CHAMPAIGN – Robert Gilchrist liked "Lincoln" the movie well enough the first time he watched it. But the retired British civil servant enjoyed it a bit more the second time around.
Gilchrist's second viewing followed the news that he is a distant cousin of Abraham Lincoln. A genealogist hired by the Illinois Office of Tourism after the film's success in Great Britain tracked Gilchrist to his south London home and confirmed the news.
This week Gilchrist and his wife, Jane, are visiting Springfield to learn a little more about their newfound kin at the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum and other stops.
The connection, the 61-year-old retired civil servant said, briefly made big news back home.
"It was on various newspaper and BBC websites and on the radio. It was on the front page of our local newspaper," Gilchrist, who decades ago lived in New York, said in an interview Friday.
And the connection, beyond the long journey to a part of the United States he'd never visited, gave Gilchrist good reason to make a shorter trip he'd long considered: a hundred or so miles from his south London home to his family's ancestral home in Norfolk on England's east coast.
"We went this year and [saw] where my ancestors and the Lincolns came from," Gilchrist said. "We even had lunch in what's now a pub that was built by [Richard] Lincoln in 1610."
Gilchrist's link to Lincoln isn't easy to explain, but the simple version starts with Richard Lincoln.
According to the version of the story passed along to Gilchrist – and published in part on the website of that pub, The Angel – Richard Lincoln wrote one of his sons, Edward, out of his will. One of Edward Lincoln's children, Samuel, after living in relative poverty immigrated to Massachusetts with his wife, Bridget Gilman. Gilchrist's mother's family, he said, is related to those Gilmans, making him Lincoln's eighth cousin, three times removed.
That link, Gilchrist acknowledges, isn't quite direct enough for him to see any particular family traits in what he's read about Lincoln since learning the news.
"No, the blood is too thin for that now," he said.
But his connection has nonetheless spurred him to learn more.
He's read Doris Kearns Goodwin's "Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln," and invested in a copy of the movie on DVD.
Gilchrist said he was surprised to learn that the man sometimes credited with helping pull a fracturing country back together through the U.S. Civil War wasn't outwardly stern.
"I got the impression that he was perhaps at times over-tolerant of other people," Gilchrist said. "He took at times what seemed like an incredible amount of insubordination from his officers."
"American life and military life," Gilchrist's wife Jane added, "are quite different than the way things were run in England."