Lincoln’s Lost Love Letters

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Ann Rutledge, according to the full-blown legend, was Abraham Lincoln’s first and only true love, forever closest to his heart. Her death in 1835 filled him with youthful despair verging on madness and drove him into the political career that made him ready, when the time came, to save the American nation. Thus, in the poem by Edgar Lee Masters, she lays claim to a place in history, exclaiming: “Bloom forever, O Republic,/From the dust of my bosom!” In the 1920’s this luxuriant sentimentalism found more favor with the general public than it did with Lincoln scholars, some of whom were disposed to prune the legend severely. The whole story, after all, rested entirely on reminiscences gathered after Lincoln’s death by his law partner, William H. Herndon. It had no basis in contemporary records, no documentary existence as a historical event. Such was the uncertain status of the Ann Rutledge legend in late June or early July 1928, when the Atlantic Monthly received its first letter from Wilma Frances Minor of San Diego. Miss Minor reported that she had just finished writing the “true love story” of Abraham Lincoln and Ann Rutledge, basing it upon their original letters to each other and related manuscript materials, all of which had been handed down in her mother’s family. The question was, would such a book be eligible for the nonfiction prize of five thousand dollars offered biennially by the Atlantic Monthly Press? “ Harper ’s” she confided, “have been very anxious to get it and have sent several long telegrams and were just wonderful, but I know a prize book gets such wide acclaim and the material is worthy of the best.”

The letter caused a stir in the sedate Atlantic offices on Arlington Street, across from the Boston Public Garden. Edward A. Weeks, then newly in charge of book publication, read it first and headed straight for a conference with the Atlantic ’s editor and owner, Ellery Sedgwick. Both men were somewhat skeptical but at the same time eager to learn more about Miss Minor. She was immediately informed by telegram that her book would be a welcome entry in the prize contest. Sedgwick himself took over the subsequent correspondence.

Ellery Sedgwick was a short, heavy-set man of fifty-six years with strong features and a forceful manner. One of his fellow editors said that he looked like a prosperous merchant but sounded like a professor of English. Descended from old Massachusetts stock, educated at Groton and Harvard, married to a Cabot, he embodied New England’s genteel tradition on its cosmopolitan and liberal side. In his twenty years as editor, he had raised the Atlantic Monthly to a new level of prestige by making it, more than ever before, a magazine of affairs as well as literature, thereby broadening without diluting its candidly elitist appeal. The Atlantic ’s principal function was, as he put it, “to inoculate the few who influence the many.” An editor, Sedgwick declared, should have an open mind, always steering closer to credulity than to skepticism. In any encounter with improbability, he should “put on the brakes gently but let the motor run.”

Negotiations with Wilma Frances Minor proceeded briskly during the summer and early fall of 1928. She mailed her manuscript of 227 typewritten pages to the Atlantic , enclosing photostats of some of the documents. Sedgwick decided that he and his staff must see what kind of person they were dealing with. Miss Minor was accordingly invited to visit Boston as the Atlantic ’s guest. She happily agreed, telling him that he was “just darling to be so considerate,” and adding that her “gifted mother” would make the journey too at her own expense.

It was early September when Miss Minor arrived, accompanied not only by her mother, Mrs. Cora DeBoyer, but also by her sister, a twelve-year-old named Clover. They stopped briefly in New York, where a representative of the Atlantic met their train, lodged them at the Commodore Hotel, and provided tickets to one of the season’s hit plays, The Front Page . In Boston, where they were put up at the Ritz, the entertainment included a tour of Concord. Edward Weeks remembers that the three of them seemed completely uninterested in literary history but “stowed away a big tea at the Concord Inn.” The mother, according to Weeks, was tall and beady-eyed, with hair suspiciously black for her age. She reminded him somehow of a fortuneteller. Wilma, on the other hand, proved to be a handsome woman with a curvaceous figure, seductive gray-green eyes, and an appealingly ingenuous manner. She and Sedgwick took to each other at once. “Isn’t it strange,” he wrote to her some days later, “that sometimes one feels as though they have known a person a long time, although their hours together may have been very brief?”