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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
That was how Wilma Frances Minor also saw herself—as a dauntless young soul struggling against formidable odds to win recognition in her chosen career. Romance suffused her outlook “I read fairy tales and believed them long past the age of most children,” she recalled. But in maturity it was to the American myth of success thai she clung most tenaciously. Several years of interviewing successful people and writing about them had sharpened her own hunger for success. All the more keenly, perhaps, because of her desultory, marginal life, she yearned to be somebody important. Wilma’s model of a successful woman was the English novelist Marie Corelli, whose melodramatic plots and overblown style made her, for nearly thirty years, a laughingstock among critics and the best-selling writer in the world. According to Wilma, Corelli had addressed her in correspondence as “My dear protßgß” and had encouraged her ambition to become known as “the American Corelli.” The exchange of letters had presumably taken place shortly before Marie Corelli’s death in 1924. In her Lincoln manuscript, Wilma tried very hard to write like Corelli. For example, this is how she said that it was getting dark: “Night, like a black sinewy panther, crawled cautiously through the unbending straight directness of the saplings on the river bank.” And this is her picture of Lincoln leaving New Salem: “Thus he rides with bent head and eyes full of pathetic suffering out of his garden of Gethsemane toward Springfield. … Here we will leave him thorn-torn and scarred. …” For the Atlantic , such prose would never do, and so Sedgwick’s assistant, Theodore Morrison, in the process of shaping the manuscript into three installments, virtually rewrote it sentence by sentence.
Meanwhile, Sedgwick had taken up the task of verifying the authenticity of the Minor documents. Early in September he consulted the Reverend William E. Barton, an energetic, self-important man of sixty-seven years who regarded himself as the foremost living authority on Lincoln. Although his books tended to be superficial, discursive, and tediously detailed, Barton had few peers as a historical detective. “He is … a blood-hound after the facts, said one reviewer. Visiting Sedgwick’s office, Barton looked briefly at the Minor photostats but reserved judgment until he could see the original documents. He left Boston before the Originals arrived from California, however, and never did get a chance to inspect them. Barton found the pedigree of the collection “remarkably consistent and satisfactory.” But the collection itself, he warned Sedgwick, was suspiciously high in its yield of important historical data and suspiciously pat in its accord with popular tradition. In short, it seemed too good to be true. Sedgwick, however, was already bracing himself against negative evaluations. “I want the material fairly judged,” he wrote Barton on September 10. “I think the tendency of ‘experts’ would be to cast discredit on the possibility of finding important new material.”
Sedgwick also showed the photostats to Worthington Chauncey Ford, the peppery seventy-year-old editor of the Massachusetts Historical Society, who recently had prepared Albert J. Beveridge’s unfinished biography of Lincoln for posthumous publication. Ford without hesitation pronounced the collection spurious. The letters supposedly written by Lincoln, he said, bore no resemblance to Lincoln’s handwriting. Sedgwick’s response was to mark Ford down as biased and consult him no more. Thus Ford, like Barton, never saw the original documents.
The originals arrived from Miss Minor in several shipments, beginning on September 21, and they swept away any remaining doubts that Sedgwick may have had. To Barton, who was teaching the autumn semester at Vanderbilt University, he subsequently wrote: “There are so many documents in the complete collection and their source is so varied and their evidence so interlocking that a hoax is not, I think, within the realm of possibility.… I am sure we should have your blessing on our venture were you here.
With Barton not available, Sedgwick sought the help of Ida N. Tarbell, the famous muckraking journalist, business historian, and Lincoln biographer. Miss Tarbell, whose writings on Lincoln dated back to the 1890’s, entertained a deep affection for the Ann Rutledge legend, although she had toned the story down somewhat in her most recent book. Sedgwick called on her in New York, and they spent hours going over the documents. Immediately afterward he wrote: “She feels not only the same confidence that I do, but is joyful because the contention in which she has always believed seems now proved to the hilt.” In a telegram and a letter, both dated October 19, Miss Tarbell expressed reservations on a few specific points but came down firmly on the positive side. “My faith is strong,” she declared, “that you have an amazing set of true Lincoln documents—the most extraordinary that have come to us in many, many years. The decisive influence of her endorsement is revealed in the minutes of an Atlantic staff meeting held on October 19: “As Miss Tarbell’s comments … were favorable, Mr. Sedgwick feels justified in going ahead with the magazine articles and with the book.”