Stories of Springfield: Life in Lincoln’s Town
What happened when Abraham Lincoln’s oldest son encountered the brother of John Wilkes Booth?
Was Springfield, Ill. a stop on the Underground Railroad?
What Oscar-winning mega star has family roots in Springfield, Ill.?
The answers to these questions and much more can be found in Stories of Springfield: Life in Lincoln’s Town, a new book by history writer Tara McClellan McAndrew.
A freelance writer for two decades, she has bachelor’s degree in English and a master’s degree in Public Affairs Reporting. Her writing has appeared in Illinois Times and over 35 local, national, and international publications.
She has also been involved in the production of documentaries and other broadcasts for Illinois Public Radio, National Public Radio, Christian Science Monitor Radio, and the BBC. Her plays about history have been performed throughout Illinois, including a full-length production about Ellis Island running from June 24-27 at Lincoln’s New Salem State Historic Site.
Her roots in the Springfield area go back five generations and include ties to Lincoln. Here’s an excerpt, published with the permission of the author:
Abraham Lincoln must have been tired.
It was October, 1860, one month before his first presidential election. Between that, his busy Springfield law practice, and his trio of rascally boys, he probably needed a boost.
Some respected historical sources say he used cocaine to get it.
Lincoln’s alleged cocaine purchase was originally published in the frequently cited book, “The Personal Finances of Abraham Lincoln” by Harry E. Pratt (The Abraham Lincoln Association, 1943). It analyzes Lincoln’s finances and lists credit purchases his family made at Springfield’s popular downtown drugstore, Corneau and Diller’s.
According to the ledger, on October 12, 1860, the Lincoln family purchased fifty cents worth of “cocaine,” among other items.
Today an allegation like that could destroy you. But cocaine was originally legal and found in common medicines and wines that could be purchased over the counter at your local store.
Drugstores then offered a cornucopia of now illegal or controlled substances. Corneau & Diller’s sold other Springfieldians morphine, laudanum, chloroform, quinine, opium pills, mercury, and belladonna (from the deadly nightshade plant), according to their ledger. And that was just over three months.
Clearly, Civil War-era central Illinoisans were well-medicated.
In 2005, author Joshua Wolf Shenk theorized that Lincoln took cocaine for his depression. His book, “Lincoln’s Melancholy” (Houghton Mifflin Company, 2005), argues that Lincoln’s depression gave him the tools to be an effective president during a turbulent time.
It says Lincoln tried self-medicating his depression with a variety of medicines, including “fifty cents’ worth of cocaine” from the “Corneau and Diller drugstore.” Shenk repeated that assertion in a September 2005 Atlantic Monthly magazine feature about Lincoln’s depression.
He isn’t the first to publicize Lincoln’s self-medicating practices. In 2001, physician Norbert Hirschhorn and professors Robert G. Feldman and Ian A. Greaves described in the summer issue of “Perspective in Biology and Medicine” their theory that Lincoln was poisoned from taking too many “blue mass pills” (which contained the toxin mercury). These were often prescribed for melancholy and other maladies.
Since Lincoln took mercury pills to ease his blues, it’s not a far stretch to think he used cocaine to help, too. After all, Lincoln’s depression was quite severe at times, according to several of his friends and colleagues, and even Lincoln himself.
Other respected media cite Lincoln’s alleged cocaine purchase, giving it further credence. These include the Web site of the National Park Service, which oversees the Lincoln Home. All references cite Pratt’s “The Personal Finances of Abraham Lincoln” as their source.
The problem is Pratt was wrong.
The drugstore’s original ledgers, which are brittle, old tomes carefully wrapped and kept at the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library in Springfield, hint at the root of the problem.
In flowery handwriting, the ledger lists several credit purchases for the Lincoln family on October 12, 1860, including “cocoaine.” Two other Springfieldians also bought “cocoaine” that year, according to the record. Their entries list, “Bot. (abbreviation for ‘bottle’) Cocoaine.”
Of course, some words were spelled differently back then, which has caused problems with historical interpretation. For instance, the ledgers misspelled “cigars” as “segars.” Pratt’s book assumed the ledger’s “cocoaine” meant cocaine.
Not likely, says drug historian Dr. David Musto. He has written four books about drug regulation and history, is a Yale Medical School faculty member, and has been a White House advisor on drug policy.
“It’s virtually impossible that Lincoln purchased cocaine in 1860,” he says. “Cocaine wasn’t even isolated from coca leaves until 1860 by a scientist named Albert Niemann in Germany.”
Given the slow transportation, communication, and production back then, Dr. Musto doesn’t think companies could have produced commercial quantities of cocaine the same year it was isolated.
Nobody paid much attention to Niemann’s cocaine discovery anyhow. “Ten years went by before anyone even bothered to confirm his observation that cocaine crystals made the tongue numb…,” according to Steven Karch’s “A Brief History of Cocaine” (CRC Press, 1997).
So, if Lincoln didn’t buy cocaine, what did he buy?
Hair tonic — a boost for his follicles, not his neurons.
Perhaps ol‘ Abe was more vain than we thought. “Cocoaine” was a remedy for dandruff and baldness in the later 1800s and went by the brand name, Burnett’s Cocoaine. It was made by Joseph Burnett in Boston from the oil of cocoanuts (an alternative spelling of coconuts), hence its drug-like name.
Burnett’s hair tonic was popular nation-wide. “I have used the contents of one bottle, and my bald pate is covered all over with young hair, about three-eighths of an inch long, which appears strong and healthy, and determined to grow, ” said a customer testimonial in a Nov. 21, 1863 Harper’s Weekly ad.
Did Corneau and Diller’s sell it at the time of Lincoln’s purchase?
The answer is in a front-page ad in the Springfield paper, the Illinois State Register, on the day before Lincoln’s purchase — Oct. 11, 1860. It says:
“Cocoaine — Burnett’s, for the hair
At Corneau & Diller”
(The hair tonic must have been in demand, because another Springfield store also advertised it.)
Lincoln didn’t buy cocaine, he bought hair tonic for his unruly mane. Our soon-to-be Sixteenth President wasn’t looking to feel good, he wanted to look good. Who can blame a presidential candidate for that?
The author will sign copies of Stories of Springfield (History Press, $19.99) on the following dates:
June 12 — 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. at Prairie Archives, Springfield, Ill.
June 24 to 27 — Tara will sell and sign her book at intermission during the performances of her play “Yearning to Breathe Free” at Theatre in the Park, New Salem, Ill. (A couple stories in the book sparked the idea for the play.)
July 10 — Noon to 2 p.m., The Sly Fox bookstore, Virden, Ill.
July 13 — 7 p.m. at Barnes & Noble, Springfield, Ill. Tara will also give a talk about Springfield history.
July 24 — Noon to 2 p.m., Prairie Trader Gift Shop/Springfield Walks at 113 N. 6th Street in Springfield, Ill.
Fool for life
If you were to stop four random strangers on a St. Louis street and ask for their opinion of William Stage’s book Fool for Life (Floppinfish) the question might elicit the following responses:
What a heart-warming story — I loved it!
Jeez, that guy’s kind of a prick.
You mean the guy from the RFT who used to do “Street Talk”? I thought he was dead.
You’d of course have to assume that a significant portion of people walking around the Gateway City on a given day had read the book or had heard of Stage, whose person-on-the-street column appeared in Riverfront Times until Web 2.0 came along and enabled people to publish their own aimless rantings.
But the point is that this “fictionalized memoir,” for which the author enlists the assistance of his neurotic adoptive mother to track down his natural family, is a sort of literary inkblot test for the reader.
If you’re looking for a tale to warm the heart you’ll find it in one of several moments contained in the letters Stage exchanges with his birth mother, who gave him up for adoption after getting into trouble, as her condition was described in those days, at age 19.
“How do I sum up 50 years? I’ve been told I’m good with words so you’d think it would be easy. It isn’t,” he writes to her in 2001. “I have often thought about what you, my dad, and any siblings might be like. Would you/they be impetuous, curious, stubborn, funny and tenacious like me?”
According to William, Virginia Stage’s motivation for helping William find his natural family was to provide some clarity as to why he is the way he is — specifically, belligerent and resistant to discipline. In addition to getting into the occasional scrape with the law, Stage writes rather honestly about his numerous romantic dalliances, which he has enshrined in The List.
“I never thought of my list as an exercise in egotism or an impersonal record of sexual conquests,” he writes. “I simply wanted to remember these lovers because sometimes all you need is a name to prompt the memory.”
Of his many affairs, the steamiest and most tumultuous is by far the one Stage has with the city of St. Louis. Stage makes part of his living as a process server earning 35 bucks a pop delivering court summonses in what is perennially one of America’s most violent cities.
Between his sleuthing between St. Louis and southwestern Michigan in search of his roots he takes us on mini-adventures from the North Side to The Hill and from Lafayette Square to Dogtown.
It’s hard to know exactly what about his life is embellished in the book and what isn’t. Stage also claims to have been called to active duty during Operation Desert Storm, to have taught photojournalism and feature writing, and to have written several other books. Pick up a copy and judge for yourself.
A version of this story was originally published in Illinois Times.
Harold Koplowitz is hardly the first person rocked by a midlife crisis. He may be one of the few to go public about it.
More than a decade ago, the then-40-something ex-journalist decided to pack his bags, leave Illinois, and chase his dreams in the land of make believe. His goal was to jump-start his writing career; to pay the bills, Koplowitz edited for a news service and taught on the side.
The teaching was supposed to be the easy part, but things didn’t turn out that way. Koplowitz — a child of the Sixties who still retains a goodly share of that era’s optimism and confusion — faced daunting challenges in the classroom, and ultimately left teaching in 2002.
The experience, however, left Koplowitz with something every writer craves — great material. His just-released Blackspanic College — an account of his years at an inner-city community college in Los Angeles — is his first book in 27 years, and it’s an entertaining, insightful read that wrestles with awfully tough issues.
If Koplowitz’s name is vaguely familiar, it could be because he worked in Springfield as a journalist, state government spokesman, and college instructor. While here, he also earned a master’s degree in public-affairs reporting from Sangamon State University (now the University of Illinois Springfield).
More likely, though, Koplowitz is remembered for his first book, Carbondale After Dark, which has acquired something of a cult status in some Illinois circles since its release in 1982.
Koplowitz grew up in Carbondale, and after a brief time on the West Coast, he returned home to attend Southern Illinois University, and found himself sucked into the whole protest and party scene.
Sex, drugs and rock & roll — wrapped in a veneer of youthful righteous indignation — were his preoccupation, and he wrote about those issues in sometimes painful-to-read essays, some of which are included in Carbondale After Dark.
It’s said that if you remember the Sixties, you weren’t there — and that’s probably why Carbondale After Dark still resonates with Baby Boomers who attended SIU. For them, the slender volume is a scrapbook of bizarre times in an otherwise typically conservative Midwestern town. For most others, the book could be described as an odd artifact from a time when freedom and self-indulgence were synonymous.
Koplowitz, in a recent telephone interview, says his intent was simply to produce an anthology of his early writing, but figured there wouldn’t be much of a market. A history of Carbondale’s strip, on the other hand, ensured an audience — albeit a limited one.
There are accounts of panty raids and protests gone wild, mayhem fueled by alcohol and drugs, and all-around debauchery and bad behavior. Koplowitz takes note of most of the unusual characters of the time — a hairy anarchist known as “Freedom Man,” a local transvestite, dope heads, beleaguered university and city officials, streakers, musicians, and owners of the various bars that populated the area along Illinois Avenue known as “the strip.”
Copies of the first edition are priced as high as $120 on eBay. In 2007, Koplowitz reissued a 25th anniversary edition, which includes a foreword by actor Dennis Franz (NYPD Blue, SIU Class of 1970).
During his time in Carbondale, Koplowitz founded and edited a campus literary magazine, nonSequitur; he also served as editor-in-chief of SIU’s student paper, The Daily Egyptian.
After receiving a bachelor’s degree in journalism, in May 1977, he left Carbondale for Springfield to become a reporter for Illinois Times, a local weekly. His time there, he says, was “very stressful” because he made every rookie mistake possible — and managed to stay in the editor’s doghouse all the time. It wasn’t just what he was writing: “He didn’t like it when I came in late – he saw it as a sign of disrespect.”
Koplowitz returned to Carbondale to work for the Southern Illinoisan as a feature writer and beat reporter, then worked as a correspondent for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, covering southern Illinois. He liked that job, because he was able to cherry-pick the big stories in the region, but as a stringer, he didn’t have the benefits of full-time employment – and the Post made it clear he shouldn’t expect a staff job. “We don’t hire stringers,” he remembers being told.
“I was going nowhere fast,” so he decided to return to Springfield, in 1987, to pursue a graduate degree. The PAR master’s program places degree candidates with Illinois news organizations, giving them real-life experience covering public policy issues and breaking news; during Koplowitz’s internship, he worked for the State Journal-Register.
“It was a great experience,” Koplowitz says. “I got to cover the Statehouse and meet a lot of people.” But when he started looking for work, it was mostly small dailies that were interested, so he took a temporary job as public-information officer for the state. A six-month contract turned into an eight-year stint with the Illinois Department of Rehabilitation Services. He was writing speeches, annual reports, and press releases. During that time he ghostwrote Illinois: The State of the State for Gov. Jim Thompson. He also taught composition at Lincoln Land Community College.
Koplowitz says he was poorly suited for government work. “I did not have a positive attitude. I was not a people person. It’s fair to say I loathed that job.”
He was single, childless and still stuck in “a dead-end job in a no-fun town.” His journalism career, he felt, had been lackluster; his work as a state-government flack was “stultifying.”
Time to toss his Hail Mary pass.
Lonely and bored, he met a woman online — in America Online’s chat room — who “lured me to the city of second chances.” He enrolled in film school, found a job as an editor for City News Service — a job he still holds — and also wrote columns for Entertainment Today, a now-defunct Burbank weekly. (He started as a $15 per week video-game reviewer. He’d never played a video game before, and had to plunk down $2,000 for a computer fast enough to run the programs he was reviewing. Still, it was a writing gig.) Needing additional income, he applied for a teaching job in the Los Angeles community college system, which had nine campuses.
He was interviewed, and a year later, was offered a part-time position to teach introductory journalism classes at Los Angeles Southwest College. Along with the classroom responsibilities, he became the faculty advisor to the school’s student newspaper, The Explorer.
Southwest — its name, as well as names of most individuals there, is changed in the book — is located in one of the toughest sections of Los Angeles, an area of grinding poverty, drug use, and gang activity. Adding to the tension, it’s a predominately African-American institution in an area that’s increasingly Hispanic.
Though Koplowitz spent his youth testing every conceivable boundary, and considered himself progressive in every respect, he was still a white man who’d grown up in a middle-class household in a small town — and he worried. He admits to more than a touch of what he calls “Afrophobia,” that feeling that many white people get whenever they’re outnumbered by black people.
He organized students into something that resembled a newspaper staff, but it was a struggle. Poverty seemed to be an overarching enemy — some students were enrolled just to live off their loans, some were in his class because they were told it was an easy way to get a writing credit. One of the student paper’s stalwarts, Blackjack Loco, was an ex-gang member who’d just gotten out of prison; another student staffer used the paper’s computer to surf porn sites; another once brought her baby to class and changed the diaper during class.
Like other faculty, Koplowitz had to adjust to a dysfunctional system that has more to do with the recent mortgage-lending crisis than with education.
As he writes in Blackspanic College:
“Education loans to students were drying up because numerous students had used the system to live off student loans but not attend classes until they maxed out their eligibility. Then, a goodly number defaulted on the loans. . . . Then there was the matter of faculty collusion, if not complicity, in another aspect of the scam. To keep the spigot flowing and avoid having to repay the loans, students had to stay in school, and at least one teacher I know gave passing grades to some students who were attending classes seldom if at all. And I’m sure I wasn’t the only one. All the part-time teachers — nearly two-thirds of the faculty at the time — had a financial incentive to inflate enrollment so their classes wouldn’t get canceled. The same incentive applied to grade inflation — teachers who gained a reputation for being tough graders often saw enrollment in their classes go down.”
In such an environment, it was almost impossible to marshal a regular staff to produce a paper — students would arrive late, or not at all, to class — so Koplowitz ended up editing, writing and designing much of the paper himself.
“I was trying to teach by modeling — hoping they’d start doing the work themselves. Instead what many learned was to let me do the work,” he says.
Sometimes his efforts met with disastrous results. Trying to jazz up a lede, he wrote that Al Gore was “slumming’ when he brought his presidential campaign to the college campus. The dig was aimed at the Gore campaign; instead, it was felt at the college, where people didn’t appreciate being told they lived in a slum. He apologized to his class, only to discover few, if any, of them had even read the newspaper they produced.
It wouldn’t be the first time his lack of circumspection caused him trouble — one wisecrack got him in a jam with some activist students, who pushed for his termination. He chafed at being called a racist, but still found a reason to smile when one of his accusers circulated a broadside that dubbed him “A fungus among us.” Although many students and the administration were in his corner, he regrets not taking a more forceful stance in his own defense, choosing instead to remain “above the fray.” But being called a racist stung, and it took years to get past the hurt and anger. That’s what motivated him to write about his experience, but what he’s produced is a straightforward, sympathetic account devoid of resentment or ill will.
Koplowitz says he turned to writing and journalism as way to understand and explain the world; it was his way of questioning authority. What he had difficulty understanding was that his students, those who seemingly had more reason to want change, didn’t see journalism as making a difference. For them, there was an overwhelming sense of powerlessness; that “things weren’t ever going to change.” Still, despite the hardships these students endured in their personal lives, they were the happiest bunch he’d ever been around — they lived in the present, with all the camaraderie one associates with wartime conditions.
Ultimately, it was California’s financial problems and cuts in higher-education funding — not his teaching — that cost him his job. He’s stayed in touch with some of his students — Blackjack Loco, with whom he grew close — ended up back in prison. Venus, who showed promise, still works for the California Department of Motor Vehicles. Another former student is showing success in his photography business. That none of his students ended up in journalism is a disappointment, but given the state of the profession, Koplowitz isn’t surprised.
The emphasis in journalism education seems to be less on critical thinking and the building blocks of the craft, he says, and more on the technology. “We’re in a transitional stage now. Colleges seem to be looking for journalism teachers who know how to Twitter and Facebook.” The 58-year-old ex-hippie says while he knows his way around social networks, he’s much more interested in “old-fashioned journalism”: teaching students how to get the facts, how to find and develop sources, and how, most of all, to think critically.
Koplowitz says he’s already hard at work on his next book, tentatively titled Misadventures in Journalism, which will tell the stories behind the stories he’s worked on.
He’s already got his opening line: “I love journalism, but journalism does not love me.” — Roland Klose (email@example.com)
Blackspanic College is available through Koplowitz’s Dome Publications and can be ordered on the his Web site hbkoplowitz.com. The 166-page book retails for $19.95.
The 25th anniversary edition of Carbondale After Dark also is available at hbkoplowitz.com.
From “A different path,” published in UIS Alumni Magazine, Fall 2009 edition