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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
The new information came from James B. A Ashe, head of a publishing company in San Diego. Early in 1928, he declared, Miss Minor had come into his office a number of times, usually to arrange interviews with his authors. She never mentioned an interest in Lincoln until she interviewed Scott Greene, a son of one of Lincoln’s New Salem friends, who was spending the winter in San Diego. Then she reported in great excitement that Greene had letters of Lincoln and Ann Rutledge in his possession, and that she hoped to buy them from him. Later, after several more visits with Greene, she told Ashe that she had gotten all she wanted from the old man. It was Ashe who first suggested that her manuscript be submitted to the Atlantic . Assuming all along that she had obtained the documents from Greene, he was astonished to read the story of how they had been handed down in her own family.
Peabody decided that the time had come for another confrontation and ordered Armstrong to San Diego. On April 3 the detective interviewed Wilma and her mother in his hotel suite, with two agents listening from the adjoining room. After he summarized the imposing evidence against the Lincoln documents, the two women acknowledged that they had somehow been “deceived” but denied any complicity in the forgery. Upon the advice of an attorney hastily brought in by Cora DeBoyer’s husband, the women also refused to sign the legal release that Armstrong laid before them. “The old woman is the hard nut of the two,” Armstrong reported. “She is a hard boiled old hen, who does not know what the word truth means. The other one was very badly disrupted and plainly showed the ordeal she had been through.” Indeed, at one point in the interview, Wilma seemed “about ready to pass out.”
By this time two somewhat different strategies had taken shape in the Atlantic offices on Arlington Street. Peabody and the company’s lawyers were interested primarily in getting legal releases, recovering the one-thousand-dollar advance, and closing the entire affair as quickly as possible. Members of the editorial staff, on the other hand, wanted to learn the whole truth about the forgery and report it to the magazine’s readers, just as Sedgwick had promised. In pursuit of the truth, Weeks traveled to Springfield, Illinois, for a visit with Scott Greene at the end of April. What he learned there strengthened the suspicion, first awakened by James Ashe, that the forgeries had been inspired by Miss Minor’s interview with Greene in 1928. Also, investigation by Angle and others had disclosed a striking resemblance between some parts of the Minor documents and certain passages in Barton’s Life of Lincoln .
The assembled evidence now seemed overwhelming, and it added up, not only to a solution of the mystery, but also to a story with a lively plot and some interesting characters, eminently suitable for publication in the Atlantic . The writing of the story was assigned to Theodore Morrison, and during May he turned out an article of twenty-two typewritten pages—offered, as he put it, so that the Atlantic’s readers could “share in the fascination of the chase. ” Morrison opened his account with a flat accusation: “On a day not far from February 12, 1928, two women in San Diego, California, began to prepare an elaborate series of books, diaries, and letters. …” He closed with the suggestion that it was time “to season Miss Minor’s passage across the footlights with laughter.” The article never appeared in print, however. On May 27 Sedgwick announced to a staff meeting that the Atlantic ’s lawyers had decided against any further publication on the subject.
About a month later Teresa Fitzpatrick went out to California and succeeded where both Sedgwick and Armstrong had failed. That is, she persuaded Wilma to make and sign a statement that amounted to a weird confession. Dated July 3,1929, it read in part: “I went to see Scott Greene and got his story and went home to Mama and said to her, Mama at last our faith of a lifetime has led to something. It has been given us for a divine purpose. On another plane those people (Lincoln and Ann and those other people) must exist. We have talked to many others, our family and close friends, and I said to Mama, Don’t you think I have earned the right to be the channel to tell that real story to the world? Mama said, I don’t know darling, we can try. Mama had always been the medium through whom the spirits had spoken. …