Wednesday, August 15, 2007

"He was not a Pretty Man"

Abraham Lincoln was on the stump spouting standard Whig doctrine when a heckler interrupted him.

“You’re two-faced!” the man shouted.

Lincoln had a decision to make. He could ignore the charge, argue with the heckler, or make a joke. He chose the latter.

“If I were two-faced,” Lincoln replied, “would I be wearing this one?”

It makes little difference whether or not the story is true, the sentiment is the thing that counts. Lincoln had a good sense of humor and, of course, he knew he wasn’t a particularly handsome fellow.

Lincoln’s friends agreed. “He was not a pretty man by any means,” wrote William Herndon. “Mr. Lincoln’s head was long and tall his forehead was narrow but high. His ears were extremely large and ran out at almost right angles from his head. His hair was dark—almost black and lay floating where fingers or the winds left it, piled up at random. His check bones were high—sharp and prominent. His nose was larg, long and blunt and a little awry toward the right eye. His eye brows, heavy and jutting out, cropped out like a huge rock on the brow of a hill. His face was long- sallow, cadaverous, shrunk, shriveled, wrinkled and dry. His cheeks were leathery and flabby, falling in loose folds at places, looking sorrowful and sad.”

The British didn’t think he was any more attractive. “To say that he is ugly is nothing,” a reporter wrote in 1862, “to add that his figure is grotesque, is to convey no adequate impression. Fancy a man 6 feet high and thin out of proportion.....with a long scraggy neck, and a chest too narrow for the great arms at his side. Add to this figure a head, coconut shaped and somewhat too small for such a stature, covered with rough uncombed and uncomable hair, that stands out in every direction at once: a face furrowed, wrinkled and indented as though it had been scarred by vitriol: a high narrow forehead, and sunk deep beneath bushy eyebrows; two bright, somewhat dreamy eyes that seem to gaze through you without looking at you; a few irregular blotches of black, bristly hair in the place where beard and whiskers out to grow; a close-set, thin lipped, stern mouth, with two rows of large, white teeth and a nose and ears which have been taken by mistake from a head of twice the size.”

As if first impressions weren’t bad enough, now we have scientific proof that Lincoln looked a little odd. Scientists have scanned two life masks, both made from plaster casts of Lincoln’s face during his lifetime. They have determined that Lincoln suffered from an unusual degree of facial asymmetry.

The right side of Lincoln’s face was much larger than his left side. I was surprised to learn that this ailment has a name—it is called “cranial facial microsomia.”

Not even poet Walt Whitman had the right terminology for Lincoln’s physical abnormality. After viewing several pictures of the sixteenth president, Whitman concluded that “none of the artists or pictures have caught the subtle and indirect expression of this man’s face.” Years later, Whitman again reflected on Lincoln’s appearance. “Though hundreds of portraits have been made,” he wrote, “I have never seen one yet that in my opinion deserved to be called a perfectly good likeness: nor do I believe there is really such a one in existence.”

Congressman Henry L. Dawes could not do any better. “There is something in the face which I cannot understand,” he wrote.

My favorite description of Lincoln’s appearance comes from Lincoln’s Illinois friend Gustave Koerner. “Something about the man, the face is unfathomable. In his looks there were hints of mysteries within,” he wrote.

All good descriptions, but each of them pale in comparison to the precision of modern science. "Cranial facial microsomia" they call it.