- Historic Sites
Lincoln’s Lost Love Letters
A cache of letters, discovered in 1928 and published in the Atlantic Monthly, proved that Abraham Lincoln had really loved Ann Rutledge. Or did they?
February/march 1981 | Volume 32, Issue 2
But Miss Minor’s personal charm only heightened the enthusiasm with which Sedgwick contemplated the treasure she was offering the Atlantic . There were ten letters written by Lincoln, including three to Ann Rutledge and four to John Calhoun, a local Democratic politician who appointed Lincoln deputy surveyor of Sangamon County in 1833. There were four letters from the pen of Ann Rutledge, including two to Lincoln. (Nothing written by Ann had ever previously been discovered.) There were several pages from the diary of Matilda (“Mat”) Cameron, Ann’s cousin and bosom friend. There was a memorandum about Lincoln written in 1848 by Calhoun s daughter Sally. There were four books bearing Lincoln’s signature and annotations. And there were letters verifying the provenance of the collection, which had passed through a number of hands to Wilma’s great-uncle, Frederick W. Hirth of Emporia, Kansas, and then to her mother.
The collection, if authentic, did more than confirm the betrothal of Lincoln and Ann Rutledge. It also reinforced the larger legend that she was the primary inspiration of his career Here is Lincoln writing to Calhoun in 1848, some thirteen years after Ann s death and during the sixth year of his marriage to Mary Todd: “Like a ray of sun-shine and as brief—she flooded my life, and at times like today when I traverse past paths I see this picture before me—fever burning the light from her dear eyes, urging me to fight for the right. … I have kept faith . Sometimes I feel that in Heaven she is pleading for my furtherance. ”
In conferences extending over several days it was decided that Miss Minor’s story of “Lincoln the Lover” should be remodeled into a three-part series for the Atlantic , then expanded into a book. She would receive five hundred dollars for each of the articles and an advance of one thousand dollars on the book, with another four thousand dollars to be paid on publication. There was also discussion of converting the story into a play and motion picture. These arrangements were contingent, of course, upon proof of the collection’s authenticity, and Miss Minor agreed that it must be submitted to appropriate tests. Soon after her return home, she sent all the original manuscripts to Boston by express. She also informed a delighted Sedgwick that he was to have his choice of one of the Lincoln letters. The continuing flow of correspondence between San Diego and Boston reveals much of what is known about Wilma Frances Minor. Besides writing frequently to Sedgwick, she exchanged cordial letters with Teresa Fitzpatrick, the short, energetic woman who presided over the Atlantic ’s circulation department. Miss Fitzpatrick signed herself “Affectionately yours.” Wilma addressed her as “Dear little friend” and declared: “I feel I can come to you with problems and joy as I would to a much loved sister.”
Wilma later declared that she had had “a desperately hard and bitter life.” Of her earlier history there are but few traces, and she herself was reticent about certain details—refusing, for instance, to give her date of birth, and withholding the fact that she was married. Born in Los Angeles and sent to a convent school, she apparently had lived in various parts of the country, including Florida and Kansas. She had been an actress in a touring company, and there are indications that she had tried her hand at dress designing and at writing scenarios for motion pictures.
More recently, however, she had become a part-time reporter and columnist for the San Diego Union . Her column, “Sidelights on Life,” usually appeared in the Sunday women’s section and featured a profile of a local writer, artist, or other minor celebrity. Among her subjects in 1928 were: Mrs. J. C. Hawkesworth, an eighty-six-year-old painter whose eyes were “round and merry and bright with the light of many dreams”; Der Ling, a visiting Manchu princess; Mrs. Francis M. Hinkle, author of “Wild Ginger,” a narrative poem about army life in Honolulu; and Elizabeth Beachley, author of Hip Shot Forest , a book “so full of fresh air and high zest of living that it plays on jaded senses pleasantly like the muted strings of a violin. ” It was Ellen Beach Taw who inspired the highest praise, however. “Against the odds of ill-health, a dependent family, and lacking influence,” Wilma wrote, “this dauntless young soul, nevertheless, forged a brilliant career… and is today one of the foremost singers on the concert stage.