In March of 2010, author Seth Grahame-Smith revealed to the world disturbing truths about the 16th president of the United States. By now you have probably heard of his book, Abraham Lincoln, Vampire Hunter. It has spawned a movie by the same name that will be released to theaters this Friday.
Personally I am fascinated by the concept of it for a couple of reasons. First of all, I am originally from Illinois, proudly nicknamed the “Land of Lincoln.” I grew up in a small town barely thirty miles from the capitol city of Illinois (NOT Chicago!) in which you can find: the Lincoln Presidential Museum, the Lincoln Depot, Lincoln’s tomb, Lincoln’s law office, Lincoln’s home, Lincoln Memorial Gardens, and the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Museum. If you swing by Springfield’s First Presbyterian Church (and why wouldn’t you?), you will even be treated to a glimpse of the very pew purchased by the Lincoln family. A quick 25 minute drive takes you to Petersburg, IL where you can walk through Abraham Lincoln’s New Salem State Park, a replica of the village where Lincoln spent several years as a not-so-successful small businessman. Amazingly, I’m pretty sure this list is not exhaustive.
As an elementary school student and Girl Scout, I pretty much toured them all, with the exception of the Presidential Museum, which only opened in 2005. I have, however, been to the museum multiple times as an adult and can unapologetically state that it is worth a visit. Make sure you don’t miss the “Ghosts of the Library” show. Tell them the practical historian sent you. They won’t know what you’re talking about, but I’ll appreciate the plug anyway.
The point is, like all kids from Illinois (except for maybe those from Chicago), I know a thing or two about Abraham Lincoln. I did not, however, know he was a successful vampire hunter.
The other reason that I find Grahame-Smith’s book so fascinating is that I also write historical fiction and so what he has done here presents a really interesting look at what writers can (or should) and cannot (or should not) do with (or to) history. The book begins with three “Facts”:
- For over 250 years, between 1607 and 1865, vampires thrived in the shadows of America. Few humans believed in them.
- Abraham Lincoln was one of the gifted vampire hunters of his day, and kept a secret journal about his lifelong war against them.
- Rumors of the journal’s existence have long been a favorite topic among historians and Lincoln biographers. Most dismiss it as myth.
I’d like to take a closer look at these three statements.
1. In 1607, the British merchant ship Cormorant set sail from Portsmouth, England under the direction of Captain Horatio Wheeler. Aboard the ship was a sailor by the name of Andrew Oglethorpe who’d had an unfortunate run-in with a vampire just prior the journey. Vampirism spread like wildfire through this “ship of the dead.” Its newly undead crew, furious with Wheeler for allowing a vampire to join the crew in the first place, immediately mutinied and elected a much more capable (and seemingly curse-resistant) captain by the name of Jack Sparrow whose obsession with treasure led them eventually toward the islands of the Caribbean. So that date checks out.
Where Grahame-Smith makes his mistake, however, is with his end date of 1865. In actuality (assuming we can trust the information trudged up in a random Google search, and I think we all agree that we can), Abraham Lincoln was far from the last US president who dealt with the American vampire problem.
According to my sources, it was President Ulysses S. Grant who established the Federal Vampire and Zombie Agency in 1869, which functioned as a branch of the US military. McKinley later added a department of scientific research to the agency and the search for a vampirism cure began. Increased public support for vampire rights (a grassroots movement begun by some guy from Louisiana by the name of Lestat) caused FDR to restructure the FVZA as a secret, underground program. It wasn’t until 1963 that President Kennedy finally, in a Rose Garden ceremony declared the war on American vampires officially won and in 1974 Gerald Ford pulled the plug on FVZA (Or did he?)
2. Grahame-Smith also claims that Abraham Lincoln was “one of the gifted vampire hunters of his day.” According to the FVZA website (surprisingly informative for a website representing a completely legitimate, entirely secret government agency), the most famous American vampire hunter was a man by the name of John “Red Jack” Averill, a contemporary of Abraham Lincoln, credited with over 4000 vampire kills. If we assume that Grahame-Smith’s book is a more or less accurate representation of Lincoln’s hunting activities, I estimate the president killed no more than a few dozen vampires during his lifetime, making him somewhat less than mediocre as far as vampire hunters of the mid-19th century go.
3. And now for this rumored secret journal. A quick Internet search (frankly, all the time I’m willing to commit to such a project) has revealed to me no credible references to the supposed journal. Though I guess since I am not privy to the dinner conversations of many historians or Lincoln biographers, I cannot say for certain that the journal is not a favorite topic among them. I’ll give the author the benefit of the doubt on this one.
Still, the facts don’t entirely hold up. And this one question remains: Was Abraham Lincoln a vampire hunter? I don’t know. What I can say with relative certainty is that living most of my life in the heart of the Land of Lincoln, I never once encountered a vampire so either there really are no vampires (highly unlikely, I know) or the name of Lincoln still inspires fear among the vampire population. Of course, I also haven’t run into one in the nearly two years I have been living in Oregon, sandwiched between the heartthrob vampires of Forks, WA in the north, and the Lost Boys of Santa Carla, CA in the south.
What does Seth Grahame-Smith have to say for himself in regard to his use of history to tell a story that seems suspiciously less than entirely true? “You have to have reverence for the real history,” he told an audience at the screening of the Abraham Lincoln, Vampire Hunter movie trailer, presented onsite at the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Museum. “The man was a real man who is still extraordinarily revered…That, to me personally, was the line: Never make this guy look like an idiot.”
Well said, Mr. Grahame-Smith. And well done. The book is a fun read.
The movie promises to be full of graphically violent scenes with (I’m guessing) lots of comically exaggerated blood spatter. Too gory for me, but I’m sure it will be thoroughly enjoyed by any true fan of vampires, or probably also by a true fan of Abraham Lincoln, because, let’s face it: even a widely beloved historical figure only becomes more awesome when he is hunting vampires.