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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
Early in January an exhausted Sedgwick set out for Arizona to get a little rest and spend some time with his son. He did not intend to visit Miss Minor in San Diego, but a rush of events soon altered his plans. Certain members of the Atlantic staff were already taking matters into their own hands. Nelson J. Peabody, the magazine’s business manager, quietly hired the J. B. Armstrong Detective Agency in Los Angeles to investigate Wilma Minor. And Teresa Fitzpatrick arranged for an examination of the Minor collection by William E. Kingston, a handwriting expert, who reported that the documents were forgeries.
Before receiving the Kingston report, Miss Fitzpatrick had telephoned Wilma, urging her to announce initiation of a lawsuit against Barton. The handwritten reply, dated January 2, 1929, came from Cora DeBoyer, who said that her daughter’s health could not stand such an ordeal, “She is a very high strung and supersensitive girl who does not seem to understand how to cope with the rebuffs of this crass world,” Mrs. DeBoyer explained. “I think it best that we do not complicate things for her by an added burden. ” But the members of the Atlantic staff were less interested in the content of the letter than in its script. There, they agreed in an exciting moment of revelation, was the hand that had forged the Minor collection! Telephoning Peabody, then in Chicago on magazine business, they found that he had reached the same conclusion from information supplied by the detective agency.
Meanwhile, Angle had been pursuing his own investigation and was now convinced that “either Miss Minor or her mother” had fabricated the documents. Through an intermediary, he suggested that the Atlantic and its chief critics work together toward a solution. Sedgwick, consulted by telegram, gladly agreed. Peabody accordingly conferred with Angle in Springfield and then headed west to join Sedgwick in a showdown with Wilma and her mother. By this time a good deal of information about the two women had been gathered, and it did not inspire confidence in their reliability. Both had given false information on wedding licenses, for instance. Wilma was actually forty-two, some ten years older than she pretended to be. She had been married twice and seemed unsure of her father’s name. Cora DeBoyer, according to the detective reports, had had at least five marriages and some interim cohabitation besides. In Emporia, Kansas, Cora’s hometown, both she and her daughter were remembered as a little too bold and pleasure-loving to be entirely respectable. One person who knew them well said Cora was a very clever woman, much more capable than Wilma of planning and executing such a forgery.
The confrontation took place at a hotel in Los Angeles on the weekend of January 19–20. Sedgwick revealed to Wilma and her mother what had been learned about their background and then accused Mrs. DeBoyer of fabricating the collection. The two women, though frightened by the investigation of their past, emphatically denied his charge. At last it was agreed to issue a joint statement withdrawing the Minor series from further publication—that is, canceling plans to expand the articles into a book. Sedgwick for the first time acknowledged publicly that the documents lacked authenticity. He promised to continue his search for the truth and make a “full presentation” at the “earliest possible moment.”
On his trip back to Boston, Sedgwick stopped off in Chicago for a conference with Barrett and Angle. By then, the final installment of “Lincoln the Lover” was out in the February Atlantic . Along with it, sarcastically presented in the Contributors’ Column, was the jubilant letter from Angle to his parents—the one in which he had spoken of putting the magazine into a frying pan and cooking it brown. The letter had been brought to Sedgwick’s attention after it appeared in a local newspaper, and the decision to print it had been made several weeks before Angle and the Atlantic staff reached their agreement to work together. Publication of the letter, which gave the impression that he was interested primarily in self-advertisement, embarrassed Angle so much that he submitted his resignation as secretary of the Lincoln Centennial Association. To his relief, it was not accepted.
The atmosphere was consequently less than cordial when Sedgwick met Angle, Barrett, and several other Illinoisans at the Union League Club in Chicago on January 26. But after a full day of discussion and an exchange of apologies, it was agreed that Angle should write a critique of the Minor collection for publication in the Atlantic . Working swiftly, he finished in thirteen days an article that effectively summarized the evidence against the authenticity of the collection. It appeared in the April issue and marked the end of public discussion of the affair.
In the meantime Miss Minor had been bombarding Sedgwick with demands for the return of her documents. They were now regarded as legal evidence of fraud, however, and he refused to comply. The investigations of the Armstrong Detective Agency continued, with Armstrong himself working to the point of exhaustion on the case. Then, in April, another piece of the puzzle fell into place.