Thaddeus Stevens had many distinctive traits, such as his cutting wit, his brilliant intellect and his dour countenance. But the thing that hit people first was his ill-fitting, chestnut colored wig.
Stevens started wearing a wig in the late 1820s after an attack of “brain fever,” which was probably Typhoid, that rendered him hairless. The wig was said to have been cut to look alike from all sides so Stevens did have to brother which way he put it on.
Steven never said exactly why he wore a wig rather than just showing his bald head like other men. It may have something to do with the particular era that he grew up in. Wigs were still popular among the elites, particularly U.S. Presidents, up until the late 1820s. But as the decades passed, wigs fell out of favor and beards and mustaches became fashionable. Stevens stuck with his wig and could not grow facial hair.
His ill-fitting wig opened Stevens to derision by his political opponents. One such occasion was the “Buckshot War” of 1838 when a mob brought from Philadelphia by the Democrats took over the legislature in Harrisburg by force. A political cartoon in a Democratic publication made light of Stevens losing his wig after having to jump out a window to escape the mob. But despite the ridicule, |Stevens continued to wear his wig and he may have had more than one.
W. Frank Gorrecht recounts how while visiting Stevens with his father in the late 1860s, he told Stevens he was scheduled to make a recitation at a local church. Stevens asked for a preview and after hearing it, he handed him a wig and asked him to repeat it wearing the hair piece. “Whether or not there was virtue in the wig the second recitation induced him to tell me to take it with me, use it at the entertainment and return it to him when through with it,” Gorrecht wrote in a 1933 article. Stevens became bedridden shortly thereafter and the wig was not returned. It is now part of the collection at Lancaster History.
In September 2013, Lancaster History launched an effort to raise $1,500 to restore the wig. One thousand dollars was raised and the last $500 was donated by the Thaddeus Stevens Society.
Stevens’s wig became a star in its own right in the 2012 Lincoln movie where Tommy Lee Jones, who played Stevens, wore a wig more outrageously ill-fitting than Stevens ever wore. In one scene, Jones doffs the wig as he get ready for bed and we see a cue ball Stevens, something that was never photographed while Stevens lived.
The most famous incident to involve Stevens’s wig involved a female admirer who did not know of his baldness and asked for a lock of his hair. Not wanting to disappoint her, Stevens handed the entire wig to the astonished lady.
Ross Hetrick is president of the Thaddeus Stevens Society, which is dedicated to promoting Stevens’s important legacy. More information about the Great Commoner can be found at the society’s website: https://www.thaddeusstevenssociety.com/