“Here, where the lonely hooting owl
Sends forth his midnight moans,
Fierce wolves shall o’er my carcase growl,
Or buzzards pick my bones.
No fellow-man shall learn my fate,
Or where my ashes lie;
Unless by beasts drawn round their bait,
Or by the ravens’ cry.
Yes! I’ve resolved the deed to do,
And this the place to do it:
This heart I’ll rush a dagger through
Though I in hell should rue it!” – “The Suicide’s Soliloquy” published in Sangamo Journal August 25, 1838
Abraham Lincoln is thought to be the author of this poem, and his lifelong struggle with depression is a well documented issue. He reportedly said, “that intensity of thought, which will some times wear the sweetest idea thread-bare and turn it to the bitterness of death” illustrates the straights of despair he held off and fought in bouts until his death.
Lincoln fought valiantly against the depression by keeping in the company of others, telling jokes (sometimes at inappropriate times), reciting mournful poems, and wept openly in public. His law partner and biographer was quoted as saying, “His melancholy dripped from him as he walked.”
Of course, we know little could be done for depression back in the 1800s. However, one physician prescribed a commonly known substance called “blue mass” or “blue pill” to ward against the effects of depression, otherwise known as “hypochondriasis.” Prescribed for an assortment of ailments ranging from toothache and apoplexy to constipation, child-bearing and tuberculosis, the dose prescribed for Lincoln required one pill two to three times daily, and he took them for quite some time, although no one knows for certain the duration of which he took them.
So, what’s in the tiny “blue pill,” you say? Glad you asked! As a pharmacist, I have to say I was more than curious to find out. Crushed inside a mortar and pestle, pharmacists/physicians combined licorice root, rosewater, honey, sugar, dead rose petals, and… mercury. I’ll give you a minute to take that last one in…
Mercury is a well researched neurotoxin even in small quantities. Of course, back then the physicians were unaware of mercury’s toxic profile, and it was determined that there were approximately 750 micrograms of mercury absorbed into the bloodstream with each pill taken. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency deems 21 micrograms to be the most an adult should consume in one day. So, you do the math😉
The side effects of mercury include mood swings, nervousness, cognition problems, irritability along with potential for kidney issues and even death. Lincoln’s outbursts and rage were recently studied through written accounts by his friends and lawyers who traveled with him on his circuits. One cited, Lincoln became “so angry that he looked like Lucifer in an uncontrollable rage.” Another associate stated Lincoln’s face displayed anger as “lurid with majestic and terrifying wrath.” He was also noted as jumping up and leaving the room or house abruptly for no apparent reason and laughing and inappropriate times.
All signs of neurological mercury poisoning, the researchers can not definitively test for it without a hair sample. However, the symptoms fit according to some physicians, and in my medical background, his symptoms smack of mercury toxicity. The most remarkable point to make is Lincoln’s complete turnaround when it came to his demeanor during the U.S. Civil War after he was elected into office.
“In your hands, my dissatisfied fellow countrymen, and not in mine, is the momentous issue of civil war. The government will not assail you…. You have no oath registered in Heaven to destroy the government, while I shall have the most solemn one to preserve, protect and defend it.” -Lincoln’s Inaugural Address via whitehouse.gov
Known as a man carrying the weight of the U.S. on his weary shoulders, Lincoln exuded strength, calmness, and perseverance in the most tumultuous of times. Born February 12, 1809 to a Kentucky frontiersman and raised doing backbreaking work, Lincoln self-educated by voraciously reading any books he could get his hands on. Unable to afford books, he would borrow them. George Washington became a hero of his, and Lincoln even walked twenty miles to borrow a book on the United States.
Intelligent? Yes. Empathetic? Yes. Insightful? Absolutely. Lincoln realized that the little “blue pills” made him “cross” and decided to quit taking them a few months after his inauguration. I, for one, am grateful he did.
Abraham Lincoln was a pained man held up by the empathy for others and love of his country. The weight of the world may have been on his shoulders, but he calmly strode ahead. While no one is perfect, it’s been great to read about this historic figure, and I look forward to my future research on him. How I love the writer’s life!