- 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
Ford’s continuing hostility was offset by the recruitment of Carl Sandburg to the ranks of believers. The Illinois poet, whose Abraham Lincoln: The Prairie Years had appeared in 1926, visited Sedgwick’s home as a Thanksgiving guest and spent several hours poring over the Minor documents. “These new Lincoln letters,” he declared, “seem entirely authentic—and preciously and wonderfully co-ordinate and chime with all else known of Lincoln.”
By this time, however, other voices were speaking from Illinois—most notably, Paul M. Angle, secretary of the Lincoln Centennial Association in Springfield, and Oliver R. Barrett, a Chicago attorney who was also the country’s leading private collector of Lincoln manuscripts. Angle, at twenty-eight, had already established himself as an authority in the Lincoln field. He was bright, ambitious, and unwilling to tolerate pretense or pretentiousness. In the words of Earl Schenck Miers, he had a mind that could not “be budged one inch beyond its own scrupulous standards.” A year earlier, Angle had published an article casting doubt on the Ann Rutledge legend. Now he became the first critic to say publicly that the Lincoln letters in the Atlantic were forgeries. His statement appeared in the Illinois State Journal and a few other newspapers on November 27, but its distribution elsewhere was temporarily held up by the Associated Press for fear of a libel suit. Angle also printed his charges in a special bulletin of the Centennial Association and sent a copy to Sedgwick. “It’s the biggest thing that ever happened to me,” he exulted in a letter to his parents. “One doesn’t get a chance very often to put the magazine of the country in the frying pan and cook it brown.”
Barrett likewise drafted a statement for the press. The Minor letters, he declared, were not Lincoln’s, either in their handwriting or their composition. Then he added, in what proved to be a remarkably appropriate simile: “Coming as it does, the ‘message’ from Lincoln produced by the Atlantic is very much like the messages drawn from the spirit world by the intervention of ‘mediums. ”
Ford’s pronouncement, released on November 30, was printed in The New York Times on December 2, and the statements of Angle and Barrett appeared the following day. The chorus of criticism had meanwhile been swelled by other scholars, collectors, and handwriting experts.
The case for forgery rested first on the assertion that the handwriting of the two Lincoln letters reproduced in the December Atlantic bore no resemblance to authenticated Lincoln letters of the same period. “A novice would have no difficulty distinguishing the difference,” said one well-known collector. At the same time, there was a suspicious similarity between the Lincoln letters and the handwriting in a memorandum supposedly written by Sally Calhoun. Both Warren and Barrett insisted that all three documents had been written by the same person. The punctuation and phrasing of the two Lincoln letters were uncharacteristic in many respects, and they contained several factual discrepancies, such as locating Mary Lincoln in Washington at a time when she was almost certainly in Kentucky.
Sedgwick replied that critics ought to defer final judgment until the entire series had been publicly exhibited. He named Barton, Tarbell, Putnam, and Sandburg as persons believing the collection authentic. Sandburg provided reinforcement on December 4 in an article published by the New York World . “While this is a case where no one can prove the documents to be absolutely authentic,” he declared, “any one who tries to impeach them and throw them out of the record will have difficulties and end in disaster. They have come to stay in the Lincoln record.”
Just one day later, however, Sandburg was in full retreat, bowing to the superior authority of Barrett and Angle (whom he called “formidable sleuths”) and acknowledging that the Atlantic documents were probably a hoax. He went on to explain rather lamely: “When I scrutinize original source material of this kind I let my emotions have full play. I try to do my hard-boiled analyzing later. ” Miss Tarbell, too, began to retreat, denying somewhat untruthfully that she had ever vouched for the authenticity of the documents. And Herbert Putnam protested that he had never “formed, much less ventured, any opinion whatever in the matter. ”