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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
Certain other developments also affected Sedgwick’s decision. A well-known commercial chemist, after examining some of the Minor documents, reported that their paper was appropriately of rag content, with no sign of telltale wood pulp, and that the appearance of the ink was consistent with its supposed age. In addition, the Atlantic received letters from several persons who had known Frederick Hirth and remembered hearing him mention Lincoln letters in his possession. And Sedgwick’s confidence was further reinforced when Herbert Putnam of the Library of Congress expressed a willingness to arrange a public exhibition of the collection.
Still, Sedgwick acted with extraordinary haste, deciding to publish just four weeks after the original documents began to arrive. During that time, the originals had been shown to only one Lincoln scholar, and only part of the collection had been subjected to chemical analysis. He had not sought the advice of any handwriting experts or manuscript dealers. Furthermore, he was deliberately ignoring the doubts expressed by Barton and the negative verdict so emphatically rendered by Ford.
Why did this veteran editor choose to forgo additional precautions and rush the Minor articles into print? For one thing, his emotional commitment to the project had warped his judgment. But in addition, as a good businessman, he wanted to use the series for promotion of subscription sales during the holiday season. The Atlantic accordingly launched an extensive advertising program to announce the forthcoming publication. “At last,” it declared, “after nearly a century during which their existence was always suspected and hoped for, appear the priceless documents which lift the veil shrouding the love affair between Abraham Lincoln and young Ann Rutledge.… This feature alone, the first printing of these documents, will make an Atlantic subscription for the coming year a life-long keepsake—and incidentally a most appropriate Christmas remembrance.”
Meanwhile, Dr. Barton was making a trip to California, and on November 12, by prior arrangement, he met Miss Minor for an hour in the Los Angeles train station. Each found the other charming. Barton welcomed her to the fellowship of Lincoln writers and said nothing about the doubts he had expressed to Sedgwick. He also invited her to visit him at his summer home in Massachusetts. Wilma, in turn, told him how much she had relied upon his books and presented him inscribed photostats of some of her Lincoln letters. A lonely man since the death of his wife three years earlier, Barton scribbled an affectionate note to Wilma soon after boarding the eastbound Sunset Limited. “What a lively little adventure we had,” he exclaimed. “It was very pleasant to meet you as the train pulled in this morning and to have an hour’s visit and to learn all the interesting news you had to tell me! And you are going to write me ever so many love-letters and I shall inlay them in your book later. And when you are in Boston in the summer you are to call me up at Foxboro, only twenty-five miles out, and come and sleep under my pines and see my Lincoln material and swim in my little lake. Tell your mother I made love to you and hope to do it again. And write me very soon and often. …”
In spite of this foolishness, Barton was no fool where Lincoln documents were concerned. On the trip back to Nashville, he made a careful study of the photostats given him by Miss Minor and concluded that the letters were spurious. Yet, in writing to Sedgwick on November 15, he continued to balance his misgivings with a cordial hope that the collection would prove to be authentic.
The latter part of November was a time of golden fulfillment for Wilma Frances Minor. She began to receive speaking invitations. The San Diego branch of the League of American Penwomen elected her to membership and honored her at a meeting. Collectors and dealers began to inquire about sale of the Lincoln documents. They would command a “vast sum” at public auction, said one New York firm. Sedgwick agreed to act as her exclusive agent in such matters, and she told him that he was “perfectly adorable” to do so. Then, on November 26, she received the December Atlantic with the first installment of “Lincoln the Lover. ” The layout was attractive, for the magazine had waived its rule against illustrations and printed facsimiles of several documents. Wilma promptly telegraphed Sedgwick: “Just read the December Atlantic . I am thrilled over the splendid arrangement of my material and your fine editorial touch. Your added features make it perfect A thousand thanks for everything. You are a darling.”
The first storm signal came from Worthington Ford. He prepared a press release denouncing the Minor documents and sent a copy to Sedgwick, who offered to publish it in the Atlantic as a letter to the editor. Ford refused, wanting to make his views public without delay. “Have you gone insane or have I?” he demanded. “You are putting over one of the crudest forgeries I have known.” Sedgwick replied that such impetuous behavior did not become a “sober historian. ”