Jonathan Ned Katz: "Abe and Josh, Mary and Mercy," September 13, 1988

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Abraham Lincoln, Joshua Speed, Mary Todd, and Mercy Levering

Abraham Lincoln's romantic friendship with Joshua Speed began in 1837, when Lincoln walked for the first time into Speed's general store in Springfield, Illinois, and asked about the price of bedding.

Speed later reported that he took one look at the melancholy Lincoln and told him, "I have a very large room and a very large double bed in it, which you are perfectly welcome to share with me if you choose." Lincoln took his saddlebags up to Speed's room, returned smiling, and said, "Well, Speed, I'm moved."

The easy intimacy that Lincoln fell into with Joshua Speed contrasts with Lincoln's uneasy relationship with his fiancee, Mary Todd.

In the 19th century, women and men lived and worked in separate spheres; therefore, they often approached each other warily, as strangers, across a great gender divide. The first sexual meeting between a married man and woman was often experienced as an anxiety-provoking duty. In contrast, the separate same-sex spheres also fostered intense, often eros-filled romantic friendships of men with men and women with women.

At the very time that Lincoln and Speed were sharing men's confidences, Mary Todd was pursuing her own same-sex romance with Mercy Levering, and the two corresponded when Levering left Springfield.

Todd wrote Levering that she missed the "happiness of seeing one I love so well." In the past year, said Todd, "the brightest associations are connected with thee."

At the end of 1840, Todd wrote to Levering, not mentioning her engagement to Lincoln. Todd did refer jokingly to a friend's projected "crime of matrimony." She also wondered, "Why is it that married folks always become so serious?"

Todd was quite happy, however, to imagine Levering as the partner for whose return she yearned: "We cannot do much longer without you, your mate misses you too much from her nest, not to marvel at the delay."

On New Year's Day, 1841, Lincoln showed Joshua Speed a letter he planned to give Mary Todd. In this, Lincoln said he "did not love her sufficiently to warrant her in marrying him." Speed told Lincoln to see Todd immediately, break their engagement, and not put anything in writing.

Doing as he was told, Lincoln fell into a deep depression (over his failure, perhaps, in the male suitor role). He had to be watched closely night and day by friends, who feared he might commit suicide. Lincoln accompanied Speed on a month's visit to his parents in Kentucky, where Lincoln' recovered.

Meanwhile, Mary Todd was reminding Mercy Levering of the "love which I feel has ever been ours towards each other." Todd. declared, "Time and absence only serve to deepen the interest with which I have always regarded you."

As Lincoln's spirits rose following his broken engagement, Joshua Speed recalled his own spirits sinking: "In the summer of 1841 I became engaged to my wife, " and he found himself very unhappy from the time of my engagement until I was married."

When Speed started back to Kentucky to marry in January 1842, Lincoln gave him a supposedly encouraging letter saying it was "reasonable that you will feel very badly ... between this and the final consummation of your purpose." Lincoln repeated that Speed "will feel very bad" due to the "approach of that crisis on which all your thoughts and feelings concentrate."

Lincoln repeated that before marrying, Speed "will at some time, be agonized and distressed." Lincoln would feel "most egregiously deceived" if Speed escaped "without another 'twinge of soul.' "

The reference by Lincoln to a "final consummation" suggests that the sexual consummation of Speed's marriage was the "crisis" about which Speed and he were obsessing.

Lincoln's stressing Speed's future distress was hardly a way to lift-his friend's spirits. Lincoln, it seems, welcomed Speed's anxiety and would not have minded sabotaging the marriage that would separate them. Much historical evidence documents the distress of one romantic friend when a same-sex beloved moved toward the socially expected, othersex marriage.

Speed wrote to Lincoln the night of his marriage -- after the consummation! Lincoln reported opening this letter with "trepidation ... although it turned out better than I expected."

Lincoln wrote, "I tell you, Speed, our forebodings, for which you and I are rather peculiar, are all the worst sort of nonsense. " Speed had said, remarked Lincoln, "that 'something indescribably horrible and alarming still haunts you. He assured Speed he'd get over it.

Lincoln told Speed not to show his new wife Lincoln's letter, so Lincoln enclosed a second -- a subterfuge that re-created a special intimacy between the two men, separating Speed from his wife.

In his second letter, Lincoln admitted, "I feel somewhat jealous of both of you now: you will be so exclusively concerned for one another that I shall be forgotten entirely."

Speed's marriage did end his and Lincoln's romantic friendship. And Speed's successful consummation encouraged Lincoln to propose again, successfully, to Mary Todd.


Reedited from the original. This essay was first published as "Making History: Abe and Josh, Mary and Mercy: Bedding Down with the Young Mr. Lincoln," The Advocate, September 13, 1988, pages 47-48. A more detailed study of Lincoln and Speed appears in Katz's Love Stories: Sex Between Men Before Homosexuality (2001).