The new Steven Spielberg picture “Lincoln” opened this weekend and while I haven’t had a chance to see it yet, it’s definitely on my to-do list since I grew up in Abraham Lincoln’s birthplace, Hodgenville, Kentucky. The film only covers the final four months of his life. According to screenwriter Tony Kushner in an interview with the Huffington Post, even though he thinks Lincoln may have been either gay or bisexual, he didn’t include this in his screenplay. “I wanted to write about a very specific moment and I chose this moment and I don’t feel that there’s any evidence at this particular moment that Lincoln was having sex with anybody.”
Lincoln’s close relationships with male friends and his fame for freeing the slaves made me think about a list of Kentucky lynchings I stumbled acrosss when I was doing some genealogy research a few months back. There I found a curious entry for my hometown and Lincoln’s birthplace, Hodgenville. On October 31, 1901 Silas Esters was lynched for the crime of sexual molestation. I wondered what “sexual molestation” actually meant, so I did some more research and discovered an article in the New York Times headlined Courthouse Steps A Gallows that gave a little more information:
A mob of fifty or seventy-five determined citizens came down upon this little town about 2 o’clock this morning and took from the jail Silas Esters, a negro, charged with forcing Granville Ward, a fifteen-year old boy, of New Upton, to commit a crime, and strung him up to the courthouse steps.
So a black man forced a white male teenager to commit some sort of sexual crime in the violent, racist atmosphere of rural turn-of-the-century Kentucky? That would have been suicidal unless either the teenager was mentally challenged or the sexual act was consensual. None of this was making any sense, so I checked the census records to see what else I could turn up. I found a Silas Easter in the 1900 census who was born in March of 1883, making him only 18 years old at the time of his lynching. I also discovered a Greenville Ward who was born in December of 1885 in those same records. In the 1920 census he was married with one son and going by the name of William G. Ward.
Sodomy laws didn’t start being abolished in the United States until the last half of the twentieth century, so fear of harsh penalties makes written history of homosexual relations scarce for the nineteenth and early twentieth century. We will probably never know for sure what the exact nature of Lincoln’s relationships with his friend, Joshua Speed, and his bodyguard, Captain David Derickson were, and without some sort of written documentation, the mystery of what compelled a mob of fifty or seventy-five “determined” citizens of Hodgenville, Kentucky to drag an eighteen year old black teenager out of the jail and string him up from the courthouse steps in the early morning hours of Halloween 1901 will remain.