Make Sure You Thank Lincoln For Your 15 Minutes of Fame

It’s bad enough that the Washington Post decided to run a full-page article on John Sotos’s theory that Lincoln suffered from a rare genetic disorder called MEN2B, but now the science journal Nature has decided to get in on the fun.  This is an excellent example of why scientists don’t always make  good historians.

In response to a question about how he arrived at his diagnosis Sotos had this to say after discounting Loeys-Dietzs syndrome:

So, I just worked on that sort of accumulation of facts for the book, and then one night a light bulb sort of went on. I was reading a different article entirely and it made me think of medullary thyroid carcinoma which is associated with marfanoid habidis [overgrowth of bones resulting in long limbs] in a syndrome known as MEN2B. And I thought, well, maybe I’ll just check out MEN2B in Lincoln and see if that’s a match.

And what is the evidence for MEN2B and the cancer which accompanies it?:

Visitors to the White House frequently spoke of how thin he looked. Then in his last three months his health turned for the worse. He was almost continuously ill in one way or another and my suspicion — and I won’t go so far as to say my diagnosis — but it is suspicious that he had three symptoms of pheochromocytoma during this time: headache, orthostatic syncope [he would faint when standing up] and cold, clammy hands and feet, which he complained to a friend about. In fact, this friend saw Lincoln put his feet so close to the fire that they steamed.

You can read more about Sotos’s speculations in his self-published book titled The Physical Lincoln.  Turns out that shorter pieces were rejected in peer-reviewed journals for one reason or another.  I wonder why?


Wrapping up My Lincoln Course

My Lincoln course is in its final weeks and I couldn’t be more disappointed as it’s has been a wonderful experience.  Judging by the tone and quality of discussions the students continue to enjoy the subject and are finding interesting ways to share their knowledge.  We continue to read secondary sources and yesterday we discussed Lincoln’s Reconstruction plan and Louisiana specifically as a case study.  The lesson was centered on Lincoln’s short exchange with three representatives from Louisiana’s planter class who asked for the state to be allowed entry back into the Union with all the rights that the state enjoyed before secession.  Hopefully we will have a few days to discuss various aspects of Lincoln’s legacy and memory before the end of the semester.  On the flip side my class is in the process of developing a Facebook page around a new Lincoln cereal for the bicentennial.  They must come up with a cereal name, design the box, and design the cereal itself.  All of it must have a rationale based on the history.  The box will come with educational materials that must also be designed by the students.

For their final project we will take a class trip to the American Civil War Center at Tredegar.  Students will be asked to evaluate how the main exhibition interprets Lincoln within the broader narrative of the war.  The notes they take will serve as the foundation for a final essay in lieu of a final exam.  The goal of the essay will be to compare the museum exhibit with the various secondary sources that we’ve read over the course of the semester.  It is important to place students in an active role when thinking about the past.  In this case they need to learn to appreciate, to whatever extent possible, that public exhibits involve decisions and interpretation.  My other goal is to give students an opportunity to synthesize much of what they’ve read this semester and to remind them that interpretation is always open-ended. 

As I was thinking about this assignment I thought that it would be nice if my students could develop their own museum exhibit on Lincoln.  The idea would be for students to utilize a program that would allow them to construct a 3-D space with artifacts and descriptions within an overarching interpretation.  I’m sure the technology is available.  This would be an excellent way for museums to further their educational outreach with area schools. 


Excellent Video Series on Slavery

[Hat Tip to Alex Krolikowski, writing from Poland]

Below are links to a video series on slavery.   Each segment is fairly short which makes them ideal for classroom use.  I haven’t previewed every individual video, but I did see interviews with Peter Wood, James Horton and Sallie Haden.

Slave Catchers/Resistors

Slave Catchers/Resistors 1 – Deal with the Devil

Slave Catchers/Resistors 2 – Stono Rebellion

Slave Catchers/Resistors 3 – Poor Whites

Slave Catchers/Resistors 4 – Am. Revolutionary War

Slave Catchers/Resistors 5 – David Walker

Slave Catchers/Resistors 6 – Nat Turner

Slave Catchers/Resistors 7 – White Terrorism

Slave Catchers/Resistors 8 – The Free North

Slave Catchers/Resistors 9 – Civil War

Slave Catchers/Resistors 10 – Reconstruction and Jim Crow


Perhaps Lincoln Was Just Thin-Boned and Awkward Looking

The Washington Post actually gave this story an entire page.  Amazon should offer a package deal that includes the books by Sotos and C.A. Tripp.


Black Confederates on the Internet

There are plenty of black Confederates to be found on the Internet; in fact, they seem to run rampant in the world of cyberspace.  The number of men in Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia fluctuates widely depending on the number of black Confederates believed to have served.  Sifting through the mire of shoddy websites is one of the most difficult and time-consuming tasks.  This is especially true in the world of the Civil War.  In a sense the Internet embodies the democratic principles that we hold dear and gives meaning to the notion that "everyman his own historian."  However, this democratic tendency comes with a price.  Historical truth or any related epistemological notion will mean very little if individual Internet sites cannot be properly evaluated.

Most of my students use search engines such as Google and click on one of the first five sites that appear without any understanding of why they make the top of the list.  Despite PageRank being the most important method Google uses to rank websites, it is not the only one. Other factors taken into account when calculating the Google rankings include: the contents of the title bar of the site; the page’s meta tags; how many times the keyword is in the content of the page and the text used in the links coming to the site (anchor text).  The point is that Google does not evaluate the content of the website directly.  In other words, the first five sites may be more unreliable than those sites listed on p. 10.

Uncovering the publisher of a website is one of the most important ways to evaluate its reliability.  I tend to steer my students away from websites that are published by individuals and organizations other than historical societies and institutions of higher learning. 

Let’s consider the issue of black Confederates as an example.  As I stated at the beginning of this post most of the so-called evidence for this can be found on Internet sites.  Consider the Petersburg Express site, which includes a page titled "Who Is Hiding This Southern History?."  The page includes a number of photographs of black men in Confederate uniforms along with a number of passages that include no interpretation whatsoever apart from the conclusion that they demonstrate that a certain aspect of history has been intentionally ignored.  Here is a very simple way of evaluating this site.  Go to and type the url into the search bar that says "domain name".  The results will include the individual or organization that applied for the domain name.  You can now search the individual or organization and inquire into their credentials.  What qualifications, if any, in the field of history can be demonstrated that would validate the information provided on the website?  Who exactly is Ashleigh Moody and what are his credentials?  Do you have any reason at all to trust the content of the website based on the credentials uncovered?  You can also find out which sites are linked to Petersburg Express by going to Altavista.  In the search bar type "" which will take you to the websites that are linked.  A great deal of information can be discerned based on the quality of websites linked. 

You can also do this for the 37th Texas Cavalry, which is another one of my favorite sites. This site contains a number of pages on so-called black Confederates and is even sponsoring a monument to honor their service, which is reminiscent of the move in the 1920s by the U.D.C. to construct a faithful slave memorial in Washington, D.C.:

Time is, indeed, running out for the chance to Remember and Honor the tens of thousands of Black, Brown, Red and Yellow Southerners and those of foreign birth who wore the gray and fought to defend their homes and families. There are those who are making concerted efforts to abolish or deny documented evidence of their service.

So, what are we to make of this site?  The easywhois search reveals one Michael Kelly and the altavista search for links shows roughly 90 sites.  I don’t know what qualifications this individual has or anything else about the reliability of his "research."  This is one place that you will continue to find the image of the 1st Louisiana Native Guards being used as evidence for large numbers of black Confederates.  This has been discredited by any number of scholars.  I completely steer clear of sites created by individuals and "organizations" that I cannot identify and I recommend demand that my students do the same. 

No doubt many of you are far ahead in ways to evaluate websites, but most people don’t know the first thing about vetting Internet sites.  Following these suggestions is a first step.