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Lincoln’s “deformities”?

July 2, 2010

Trying to catch up with reading, I ran across a DW post from polemista, in part pointing out that Joey Ramone apparently had Marfan Syndrome. That didn’t really surprise me, especially after seeing him close up a few times (knowing someone else diagnosed with Marfan’s). AFAICT, it was diagnosed while he was alive.

Clicking through, I saw what inspired me to start writing:

A 1962 theory that Abraham Lincoln had Marfan syndrome has little currency today.[51][52][53] According to a 2007 theory, it is more likely that he had a different disorder, multiple endocrine neoplasia type 2B, that caused skeletal features almost identical to Marfan syndrome.[54]


Portrait of Lincoln

For a good while now, I have been really sick of the continuing bizarro postmortem speculations about what deforming medical problems Lincoln may have had. (Marfan’s, acromegaly, multiple endocrine neoplasia type 2B, etc.) These seem to be based on the assumptions that (a) nobody could have been 6’4″ and gangly back then without some medical weirdness going on, and (b) he looks “wrong”.

Note that I am not suggesting that there is anything wrong with having any of these conditions. Speculating about and medicalizing/pathologizing dead people’s “odd” appearances is what I am objecting to here.

The idea that people now are so much taller through Progress is very questionable anyway, even when looking at populations with more social inequality; in this case, in Northern Europe. Which was hardly all of them around the world–and I link to Nutritional Success on the Great Plains: Nineteenth-Century Equestrian Nomads (PDF) yet again. I guess that myth makes a lot of people feel better about the way their worlds are going.

In Lincoln’s case, we’re not even looking at that long ago. It just makes no sense to assume that nobody was as tall as he was “naturally” during that time period, especially no taller than the man was.

These speculations are also based on assumptions about what population group is an appropriate reference for comparison.

Abraham Lincoln’s mother was a Melungeon**. He looked it. (“He inherited a dark complexion, course, black hair, and grey eyes all of which is consistent with the physical features of the Melungeons.”; of course, part of the fun of being multiracial is that almost anything is consistent! I am specifically thinking of his build and facial structure here.) I know a good number of people who look a lot like him, now, and have no reason to believe that there were any fewer of them during his lifetime. My own family’s records and stories support the idea that people have not been getting taller. My grandmother’s last “boyfriend”* (Eastern Band Cherokee) was almost an elderly ringer for Lincoln, at 6’6″ or 6’7”. My own (similarly grey-eyed Melungeon Mullins) paternal grandfather looked somewhat like him, though only 6’1″ or so. Two of my great-grandmothers were well over 6 feet; one came from an immediate family in which 6’3″ was short, and Duke’s basketball team recruited some of her brothers, cousins, and nephews. I am shrimpy by comparison to a lot of my relatives.

Abe’s physical type? Not unusual where his family came from. At all. Somehow I doubt that all of the tall, gangly, longer-faced people have Marfan’s, acromegaly, multiple endocrine neoplasia type 2B, or the like. Occam’s Razor, and all that.

Southeastern Natives in general frequently got described as tall by Europeans. Sorting through the really freaking bizarre, self-serving Giant (Atlantean Space Viking) Moundbuilders mythology, there is plenty of evidence that there was/is a cluster of tall people centered around the Mississippi drainage and particularly the Appalachians. (Hell, the Walum Olum seems to be a badly butchered and ideologically tampered-with account of real events.) The Tsalagi and Easter Siouan folks are frequently identified with the “giant” Allegewi. Lawson described the Eastern Siouan Tutelo as “tall, likely men, having great plenty of buffaloes, elks, and bears, with every sort of deer amongst them, which strong food makes large, robust bodies.” Plains Siouan people, having originally come from the Ohio drainage, are still supposed to be taller on average than most of their Algonquian neighbors. (I don’t know how true that is, but I found the observations interesting.) People where I am from really do tend to be taller than our mostly-Algonquian cousins closer to the coast, based on long observation.

There are still a lot of tall, gangly people and tall, heavier-built people around. And a lot of them come from Native, Melungeon or similar multiracial backgrounds. There’s also no shortage of tall people in western Africa, AFAICT. Hint: if–like a lot of Roman and British observers–a large proportion of the rest of the world’s population looks tall to you, your group may not provide any kind of reasonable reference to judge height by.

And, yeah, I strongly suspect that old Abe strikes some people as looking “off”–to the point of “deformity”–because he doesn’t look entirely European as they’re expecting. Shades of the glasses post, with Down’s and FAS. There is also a less-than-surprising reek of disablism about the whole thing. Frankly, the ghoulish medical speculations about a dead man who can’t answer also strike me as just about as respectful as the hoary old Pennsylvania horned giant legend (i.e., tall Susquehannock person buried with deer antlers).

_____________

* There is no reasonable term in English for dating relationships among people in their 30s, much less 80s! And, incidentally, I was amazed that with the amount of obvious internalized racism she has going, she got involved with another openly Indian man. Need for a feeling of superiority, however fragile? *shrugs*

** As for the odd Mediterranean speculations, Christopher Hapka summarizes it well in Who was America’s first black president? (yep, by the standards of his time, Lincoln):

The Melungeons are what used to be called a “tri-racial isolate,” a community of people of mixed European, African, and possibly American Indian ancestry living together, often with a common origin myth that disguised their black ancestry. At various times, people inside and outside the Melungeon community have claimed that the group was purely Native American, Turkish, Jewish, Middle Eastern, Spanish or Portugese, and it is often said they were discovered already living in Appalachia by the first European settlers.

He makes the (too often brushed over) point that there have been multiracial people in North America as long as there have been multiple (socially constructed) races of people there. The origin myth thing? Part of my abovementioned grandmother’s family claimed to be Jewish as a public cover story for the way a lot of them looked. And my “mixed” Tutelo/Tsalagi mom kept getting assumed to be coalfields Italian (earlier cheap immigrant labor, many indentured) when we lived in that area of West Virginia–and Melungeon Biodad chose just to leave people with that impression, in the ’70s. Then there are the Turks. Angolans and a lot of other people from West Africa were Portuguese subjects when they were sent into American slavery (excellent article: MALUNGU: The African Origin of the American Melungeons). Is there any wonder that people are still coming up with some pretty fanciful stories–sometimes based on a couple of Sephardim way back, so it’s not a total lie–considering how people were still talking about and treating people like us fairly recently? Most of it used to be for public consumption as a vaguely acceptable cover story, but now some people actually believe it, after long enough suppression of their own histories and exposure to racism and Eurocentrism.

2 Comments leave one →
  1. July 5, 2010 7:06 am

    Huh. I always thought he was just tall.

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