The Politicians: William S. Wallace (1802-1867)

Dr. William S. Wallace was the Lincoln family physician when the family lived in Springfield. Born in Pennsylvania, he attended Jefferson Medical College in Philadelphia. He moved to Springfield in 1836 and married Lincoln’s future sister-in-law, Frances Jane Todd, in 1839. Historian Jean Baker pointed out that Frances’ wedding opened up a spot at the Springfield home of Elizabeth Todd Edwards, Frances’ sister, and allowed another sister Mary Todd to move back to Springfield. As the Lincolns would later do, the Wallaces started married life by living in Springfield’s Globe Tavern – indeed in the very same room that the Lincolns would later occupy for four dollars a week. Mrs. Wallace later recalled: “Mr L before he was married used to Come to our house – was attatched [sic] to my eldest girl.”1

Historian Stephen Berry wrote that “Wallace was all amiability…Disliking the [medical] practice, he had traveled west to speculate in land but almost immediately he abandoned the scheme. Perhaps from the vantage of Philadelphia he had overestimated his skills, his bankroll, or his opportunities. Perhaps, as lore has it, he was prevailed upon by Springfield’s merchants to return to the practice of medicine. Regardless, on July 27, 1837, he announced in the local paper that he would offer his services from his new drugstore, the Golden Mortar, which would also carry ‘paints, oils, dye stuffs, fancy articles, cigars and other forms of tobacco.’ As it happens Wallace’s store was just downstairs from Lincoln’s law office. Lincoln, of course, did not smoke or use tobacco, but he often hung around those who did, while they did, to ply them with the ‘good stories’ and ‘good jokes’ he would become famous for. Wallace was a captive audience for such things.”2

Historian Jean Baker wrote of Dr. Wallace: “Although he expected to make money as a land speculator, for the rest of his life he tended the town’s sick with his drugs, potions, and good-humored doctoring. But he was never much of a businessman. The early Mercantile Agency records dismissed him as ‘with not much capacity, can hardly make a living,’ and his family inhabited the precarious borderland between genteel impoverishment and true poverty.”3 In 1849, outgoing Congressman wrote a semi-endorsement of Wallace for a federal appointment: “I have already recommended W. S. Wallace for Pension Agent at this place. It is, however, due the truth, to say that Orville Paddock, above recommended, is every way qualified for the office; and that the persons recommending him, are of our business men, and best whig citizens.4

Dr. Wallace operated with the drugstore with a much younger partner, Jonathan Roland Diller. It was at the Wallace & Diller Drug Store where the Lincoln family purchased medicine and which for a time was located below the Lincoln law practice. The store was a Lincoln hangout and Lincoln became good friends with Diller; in 1844, Lincoln urged the local Whig congressman to push for Democrat Diller’s appointment as Springfield postmaster. Diller eventually got the appointment, and in January 1848, Congressman Lincoln wrote Diller how to make the case for greater compensation: ” If, in this way you can show that your compensation is too small, I think I can get it increased; but the bare fact that you get less than you used to do, will not enable me to get along. We have had one such case, which was sneered out of court. I am really interested for you, & wish you to lose no time in doing as I tell you.”5 Lincoln, however turned on Diller a few months later and wrote the Postmaster General that Diller “has been, for part, if not the whole of the time he has held the office, a member of the Democratic State Central Committee, signing his name to their addresses and manifestos; and has been, as I understand, re-appointed by Mr. [James] Polk since Gen: [Zachary] Taylor’s election. These are the facts of the case as I understand them, and I give no opinion of mine as to whether he should or should not be removed. My wish is that the Department may adopt some proper general rule for such cases, and that Mr. Diller may not be made an exception to it, one way or the other.”6 In 1849, Diller died and the drugstore was purchased by his cousin, Roland Weaver Diller, and one of the store clerks, Charles S. Corneau; and the name of the establishment changed to Corneau and Diller. The store remained at the Sixth Street location until 1858, when fire destroyed it. By 1859, it was rebuilt on the same location.7 Records from the store are an important insight into the Lincolns’ purchases and domestic life.

According to the American Druggist and Pharmaceutical Record, “In 1842 Wallace & Diller bought the frame building that had been in temporary use as a State House and moved it to Sixth street, opposited [sic] the remodeled Court House…..The choicest wits of the day made the store their loafing place. Among the constant visitors was Abraham Lincoln. Another contributor to the fund of good will was Stephen A. Douglas, and there the two had many a debate…. Such a notable gathering of wits and politicians was, of course, certain to attract others, and almost all the well-known Illinoisans of their day took a hand at whittling shingles.”8

For years, Lincoln took “blue Mass” pills for constipation and hypochondria. He apparently stopped taking them shortly after he became president. Several medical researchers have argued that the pills may have contained mercury that led to mood swings in Lincoln. They wrote: “It may be difficult for Lincoln historians to accept the possibility of mercury poisoning in their man, who by the 1850s already showed the remarkable qualities of character he would take to his presidency. But if, after his initial experience with hypochondriasis, Lincoln continued taking blue pills as self-treatment for a persistent constipation-melancholia complex, then the signs and symptoms his contemporaries described could readily have been due to a low level of poisoning known as “micromercurialism,” not incompatible with his persona.”9 The authors wrote:

[One] difficulty with our hypothesis of mercury intoxication is not knowing precisely when Lincoln took blue pills, in what quantities, or even where he procured them. Ledgers and day books from the Corneau & Diller Drug Store in Springfield spanning the years 1849 to 1861 show that 245 medicinal and sundry purchases were made by the Lincolns, including eight purchases of brandy (Hickey 1984). Of this total, only five were unspecified pills and four were calomel. No specific mention is made of blue mass or blue pills, even though mercury in this form was dispensed to other patrons. It is conceivable that one of the proprietors, Roland Diller, Lincoln’s close friend and political ally who lived but a block away (Obituary 1906),was providing blue mass “off the books,” since opprobrium would have been attached to the diagnosis of hypochondriasis in a person who aimed for high public office. Another private source could have been Mary Lincoln’s brother-in-law and physician, William S. Wallace, who had been a co-owner of the same drugstore from 1839 to 1849.

In the late 1850s, Dr. Preston H. Bailache became Wallace’s partner in medicine and occasionally treated the Lincoln family if Wallace were out of town. Bailache recalled: “At that time it did not seem unusual to me to prescribe for his children more than for attending anybody else who needed a physician, and to call at his office once in six months to collect the fee as merely a matter of routine – but later on I learned to differently. In those days bills of all kinds were once in six months, or in some cases only once in 12 months. Mr. Lincoln was always very solicitous when his boys were sick, and a more devoted father I have never known. His sympathy was almost motherly.”10

In 1859, Lincoln used a reply to a letter from Dr. Edward Wallace, William’s brother living back in Pennsylvania, to express his Whig orthodoxy concerning the tariff: “I am here, just now, attending court. Yesterday, before I left Springfield, your brother, Dr. William S. Wallace, showed me a letter of yours, in which you kindly mention my name, inquire for my tariff views; and suggest the propriety of my writing a letter upon the subject. I was an old Henry Clay tariff whig. In old times I made more speeches on that subject, than on any other.” The response may have been a deliberate effort to reassure pro-tariff Republicans in Pennsylvania, a pivotal state in presidential elections.11

Dr. William Wallace accompanied the presidential party to Washington in February 1861. He was persistent in seeking an appointment from President Lincoln. Lincoln’s former law partner, Democrat John Todd Stuart, wrote to urge Wallace’s appointment at a time when the proposed nomination of Mrs. Lincoln’s cousin, Elizabeth Grimsley, as Springfield postmaster was causing considerable controversy: “I hope you will give Dr. Wallace4 some good appointment and the appointment of both will do you no great harm.”12 Ultimately, Mr. Lincoln appointed Dr. Wallace as an Army paymaster and another brother-in-law, Ninian Edwards, a commissary of subsistence. Dr. Edward Wallace was appointed naval officer at the Philadelphia customs house and remained in correspondence with the president. William had written the president:

I hope you will pardon my present intrusion, being fully aware of the perplexities which surround you at present, I would not be the means of adding to your further annoyance, were it not for the reception of a letter from my brother Edward who seems to be in considerable trouble about the office for which he is an applicant. At one time he seemed hopeful of success, but is now quite dispirited and from what he writes I fear I may in part be the unlucky stumbling block to his success. He writes me there was a scheme formed some weeks since to run him off at a proper time on the ground of his relationship to me. I hope my brother will not be sacrificed on my account, providing he gives satisfaction in other respects. And I know of no others more deserving, or better qualified, or whose character could bear a more rigid investigation I know it is seldom I am very demonstrative, or even express all I feel but rather than see my brother defeated on my account, I would rather deny myself & family and suffer privations forever, than to always feel as though I had stood in his way, or deprived his family of aught. It is not I believe; in my nature to petition for favors but I hope you will excuse me for making this a Special one, as it is for a brother for whom I have every reason to cherish, the warmest feelings & whom I am confident will prove every way worthy of the confidence placed in him. I know he reposes too much reliance on my supposed influence, but as it is a particular request that I should say a kind word for him I could not forbear making an effort on his behalf, which will be a relief to my own mind, as well as a great satisfaction to himself to feel aware of my great interest in all that concerns himself and family even should my efforts prove a failure. Trusting you will show him all the favor possible I will not longer trespass on your time. I was pl[e]ased to hear it contradicted that you were not so indisposed as it was represented. With the kindest regards for yourself & family I subscribe myself your friend.13

Dr. William Wallace served in Illinois, Missouri, Mississippi where he contracted some debilitating disease. A doctor treating Wallace sent a letter describing his urinary tract problems to Dr. Edward Wallace, who forwarded it to President Lincoln in early March 1865: “Your brother, major Wallace, has for the last week or ten days been more comfortable, has had less hectic or none at all, and very much less supperation from the fistulous openings. His appetite is good for a man laying still and his digestion good. He still passes water with some spasmotic action about the neck of the bladder and at nearly all times with some little dribbling through the fistulas– Yet at times he passes water without any going through the artificial openings.”14 Historian Stephen Berry wrote that Wallace “supposedly died ‘from exposure in the service,’ though that seems a broad interpretation. As an army paymaster, Wallace might have been exposed to camp diseases or the elements.”15

Meanwhile, Mary Todd Lincoln has become estranged from many of her sisters as well as many other Springfield residents. Historian Michael Burlingame noted that “she resented Frances Todd Wallace’s failure to express thanks for the appointment her husband had received as paymaster. In addition, Frances seemed insufficiently pleased by Mary and Abraham’s success, and resisted Mrs. Lincoln’s appeals to have her daughter stay at the White House after Willie’s death” in February 1862.16

Mrs. Wallace herself complained about the Lincolns in an interview: “Mr nor Mrs Lincoln loved the beautiful – I have planted flowers in their front yard myself to hide nakedness – ugliness &c. &c. have done it often – and often – Mrs L never planted trees – Roses – never made a garden, at least not more than once or twice.” Frances remembered that Mr Lincoln “was the most tender hearted man I ever knew. I have seen him carry Tad half way to the office, when Tad was a great big boy. And I said to him once: ‘Why, Mr. Lincoln, put down that great big boy. He’s big enough to walk.’ And he said: ‘Oh, don’t you think his little feet get too tired?'”17


  1. Jean H. Baker, Mary Todd Lincoln: A Biography, Chapter 4, p..
  2. James Hickey, “Lincolniana: The Lincoln Account at the Corneau and Diller Drug Store, 1849-1861”, Journal of the Illinois State Historical Society, Volume 77 (Spring 1984), p. 60..
  3. Norbert Hirschhorn,* Robert G. Feldman,and Ian A. Greaves, Abraham Lincoln’s Blue Pills: Did our 16th president suffer from mercury poisoning? Perspectives in Biology and Medicine , volume 44, number 3 (summer 2001), p. 326..
  4. Abraham Lincoln Papers at the Library of Congress. Transcribed and Annotated by the Lincoln Studies Center, Knox College. Galesburg, Illinois. (Letter from John Todd Stuart to Abraham Lincoln, April 03, 1861).
  5. Abraham Lincoln Papers at the Library of Congress. Transcribed and Annotated by the Lincoln Studies Center, Knox College. Galesburg, Illinois (Letter from William S. Wallace to Abraham Lincoln, April 11, 1865).
  6. Abraham Lincoln Papers at the Library of Congress. Transcribed and Annotated by the Lincoln Studies Center, Knox College. Galesburg, Illinois (Letter from Charles Ryan to Edward Wallace, March 4, 1865)..
  7. Frances Wallace, Lincoln’s Marriage: Newspaper Interview with Mrs. Frances Wallace, September 2, 1895.
  8. Douglas L. Wilson and Rodney O. Davis, editors, Herndon’s Informants: Letters, Interviews and Statements about Abraham Lincoln, p. 485 (William H. Herndon interview with Frances Wallace, ca. 1865-1866)..
  9. Stephen Berry, House of Abraham: Lincoln & The Todds, A Family Divided by War, p. 30..
  10. Roy P. Basler, editor, Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln (CWAL), Volume II, p. 45.
  11. CWAL, Volume II, pp. 486-487 (Letter from Abraham Lincoln to J.R. Diller, January 19,1848)..
  12. CWAL, Volume II, p. 39 (Letter from Abraham Lincoln to Postmaster General, April 7, 1849).
  13. American Druggist and Pharmaceutical Record, July-December, 1901, p. 129..
  14. Preston H. Bailache, “Recollections of a Springfield Doctor,” Journal of the Illinois State Historical Society, Volume 49 (1954), p.59.
  15. CWAL, Volume III, p. 486-487 (Letter from Abraham Lincoln to Dr. Edward Wallace, October 11, 1859)..
  16. Stephen Berry, House of Abraham: Lincoln & The Todds, A Family Divided by War, p. 188..
  17. Michael Burlingame, Abraham Lincoln: A Life, Volume II, p. 826..