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Lincoln's Private Side: Friend, Poet, Jokester

Struck down by an assassin's bullet 150 years ago Tuesday, President Abraham Lincoln — who faded away in the wee hours of April 15, 1865 — went on to become a multimythologized man.

Biographers describe him as " of unexceptional parents," "self-assertive to the point of arrogance," and ultimately a "."

As noted on the Mr. Lincoln and Friends site, a reporter watching Lincoln speak publicly in 1860 noticed that he exuded "keen intelligence, genuine kindness of heart, and the promise of true friendship." On the other hand, one contemporary said, "He was the most secretive, reticent, shut-mouthed man that ever lived." And another: "He is a very warm-hearted man."

Apparently all these disparate observations were true: He loved children and animals. He had a wicked, snarky wit. He lived a very public life.

But on this day of remembrance we recall his private side — well, parts of it at least. After all, there are too many facets to ever see the whole diamond at once.

Lincoln As Friend

In the wake of Lincoln's death, Supreme Court member David Davis — who had known Lincoln for years — offered that Lincoln possessed "no spontaneity ... no strong emotional feelings for any person." The judge confided to fellow Illinoisan Sen. Orville H. Browning that Lincoln "had neither strong friendships nor enmities."

Others disagreed. "He had warm friends," former Congressman Isaac Arnold told a Lincoln biographer.

One of Lincoln's longtime associates was Orville Browning's wife, Eliza.

On April 1, 1838, Lincoln — using some creative spelling --wrote Eliza a candid letter about Mary Owens, a romantic interest in whom he had grown less interested. "Although I had seen her before," Abraham confided to Eliza, "she did not look as my immagination had pictured her. I knew she was over-size, but she now appeared a fair match for Falstaff ..."

Lincoln "is pretty mean in that letter, frankly," says Samuel P. Wheeler, a research historian at the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum, who used to blog at Lincoln Studies. "The Brownings were special people."

In a 2006 essay, Eliza Caldwell Browning: Lincoln's Loyal Confidante, historian Iris A. Nelson writes that the friendship between Abraham and Eliza lasted three decades, until Lincoln's death. Nelson paints the well-educated Eliza Browning — who was two years older than Lincoln — as "a considerable aid in Lincoln's social and political development."

Lincoln's wife, Mary, "very much liked Eliza and apparently was not threatened by her friendship with her husband," Nelson notes.

When the Lincolns' son Willie died in 1862, Wheeler says, both Orville and Eliza Browning spent days at the bedside of another Lincoln son, Tad, "who was also desperately ill with typhoid as well. Orville Browning probably arranged Willie's funeral and arranged for his burial vault. They were very good friends to Lincoln."

Cassandra Good, of Founding Friendships, has studied such long-term and meaningful relationships between early American political leaders and women who were not their wives. "Many, if not most, of the Founding Fathers had female friends," Good says. "These friendships were spaces for both affection and the exchange of political power and influence."

Lincoln As Poet

Most folks surrounding Lincoln in the mid-19th century knew that he liked poetry, Sam Wheeler noted on Lincoln Studies in 2008. "He was more than willing to recite a poem for anyone who cared to listen. That is, as long as the poem was written by someone else."

But "few of Lincoln's contemporaries knew he wrote verses of his own," Wheeler wrote. "He did not share his poetry."

As it turns out, Lincoln was a pretty good poet. These lines are from the 1844 work "My Childhood's Home."

My childhood's home I see again,

And sadden with the view;

And still as memory crowds my brain,

There's pleasure in it, too.

Lincoln As Jokester

Even before President Lincoln died a century and a half ago, Americans had begun collecting stories told by — and told about — him. The habit continues to this day. "As Lincoln said" has been the beginning of many an amusing observation — some of which may have even been said by Lincoln.

Some of the best tales, says Wheeler, are found in the 2007 book Abe Lincoln's Legacy Of Laughter: Humorous Stories By and About Abraham Lincoln, edited by Paul M. Zall. The author strives for historical reliability.

As it turns out, the rail splitter could tell a sidesplitter. One of Lincoln's early biographers, Billy Herndon, believed that the president's sense of humor was, as Zall writes, "an antidote to his clinical depression."

Here are a couple of anecdotal antidotes:

* In 1856, when Lincoln was introduced at a banquet in Illinois as a candidate for the United States Senate, according to a reporter who was there, Lincoln said "he felt like the ugly man riding through a wood who met a woman, also on horseback, who stopped and said:
" 'Well, for land's sake, you are the homeliest man I ever saw.'
" 'Yes, madam, but I can't help it,' he replied.
" 'No, I suppose not,' she observed, 'but you might stay at home.' "

* In 1865 — not long before he died — Lincoln said to a man who was hoping to avoid military conscription, "If I were, by interfering, to make a hole through which a kitten might pass, it would soon be large enough for the old cat to get through also."

What does it say about Lincoln — one of the most studied and scrutinized and lionized Americans of all time — that 150 years after his assassination, we still don't quite understand him? Well, at least this: In death as in life, he was a soul full of surprises.

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Linton Weeks joined NPR in the summer of 2008, as its national correspondent for Digital News. He immediately hit the campaign trail, covering the Democratic and Republican National Conventions; fact-checking the debates; and exploring the candidates, the issues and the electorate.