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The "Lincoln Legend"
A "Forme Fruste" Urban Legend

by T. Peter Park

Many curious stories circulate in our society. Some are "urban legends"--supposedly true fictional stories that allegedly happened recently to a friend of a friend, describing such bizarre incidents as the vanishing hitchhiker, the microwaved pet, the stolen kidney, and alligators in city sewers. Others are alleged "true weird mysteries" based on fictional stories passed off as "fact" and frequently repeated in popular books and articles. These include, for instance, the mysterious disappearance tales derived from fictional horror stories by Ambrose Bierce. (See my article on "Vanishing Vanishings" in The Anomalist: 7.) Another example is the 1897 abduction of a cow by an airship piloted by six strange-looking aliens, now known to be based on a tongue-in-cheek newspaper reprint of a prize-winning tall tale at a small-town Kansas "Liars' Club." Still others are bizarre rumors of limited circulation that never achieve the ubiquitous popularity of urban legends or the frequent rehashing of stories like the Kansas cownapping tale, and cannot be traced to a definite literary source like Bierce's stories or a newspaper reprint of a tall tale.

One such curious rumor that I have spent considerable time and energy over the years trying to track down to its original source is the "Lincoln Legend." It's a story with some supernatural touches about a weird family of eccentric, peculiar-looking people named Lincoln (no relation, apparently, of President Lincoln) who allegedly terrorized an unnamed small Midwestern town in the 1890's or early 1900's. I heard the story in 1966 from a friend who had heard it from a family friend who had in turn heard it from one of the original witnesses or participants. I have tried to track down the story either to an actual original incident or to a definite literary source, but with no success in either direction. I did a little research from time to time from 1966 to 1997, and have quite intensively researched the case since late 1997. Before I describe what I found, first let me detail just what the Lincoln Legend is.

The Lincolns supposedly were standoffish, odd-looking people who moved in the 1890's from somewhere in the East (possibly from Massachusetts) to a small town in the Midwest. The father, mother, daughter and two sons were squat and "froggish"-looking with "ugly" faces, pallid whitish skin, bulging "hyper-thyroid" eyes, and high broad foreheads. Their aloof, unfriendly personalities brought quick dislike, as did their habit of prowling around the town at night and scaring townsfolk who met them.

In 1896 or 1900, one of the Lincoln sons was lynched for raping and murdering the daughter of a prominent local family. At the Lincoln youth's funeral, his father declared that the town would regret the deed, and threw a worm or slug at the girl's father, crying "Here is your doom!" Shortly afterwards, the dead girl's father and brother died under mysterious circumstances, their bodies crushed to a pulp and covered with slime, and townsfolk kept having nighttime sightings of the dead Lincoln boy. Some townsfolk who had seen the Lincoln boy's apparition later went insane. A posse sent to open the Lincoln boy's grave to see if his body was still there found a single set of footprints leaving the grave. Upon opening his coffin, they found that the corpse was gone. The Lincoln family moved out of town shortly after the funeral, perhaps going back East. For the next few years, however, the area suffered a succession of severe droughts, floods and tornadoes, almost as if the town had been cursed by the Lincolns.

I first heard of the "Lincoln Legend" as a graduate student at the University of Virginia in the Summer of 1966, from a U.Va. friend of mine, Raymond G. Frey (now a Philosophy professor at Bowling Green State University in Ohio). Frey had just heard about it at a family gathering in Kermit, West Virginia from an elderly physician who had once met one of the witnesses of the original events. The elderly MD had been a dinner guest at Frey's relatives' house one evening. He had reminisced about memorable highlights of his years in medicine. Many years earlier, the old doctor had attended a dying and delirious patient. In his delirium, the patient had screamed "LINCOLN! LINCOLN!" The next day, the patient was more lucid, and the doctor asked him about the significance of the name "LINCOLN!" he had been crying out the night before. The patient then told him the Lincoln Legend, claiming himself to have been one of the townspeople who had known the Lincolns. The patient died soon afterward, but the doctor said that the patient's story was corroborated by a relative. Unfortunately, however, Frey does not remember the name of the doctor, though I have asked him a few times over the years.

I don't recall whether Frey specified the state where the Lincoln Legend had taken place, or whether he mentioned the old doctor as naming a state. Last Winter, I called up his surviving West Virginia relatives, but none of them remembered the story nor the old doctor.

The story intrigued me, and ever since 1966 I've searched either for confirmations or for evidence of a traceable definite fictional origin. For years, I have fruitlessly combed historical, "true weird mysteries," and "true crime" literature, as well as possible science-fictional and fantasy sources of the story, but I never discovered any printed fictional story exactly like the "Lincoln Legend"--although many people over the years have agreed with my hunch that the sinister, "ugly," "froggish"-looking Lincolns with their bulging eyes resembled the amphibious "batrachian" aliens described by macabre fantasy writer H.P. Lovecraft (1890-1937) in stories like "The Shadow Over Innsmouth" (1931).

In late 1980, I sent a letter to Fate magazine outlining the Lincoln Legend as Frey had described it, asking any Fate readers who had ever read or heard of the story to contact me. My letter was printed in the March 1981 issue of Fate, which hit the newsstands in early February 1981. A couple of weeks later, I got a typewritten note in the mail from somebody calling herself Greta Gilmore of South Bend, Indiana, enclosed with a xerox of a two-page unfinished handwritten letter to me supposedly written by her brother Carl who had just mysteriously disappeared. Carl Gilmore claimed to be descended from the original Lincolns, who had lived in South Bend in the 1890's. He summarized accounts of the Lincoln Legend, basically similar to my version and to each other though with a few differences of detail (including different first names for the Lincolns, and different names for the girl the Lincoln son molested), allegedly printed in a couple of popular paperback books on weird phenomena published in the 1960's that he had picked up a few years earlier in a local used bookstore: Margaret Ronan's Evil This Way Comes and John Macklin's Ultimate Dimension. Both books set the Lincoln Legend in South Bend in the 1890's, describing the Lincolns as squat, pallid, "froggish" folk with bulging eyes who had moved to South Bend from western Massachusetts, whose son molested the daughter of a prominent South Bend family. Intrigued because he was a South Bender and a Lincoln on his mother's side, he did some local historical and genealogical research, but found no record of the people or incidents mentioned in the Ronan and Macklin books. A few years later, he inherited his grandmother's house in a "decaying neighborhood" of South Bend-- and discovered the Lincolns' records, scrap-books, and diaries in the attic. His letter, hinting at the "fantastic, horrible, unspeakable" doings of his "eldritch progenitors" Theo and Oliver Lincoln, "diseased maniacs" living in a "hellish dream world," broke off just as it was getting really interesting! At the same time, I thought his letter read suspiciously like a story by H.P. Lovecraft, especially with his purple prose of "decaying neighborhood," "eldritch progenitors," "diseased maniacs," and "hellish dream world"! Carl Gilmore's discovery of his own descent from the evil, froggish Lincolns reminded me of Lovecraft's "Shadow Over Innsmouth," whose narrator discovered his own descent from the sinister half-alien Innsmouth fish-men. Carl's disappearance, likewise, recalled the disappearances, suicides, or gruesome deaths of many Lovecraft protagonists who discover a deep dark secret about themselves or the Cosmos.

I wrote a couple of replies to Greta and Carl Gilmore, but never got an answer. I tried to obtain the books mentioned by Carl Gilmore as describing the Lincoln Legend, Margaret Ronan's Evil This Way Comes and John Macklin's Ultimate Dimension, but without success. I dropped the matter for many years, then resumed my investigations in the Fall of 1997. Again I wrote Carl and Greta Gilmore, but again got no reply. I again tried to locate the Ronan and Macklin books, but found that while both authors were real enough authors of popular compendiums of strange happenings, the titles cited by "Carl Gilmore" never existed. The Ronan and Macklin books I did obtain contained nothing like the Lincoln story. I even wrote to Margaret Ronan, and she wrote me back that she had never written, read, nor heard of any such book as Evil This Way Comes, and never heard of the Lincoln story. A supposed history of South Bend mentioned by "Carl Gilmore" (A History of St. Joseph County by "Morton Shianerkof") also turned out to be non-existent.

I got in touch with John F. Palmer, the Local History Librarian at the South Bend and St. Joseph's County Public Library. Palmer wrote me back in February, 1998 that he had never heard of such a case and could find nothing like it in local newspapers or records. Palmer did send me, however, photostats of vast amounts of information on local Gilmores and Lincolns--both of whom were quite plentiful in South Bend. Greta Gilmore was a real person, and her address was real, also. One night in January 1998, I called Greta Gilmore's phone number. Her mother answered, saying that they had gotten and read the letters I'd written but were puzzled. Greta had no brother named Carl, and her brother had never disappeared. They definitely had NO Lincolns in their family tree. The whole thing had been just a hoax at my and the Gilmores' expense by some unknown practical joker!

In the Spring of 1999, I again resumed intensive researches into the Lincoln Legend. I wrote and/or e-mailed State and big-city libraries, archives, and historical societies in Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, Wisconsin, Michigan, Minnesota, Iowa, Kansas, Missouri, Nebraska, North and South Dakota, Oklahoma, and Colorado. I consulted Internet websites devoted to urban legends. I shared my Lincoln researches with many friends and e-mail correspondents, who gave numerous quite helpful suggestions. I checked out numerous books on Midwestern and rural American local and regional folklore and murders. I contacted authorities (like S.T. Joshi, L. Sprague DeCamp, and others) on the life and writings of H.P. Lovecraft, whose stories like "The Shadow Over Innsmouth" I suspected might have inspired the Lincoln Legend, asking them if they knew of any Lovecraft pastiche by one of his admirers and imitators (like August Derleth, Robert Bloch, and Frank Belknap Long) with a plot resembling the Lincoln Legend. I also re-read all the possibly relevant Lovecraft stories. My query, "
Lincoln Legend': An Urban Legend or a Real Weird Mystery?" was posted on this web site with a request for anyone with information about it to contact me. I likewise posted copies of my "Lincoln Legend" query on a couple of non-Fortean e-mail lists that I belong to.

I received many replies--almost all negative. Nobody had heard of the Lincoln Legend, either as (supposed) fact or as definitely identifiable fiction, though a couple of people wrote me that the story sounded vaguely familiar. Several respondents thought it sounded like a story by Stephen King. The libraries, archives, and historical societies informed me that they could not find anything in their holdings or records about the Lincoln Legend or any people or incidents closely resembling those of the Legend. A few referred me to various books on Midwestern regional folklore or ghost stories--which I checked out, but found did not really contain anything too closely corresponding to the Lincoln Legend. The urban legend specialists had never heard of the Lincoln Legend. The Lovecraft scholars (including biographer L. Sprague DeCamp, critic and editor S.T. Joshi, and editors at Arkham House) informed me that thousands of Lovecraft pastiches have been published in the last half-century, more than anyone could ever read or keep track of, but that none of them recalled a story quite like the Lincoln Legend. August Derleth's Wisconsin Murders (1968) and Stewart Holbrook's Murder Out Yonder (1941, 1989), recommended by a friend because of their focus on Midwestern and small-town murders and because of Derleth's position as a leading Lovecraft admirer, editor, and imitator, had nothing on the Lincoln Legend or any case quite similar.

One respondent to my earlier Anomalist report/query wondered if I was trying to create an urban legend, knowingly posting a fictitious story "intentionally vague as to time and space" and seeing how many people would "respond affirming some degree of its truth," like the increasing number of people claiming alien abductions. He felt that my story had an "artistic narrative flow," building up to a "horrific climax," found in fictional horror stories but lacking in "'true' anomalous incidents" as described by Charles Fort "or, indeed, in The Anomalist." In a later post, he added that any real-life incident like the Lincoln Legend "would have reverberated through local folklore for decades." In our "age so starved for marvels," it would have been "picked up and reported dozens of times," and my failure to find any references to it despite my "diligent inquiry to various folklore societies" was "conclusive proof that we are not dealing with a legend as such." Daily Oklahoman columnist Robert E. Lee (curious coincidence of names for a "Lincoln" inquiry!) at first offered (e-mail, June 1, 1999) to print a column describing the Lincoln Legend and asking readers for additional information. However, Lee later (e-mail, June 9, 1999) was "convinced" we "have an urban legend," and decided not to discuss it in his column, "because that would simply lend authenticity to an obvious hoax."

A few respondents had possible vague recollections of the Lincoln Legend. One member of a non-anomalist list thought the Lincoln family resembled his maternal grandfather's relatives, "short, squat, pallid folks one and all" (e-mail, March 16), adding that "there has been talk of child molestation and incest to the present generations." His grandfather's name was Lincoln, and his family had come to Toledo, Ohio from Germany in the 1880's, though he had "never...gotten around to a genealogy search." However, "Thanks be to G--D, my mother takes after her mother." Oklahoma meteorologist Mike Branick, responding to my Anomalist query (e-mail, March 25 and March 25), found "something...that sounds familiar" in the story "though I can't put my finger on it." He might have "once read some fictional short story with a similar plot," or else perhaps in one of the popular books of Frank Edwards or Brad Steiger on strange phenomena--though he could not find it in any of his old Edwards and Steiger books. One-time Fate staffer Henry Cole, also answering my Anomalist query, recalled (e-mail, May 3) that in the mid-1960's, going through back issues of Fate at then editor Curtis Fuller's request to select articles for reprinting, he'd found one on the Lincolns. I contacted Fate and asked them to look through their indexes for anything on the Lincoln Legend, and they replied that the only "Lincoln" items they could find dealt with President Lincoln and with Lincoln/Kennedy assassination parallels. However, Cole reiterated (e-mail, May 9) that while he recalled those Lincoln items, he also still recalled having once seen something on the Lincoln Legend, either in Fate or somewhere else.

A few respondents offered other interesting but inconclusive leads. Jerry Clark at the National Archives and Bruce Monblatt of the U.S. Office of Education suggested (e- mails, March 25) similarities of the Lincoln family to dysfunctional clans like the Jukeses and Kallikaks discussed in early 20th century psychology and sociology texts--actually, families trotted out by old-time eugenicists to illustrate the dangers of letting the "unfit" breed. Eric Mundell at the Indiana State Library, while unable to find anything specific on the Lincoln Legend, suggested (e-mail, March 25) that "if the account is really based on truth, then it was likely more a matter of the local people being scared of others who just looked and acted differently." There "could have been some medical explanation for their behavior and their inability to fit in with society as a whole." He added that Sally Childs- Helton, a folklorist and ethnomusicologist colleague whom he'd consulted about the Lincoln Legend thought it was probably a "goblin tale," which "usually features one or more ugly, ferocious creatures which scare people and create havoc." Later (e-mail, March 31), he added that a colleague of Sally Childs-Helton had suggested a possible connection with the "Jackson Whites" of the northern New Jersey/New York border, who "may bear some similarities with the Lincolns." An inbred mixture of Whites, escaped slaves, and Native Americans, the Jackson Whites displayed "a good deal of albinism, squatty physical builds, etc., that would be perceived as odd or scary to some people." This reference to the Jackson Whites led me to reading up on these and similar small multi-racial mixed-blood groups in rural areas of the southern and eastern United States: the "Melungeons" of eastern Tennessee and western Virginia, the "Wesorts" of Maryland, the "Croatans" or "Lumbees" of North Carolina, the "Turks" and "Brass Ankles" of South Carolina, etc. It was a fascinating, little-known by-way of American social and ethnic history, but in the end shed no real light on the Lincoln Legend.

In the end, I am forced to regard the Lincoln Legend as a forme fruste of an urban legend or of a pseudo- historicized fictional story. In medicine, a forme fruste, literally "worn-down form," is an atypical and usually abortive manifestation of a disease, with one or a few but not all the typical symptoms of that disease or syndrome. In psychiatry, forme fruste designates what Freud called a "rudimentary" or "larval" form of a neurosis or psychosis, with just one or two of the symptoms of a full-blown case. The Lincoln Legend does resemble an urban legend. With its description of the Lincoln family seemingly inspired by the "batrachian" human/alien hybrid Innsmouth fish-men in H.P. Lovecraft's "The Shadow Over Innsmouth," the Lincoln Legend also resembles the David Lang and Oliver Lerch disappearance legends based on Ambrose Bierce's stories "The Difficulty of Crossing a Field" and "Charles Ashmore's Trail."

However, the Lincoln Legend has never achieved the ubiquity of typical urban legends like the phantom hitchhiker or microwaved dog, nor has it been rehashed countless times in popular Fortean literature like the 1897 Kansas alien airship cownapping stories, for example. Rather, the Lincoln Legend is an embryonic or larval urban legend that somehow never quite managed to get off the ground, so to speak. Raymond Frey's elderly West Virginia doctor, I suspect, must have once encountered either an oral tall tale partly inspired by Lovecraft's "Shadow Over Innsmouth" or an obscure, now-forgotten Lovecraft pastiche in some magazine, and over the years confused it with some weird tale told by one of his patients. The old doctor's delirious patient, too, might have been the culprit, inadvertently or intentionally confusing a Lovecraft-inspired tall tale or a printed Lovecraft pastiche with an actual incident. Either way, we have a rumor, probably inspired directly or indirectly by the stories of one of America's masters of macabre fiction, that achieved a limited circulation, but failed to quite win the ubiquity of the typical urban legend.

Copyright 1999 The Anomalist