never put into practical use.

The clutter in Lincoln's law office was notorious, and a continual source of irritation to his partner, William Herndon. On his desk, Lincoln kept one envelope marked "When you can't find it anywhere else, look into this."

Lincoln was the 1st major leader in our history to favor extending the vote to women. In 1836--a full 12 years before the 1st woman's rights convention had even convened--State legislator Lincoln gave an Illinois paper a statement endorsing "female suffrage."

In 1858, Lincoln was so concerned that the text of his "House divided" speech be reported accurately, that even after he had given a copy of the address to reporters, he insisted on going to the newspaper office himself and proofreading the galleys.

In 1842, Lincoln accepted a challenge to a duel from James Shields, the Democratic State auditor. Shields was furious over a satiric letter in a local paper. Actually, the letter had been written by Lincoln's fiancee, Mary Todd, but Lincoln willingly took responsibility. Since he was given the choice of weapons, Lincoln, with typical cunning, selected broadswords--with his 6'4" frame and his enormous arms, Lincoln had an insurmountable advantage over his disminutive opponent when it came to dueling with swords. Shields wisely decided to make up his differences with Lincoln and the scheduled duel failed to take place.

It is well known that Lincoln used to pace the White House long past midnight during the years of the Civil War; what is less celebrated is his habit of imposing his insomnia on his overworked aides. Often, he would keep his young personal secretary, John Hay, awake, listening to the funny stories that Lincoln loved to tell. ("Without these stories I would die," he once said.) On one occasion, according to Hay, "he read Shakespeare to me, the end of Henry VIII and the beginning of Richard III, till my heavy eyelids caught his considerate notice and he sent me to bed."

Frederick Douglass, the celebrated black abolitionist and former slave, was invited by Lincoln to the inaugural reception in 1865, but when Douglass tried to enter, policemen man-handled him and forced him back out. Making his way in again, he managed to catch Lincoln's eye. "Here comes my friend Douglass," the President exclaimed, and, leaving his circle of guests, he took Douglass by the hand and began to chat with him.

After the death of his son Willie, Lincoln was persuaded by his wife to participate in several seances held in the White House. The President was deeply interested in psychic phenomena and wanted to communicate with his dead son. Once Lincoln reported that he had attended a seance in which a piano was raised and moved around the room. It was the professional opinion of the mediums who had worked with him that Lincoln was definitely the possessor of extraordinary psychic powers.

Lincoln took his dreams seriously. On one occasion he wrote to his wife to be watchful with their son Tad because Lincoln had experienced an "unpleasant" dream. On the day of his assassination, April 14, 1865, he was so troubled by a dream that he actually discussed it at a Cabinet meeting. He told his colleagues that he had seen himself sailing "in an indescribable vessel and moving rapidly toward an indistinct shore." Even more explicit was a dream that he discussed just a week before he was shot. In his dream, Lincoln awoke, and walked through the silent White House, following the sound of sobbing. When he came to the East Room, he saw a catafalque draped in black. "Who is dead?" Lincoln asked. A military guard replied that it was the President.

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