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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
“On the next opportunity a few days later I asked through my Mother, who at that time was in a trance, the guide—I believe it was my uncle who came, if I might have the divine privilege of being the instrument through whom the real story might come to the world. He answered he would find out and let me know the next week. The next week when Mother came again she went into her trance and the guide said he had asked the people (Lincoln, Ann, etc.) and they said they would give the story to me, provided I was willing to tie myself down to months and months of systematic labor. I agreed. I then began to prepare a series of questions. I would write out the questions. I would hand them to my Mother then in the trance; the spirit would come, whoever it might be, and fill out the answers. For instance, I would ask the ages of the two when Ann and Abe first met, and in the blank left under the question which was typewritten on a large sheet, the guide would answer through my Mother. … Every word in Matilda Cameron’s Diary is verbatim as given by the guide. Every word written through my Mother as the medium. All this continued for a long period, but we had to stop for three or four weeks as my Mother was threatened with blindness. By this time I went to her home frequently. She would phone me that a “message come through last night,” and I would go to see her, and she would give me the message she had received in her handwriting. …
“I asked where I would get the paper to write this on, the guide answered (oftentimes it would be Marie Corelli) that I could get it from old books and gaye me a list of books that Lincoln used at that period of his life. I went to old bookshops and had no difficulty in picking them up. Then the guide told me for my continuity that I must look up written books for well known facts which were available to everyone. … Mr. Ashe told me about the Atlantic Contest and although I had offered it to Harpers, I wrote to the Atlantic offering it as original Lincoln letters. I would die on the gallows that the spirits of Ann and Abe were speaking through my Mother to me, so that my gifts as a writer combined with her gifts as a medium could hand in something worthwhile to the world.”
Thus, as it turned out, Oliver Barrett had been amazingly accurate in his remark that the Minor letters were “like the messages drawn from the spirit world by the intervention of ‘mediums.’”
Even with this document in his possession, Sedgwick made no move to publicize what the Atlantic had learned about the forgery. He was advised to do so, especially by William E. Barton, who lectured him repeatedly on his duties as an editor. “Why not tell the truth, ” Barton urged, “and if it brings you a libel suit, accept it as under the circumstances perhaps no more than you deserve, and something you owe to the public. ” But Sedgwick stubbornly maintained his silence, motivated not only by legal considerations but also by weariness and mortification.
Wilma herself disappeared quietly from public view. Sedgwick, when he came to write his autobiography titled The Happy Profession (1946), discussed Lincoln at some length but said nothing about the Minor affair. A few years later Teresa Fitzpatrick arranged to tell the story in the Saturday Review of Literature , but she gave up the project at the request of Edward Weeks, who had succeeded Sedgwick as editor of the Atlantic . “I am not sensitive about the subject, but others are,” Weeks said, “and for the time being it is probably the right and friendly thing for us both to draw the curtain.”
The curtain remained drawn until long after Sedgwick’s death in 1960 at the age of eighty-eight. At last, in 1973, Weeks published My Green Age , an autobiography of his early career, and he included an account of the Minor affair, together with the full text of Wilma’s confession. Of course that confession provided only a partial solution of the mystery. It left unanswered certain questions that are now probably forever unanswerable. As for the Ann Rutledge legend, it has declined in credibility during the past half century. The latest biography of Lincoln suggests that there was nothing more than a platonic friendship between young Abe and Ann. It is unlikely that we shall ever know for sure. Yet perhaps somewhere in a battered trunk pushed into the darkest recesses of an old attic there are documents—authentic documents—waiting to tell us the whole truth. And perhaps on the day they are discovered we shall receive a wistful message from Wilma Frances Minor, using Ellery Sedgwick as her guide.