Thanks to generous donations from our supporters, we created “Q & Abe” – a podcast that investigates real questions from visitors to the Cottage. This bonus episode accompanies the first episode of Season 5, “Was Lincoln gay?”
As we talk to all kinds of folks about their work for the show, we sometimes end up with interesting things that don’t quite fit in the main episode, but we don’t think that should keep you all from hearing them. Hugh Ryan shared an additional story of queer life in the 19th century, and Callie had a scenario she wanted to run by him to help understand how people in Springfield may have seen Lincoln and Speed.
You can find the episode embedded below or on Apple Podcasts / Spotify / Stitcher / Google Podcasts or wherever you get podcasts. You also can read below for a transcript of the episode (coming soon!)
Callie Hawkins: Hi everyone – This is Callie and Joan from Q&Abe, a podcast by President Lincoln’s Cottage.
Joan Cummins: As we talk to different people about their perspectives for the show, we sometimes end up with tidbits that don’t quite fit in the main episode, but we don’t think that should stop you all from hearing them.
CH: This bonus episode accompanies episode 5.1, Was Lincoln gay?, so if you haven’t listened to that one yet, it might be a good place to start.
JC: Hugh Ryan, author of When Brooklyn Was Queer, shared with us many different queer stories from the past. Here’s one we found interesting that sheds light on the blurred lines between homosocial relationships of the 19th century and queer relationships as we think of them today:
Hugh Ryan: There are always moments where people say, oh, I shouldn’t talk about this, or I shouldn’t share this. But when I was looking at the letters of the engineer who worked on, and finished, the Brooklyn Bridge, Washington Roebling, he says at one point – he’s writing letters back and forth with his wife, who he’s engaged to, and it’s the Civil War, and they just need things to talk about, so she’s asking lots of questions, and she one day gets really into spiritualism and she’s like, would you ever hold a seance? And he writes back to her and he tells her this long story about how, yeah, you know, there is one person that he would try to contact, this man who loved him when they were in college together in the 1850s, and who ended up committing suicide and left these letters, you know, saying how much he loved him, and made him swear that, aside from his family and his sisters, that he loved him more than anyone else in the world and in his letters to his future wife, he writes about this experience and how this is the only person he would ever try to contact and how, he loved him, but not sufficiently, right. He doesn’t see a differentiation between their loves, and we don’t know if that “sufficiently” means I loved him in a sexual sense, but not enough, or if it means I loved him in a friend sense, but not in a sexual sense, or if it means none of those things, right? But it is not categorized as a different experience, clearly, from the point of view of the person who we today would think of as the straight person. And I think that’s really important to remember.
CH: And, as I was trying to contextualize how to think about Lincoln and Speed, I had a scenario I wanted to run by Hugh.
CH: I certainly don’t wanna oversimplify anything, but I’m gonna ask … you know, and I can imagine a scenario where my husband and I go to a cocktail party and a male friend of ours who is married is, is, seems to be in relationship with another man. And neither one of them’s wives are present at this party. I might go home and say, huh, that’s cur- like, what do you think? Do you think this friend, these friends are, are gay? Do you, do you think that there’s, uh, an intimate relationship going on there? If we lived in Springfield, Illinois in the 1850s, 40s, and we had gone to a similar type of gathering and had observed Lincoln and Speed, what is the kind of question that I might have gone home and asked my husband? Would there have been a question at all?
HR: I think it’s a little bit unknowable, right? Because we’re a much more separated culture at that time.
HR: And so we have people who have very different ideas about these things, or are starting to develop different ideas. But I think for the most part, there wouldn’t be a lot of question. You would go home and be like, wow, they’re so happy. But also, you probably wouldn’t have been invited to the party. Right?
CH: Right, right! [laughter]
HR: That’s the other thing that we have to address here is that’s – what we’re imagining in that is really caught up in a 20th century idea of sexuality in and of itself, right? A man and a woman going to a party together, speculating about something that another man is doing – that that’s a rarer situation then than it is now. And I think all of that is what we have to understand, that the context was completely different. There’s a club here in New York called the Salmagundi Club. It’s one of those private clubs that you can be a member of. It started in the 18 hundreds by a group of artists, and it still continues to this day. The original group met to do nude Greco-Roman wrestling, then cook a big meal together and then discuss art. This was a group that they invited other people to join. It was in no way connected, at least publicly, explicitly, to ideas we might have about homosexuality or inversion. Yet there was a lot happening there that people did not look down on. Now, maybe some people did, right? Maybe some people were out there going, oh my God, artists, they’re so weird. We know that there’s a variation in opinions. Even today, there are variations in what these things mean, right? That’s always going to be true. But I think that we can see continued public presentation in the 19th century of desire, physicality, love, and permanence between men and between women, that for the most part, these things happened publicly and were celebrated and were not necessarily – now, there might have been some speculation, I could imagine a world in which, you know, your husband goes home from that party and is like, well, Lincoln’s pretty cute. You know, like, sure, maybe that is happening, but we don’t know, and there’s no one specific speculation that’s going to happen, unless of course we start to see these signs of gender inversion. And that’s where we will start to see speculation, right? Gender is forefronted in the 19th century, sexuality is in the backseat.
CH: Sometimes the distance between us and the past makes it seem unreachable, but other times it’s right there next to you.
JC: Thanks for listening, and if you’re enjoying yourself, please tell a friend about the show! We’ll see you again in a week with our next full episode. This episode was produced by me, Joan Cummins, with Callie Hawkins and support from the President Lincoln’s Cottage team. Music for Q&Abe was written, performed, and is copyrighted by Clancy Newman.
CH: Q&Abe is made possible by listeners like you. You can support the show by joining Team Lincoln at www.lincolncottage.org, where you can also check out our other online and in-person programming. You can reach us at [email protected].
JC: President Lincoln’s Cottage is a home for brave ideas. Stay curious!