The assassin's hand

December 02, 2007

John Wilkes Booth shot a man who may have been dying of thyroid cancer. A particular genetic disorder leads inevitably to such an end, and though it is extremely rare, is it possible that it afflicted Abraham Lincoln? And was his declining health in early 1865 a sign that he was on death's doorstep?

Last week, in a lecture hall at Johns Hopkins Hospital, Dr. John Sotos presented his hypothesis that Lincoln suffered from a syndrome, called MEN 2B, that would explain his unusual lanky build, his chronic constipation, his hooded eyes and droopy face, his asymmetric jaw and the benign lumps on his lips.

There was some skepticism in the hall; the syndrome usually kills its victims off in their 30s, if not earlier, and Lincoln was 56. And there are, after all, lots of tall men, for lots of reasons. But it's an interesting suggestion, and it would seem to fit what's known about Lincoln better than the diagnosis of Marfan syndrome, which was put forward in the 1960s. It also raises an intriguing question about the assassination, and the place in history of the assassin - who lies buried in an unmarked grave less than a mile from where Dr. Sotos gave his lecture.

If Booth had lost his nerve the night of April 14, 1865, there's no saying how history would have been different. Even if he did have MEN 2B, Lincoln might have rallied from the illnesses besetting him and perhaps gone on to live out his second term, or he might have sunk quickly into death. A lingering, ugly, messy death would have been calamitous: As bad as postwar politics in America were, they could have been a lot worse with a physically enfeebled and perhaps mentally dulled figure in the presidency.

Americans like their heroes' lives cut short. From John F. Kennedy to Jesse James, from Janis Joplin to Lou Gehrig, there's no better way to live pure in memory than not to have outlived your time. Lincoln's assassination days after Appomattox ensured his ascent to the secular heavens; "Now he belongs to the ages," goes the perhaps somewhat burnished saying from the moment he died.

His life was cut short - "He had a clean death," said Dr. Sotos - but maybe just barely. Was Booth less important than we think?

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