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Bugs in the White House? In Lincoln’s Time, They Swarmed

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This is a guest post by Michelle Krowl, a historian in the Manuscript Division.

John G. Nicholay, c. 1860. Prints and Photographs Division.

Presidential secretary John G. Nicolay (1832-1901) devoted much of his adult life to President Abraham Lincoln. He first hired on as Lincoln’s secretary while the great man was still president-elect, and then accepted an appointment as  the president’s senior private secretary once Lincoln took office. He held the position throughout the Lincoln administration. In the 1870s, Nicolay began collaborating on a biography of Lincoln with his fellow presidential secretary, John Hay. The Hay-Nicolay partnership produced the ten-volume Abraham Lincoln: A History, published in 1890, as well as other articles and writings. For much of this time, Lincoln’s only surviving son, Robert T. Lincoln, entrusted custodianship of Abraham Lincoln’s papers to Nicolay, who fielded numerous inquiries from the public about the president until his own death in 1901. Nicolay’s long history with the person and legacy of Lincoln is documented in the John G. Nicolay Papers, which are now available online.

In terms of literary accomplishment, Nicolay is often overshadowed by his friend Hay, who later gained a national reputation as a poet, journalist, and secretary of state under presidents William McKinley and Theodore Roosevelt. But Nicolay, who edited a newspaper in the 1850s, could also turn a memorable phrase. For example, in a letter Nicolay wrote to his future wife Therena Bates on a warm night in July 1862, Nicolay evocatively described the literal and figurative invasion of his office at the White House, as the bright lights attracted “all bugdom.”

“My usual trouble in this room, (my office) is from what the world is sometimes pleased to call ‘big bugs’—(oftener humbugs),” Nicolay began, “but at this present writing (ten o’clock P.M. Sunday night) the thing is quite reversed, and little bugs are the pest. The gas lights over my desk are burning brightly and the windows of the room are open, and all bugdom outside seems to have organized a storming party to take the gas light, in numbers which seem to exceed the contending hosts at Richmond,” referring to Union General George Brinton McClellan’s recent Peninsular Campaign against Confederate forces outside Richmond, Virginia.

Nicolay’s letter to Therena Bates, July 20, 1862, describing the insect invasion of his office. He signed  letters to Therena with his middle name, George. Manuscript Division. 

“The air is swarming with them,” Nicolay continued, “they are on the ceiling, the walls and the furniture in countless numbers, they are buzzing about the room, and butting their heads against the window panes, they are on my clothes, in my hair, and on the sheet I am writing on. They are all here, the plebian masses, as well as the great and distinguished members of the oldest and largest patrician families—the Millers, the Roaches, the Whites, the Blacks, yea even the wary and diplomatic foreigners from the Musquito Kingdom. They hold a high carnival, or rather a perfect Saturnalia. Intoxicated and maddened and blinded by the bright gas-light, they dance, and rush and fly about in wild gyrations, until they are drawn into the dazzling but fatal heat of the gas-flame when they fall to the floor, burned and maimed and mangled to the death, to be swept out into the dust and rubbish by the servant in the morning.”

Nicolay closed his letter to Therena with an apt comparison to the “big bugs” of politicians and notables who swirled around “the great central sun” at the White House during the day, drawn to the power wielded by Lincoln.

“I would go on with a long moral, and discourse with profound wisdom about its being a not altogether inapt miniature picture of the folly and madness and intoxication and fate too of many big bugs, whom even in this room I witness buzzing and gyrating round the great central sun and light and source of power of the government, were it not for the fear I have that if I should continue you might begin to think that I too have learned to hum, and for the still more pressing need of getting all the bugs out of my clothes and hair, and after that the yet more important duty of seeking bed and sleep to gain rest and vigor for the morrow’s labor. There is no news, so good night!”

Let’s hope that Nicolay slept tight — and that the bed bugs didn’t bite.

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Comments (6)

  1. . I’m glad HE could wax poetic around ‘em. What a hoot! p.s. I bet EVERYONE had bedbugs! Those who long for the good old days can have ‘em!

  2. GREAT article!

  3. Wonderful post! Wonderful letter, with such vivid images of that evening and the difficulties that were taken in stride in those days.

  4. Quite an entertaining piece allowing such boredom to reach the level of creative wordsmithing—a keen observance of the insectual jamboree as it were!

    Bravo Nick!

  5. I love these old letters and diaries. They tell us what it was really like in their day. A wonderful post!

  6. What an interesting job you have, looking through those old letters and diaries. They tell us so much about earlier days.

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