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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
Ann Rutledge, according to the full-blown legend, was Abraham Lincoln’s first and only true love, forever closest to his heart. Her death in 1835 filled him with youthful despair verging on madness and drove him into the political career that made him ready, when the time came, to save the American nation. Thus, in the poem by Edgar Lee Masters, she lays claim to a place in history, exclaiming: “Bloom forever, O Republic,/From the dust of my bosom!” In the 1920’s this luxuriant sentimentalism found more favor with the general public than it did with Lincoln scholars, some of whom were disposed to prune the legend severely. The whole story, after all, rested entirely on reminiscences gathered after Lincoln’s death by his law partner, William H. Herndon. It had no basis in contemporary records, no documentary existence as a historical event. Such was the uncertain status of the Ann Rutledge legend in late June or early July 1928, when the Atlantic Monthly received its first letter from Wilma Frances Minor of San Diego. Miss Minor reported that she had just finished writing the “true love story” of Abraham Lincoln and Ann Rutledge, basing it upon their original letters to each other and related manuscript materials, all of which had been handed down in her mother’s family. The question was, would such a book be eligible for the nonfiction prize of five thousand dollars offered biennially by the Atlantic Monthly Press? “ Harper ’s” she confided, “have been very anxious to get it and have sent several long telegrams and were just wonderful, but I know a prize book gets such wide acclaim and the material is worthy of the best.”
The letter caused a stir in the sedate Atlantic offices on Arlington Street, across from the Boston Public Garden. Edward A. Weeks, then newly in charge of book publication, read it first and headed straight for a conference with the Atlantic ’s editor and owner, Ellery Sedgwick. Both men were somewhat skeptical but at the same time eager to learn more about Miss Minor. She was immediately informed by telegram that her book would be a welcome entry in the prize contest. Sedgwick himself took over the subsequent correspondence.
Ellery Sedgwick was a short, heavy-set man of fifty-six years with strong features and a forceful manner. One of his fellow editors said that he looked like a prosperous merchant but sounded like a professor of English. Descended from old Massachusetts stock, educated at Groton and Harvard, married to a Cabot, he embodied New England’s genteel tradition on its cosmopolitan and liberal side. In his twenty years as editor, he had raised the Atlantic Monthly to a new level of prestige by making it, more than ever before, a magazine of affairs as well as literature, thereby broadening without diluting its candidly elitist appeal. The Atlantic ’s principal function was, as he put it, “to inoculate the few who influence the many.” An editor, Sedgwick declared, should have an open mind, always steering closer to credulity than to skepticism. In any encounter with improbability, he should “put on the brakes gently but let the motor run.”
Negotiations with Wilma Frances Minor proceeded briskly during the summer and early fall of 1928. She mailed her manuscript of 227 typewritten pages to the Atlantic , enclosing photostats of some of the documents. Sedgwick decided that he and his staff must see what kind of person they were dealing with. Miss Minor was accordingly invited to visit Boston as the Atlantic ’s guest. She happily agreed, telling him that he was “just darling to be so considerate,” and adding that her “gifted mother” would make the journey too at her own expense.
It was early September when Miss Minor arrived, accompanied not only by her mother, Mrs. Cora DeBoyer, but also by her sister, a twelve-year-old named Clover. They stopped briefly in New York, where a representative of the Atlantic met their train, lodged them at the Commodore Hotel, and provided tickets to one of the season’s hit plays, The Front Page . In Boston, where they were put up at the Ritz, the entertainment included a tour of Concord. Edward Weeks remembers that the three of them seemed completely uninterested in literary history but “stowed away a big tea at the Concord Inn.” The mother, according to Weeks, was tall and beady-eyed, with hair suspiciously black for her age. She reminded him somehow of a fortuneteller. Wilma, on the other hand, proved to be a handsome woman with a curvaceous figure, seductive gray-green eyes, and an appealingly ingenuous manner. She and Sedgwick took to each other at once. “Isn’t it strange,” he wrote to her some days later, “that sometimes one feels as though they have known a person a long time, although their hours together may have been very brief?”
But Miss Minor’s personal charm only heightened the enthusiasm with which Sedgwick contemplated the treasure she was offering the Atlantic . There were ten letters written by Lincoln, including three to Ann Rutledge and four to John Calhoun, a local Democratic politician who appointed Lincoln deputy surveyor of Sangamon County in 1833. There were four letters from the pen of Ann Rutledge, including two to Lincoln. (Nothing written by Ann had ever previously been discovered.) There were several pages from the diary of Matilda (“Mat”) Cameron, Ann’s cousin and bosom friend. There was a memorandum about Lincoln written in 1848 by Calhoun s daughter Sally. There were four books bearing Lincoln’s signature and annotations. And there were letters verifying the provenance of the collection, which had passed through a number of hands to Wilma’s great-uncle, Frederick W. Hirth of Emporia, Kansas, and then to her mother.
The collection, if authentic, did more than confirm the betrothal of Lincoln and Ann Rutledge. It also reinforced the larger legend that she was the primary inspiration of his career Here is Lincoln writing to Calhoun in 1848, some thirteen years after Ann s death and during the sixth year of his marriage to Mary Todd: “Like a ray of sun-shine and as brief—she flooded my life, and at times like today when I traverse past paths I see this picture before me—fever burning the light from her dear eyes, urging me to fight for the right. … I have kept faith . Sometimes I feel that in Heaven she is pleading for my furtherance. ”
In conferences extending over several days it was decided that Miss Minor’s story of “Lincoln the Lover” should be remodeled into a three-part series for the Atlantic , then expanded into a book. She would receive five hundred dollars for each of the articles and an advance of one thousand dollars on the book, with another four thousand dollars to be paid on publication. There was also discussion of converting the story into a play and motion picture. These arrangements were contingent, of course, upon proof of the collection’s authenticity, and Miss Minor agreed that it must be submitted to appropriate tests. Soon after her return home, she sent all the original manuscripts to Boston by express. She also informed a delighted Sedgwick that he was to have his choice of one of the Lincoln letters. The continuing flow of correspondence between San Diego and Boston reveals much of what is known about Wilma Frances Minor. Besides writing frequently to Sedgwick, she exchanged cordial letters with Teresa Fitzpatrick, the short, energetic woman who presided over the Atlantic ’s circulation department. Miss Fitzpatrick signed herself “Affectionately yours.” Wilma addressed her as “Dear little friend” and declared: “I feel I can come to you with problems and joy as I would to a much loved sister.”
Wilma later declared that she had had “a desperately hard and bitter life.” Of her earlier history there are but few traces, and she herself was reticent about certain details—refusing, for instance, to give her date of birth, and withholding the fact that she was married. Born in Los Angeles and sent to a convent school, she apparently had lived in various parts of the country, including Florida and Kansas. She had been an actress in a touring company, and there are indications that she had tried her hand at dress designing and at writing scenarios for motion pictures.
More recently, however, she had become a part-time reporter and columnist for the San Diego Union . Her column, “Sidelights on Life,” usually appeared in the Sunday women’s section and featured a profile of a local writer, artist, or other minor celebrity. Among her subjects in 1928 were: Mrs. J. C. Hawkesworth, an eighty-six-year-old painter whose eyes were “round and merry and bright with the light of many dreams”; Der Ling, a visiting Manchu princess; Mrs. Francis M. Hinkle, author of “Wild Ginger,” a narrative poem about army life in Honolulu; and Elizabeth Beachley, author of Hip Shot Forest , a book “so full of fresh air and high zest of living that it plays on jaded senses pleasantly like the muted strings of a violin. ” It was Ellen Beach Taw who inspired the highest praise, however. “Against the odds of ill-health, a dependent family, and lacking influence,” Wilma wrote, “this dauntless young soul, nevertheless, forged a brilliant career… and is today one of the foremost singers on the concert stage.
That was how Wilma Frances Minor also saw herself—as a dauntless young soul struggling against formidable odds to win recognition in her chosen career. Romance suffused her outlook “I read fairy tales and believed them long past the age of most children,” she recalled. But in maturity it was to the American myth of success thai she clung most tenaciously. Several years of interviewing successful people and writing about them had sharpened her own hunger for success. All the more keenly, perhaps, because of her desultory, marginal life, she yearned to be somebody important. Wilma’s model of a successful woman was the English novelist Marie Corelli, whose melodramatic plots and overblown style made her, for nearly thirty years, a laughingstock among critics and the best-selling writer in the world. According to Wilma, Corelli had addressed her in correspondence as “My dear protßgß” and had encouraged her ambition to become known as “the American Corelli.” The exchange of letters had presumably taken place shortly before Marie Corelli’s death in 1924. In her Lincoln manuscript, Wilma tried very hard to write like Corelli. For example, this is how she said that it was getting dark: “Night, like a black sinewy panther, crawled cautiously through the unbending straight directness of the saplings on the river bank.” And this is her picture of Lincoln leaving New Salem: “Thus he rides with bent head and eyes full of pathetic suffering out of his garden of Gethsemane toward Springfield. … Here we will leave him thorn-torn and scarred. …” For the Atlantic , such prose would never do, and so Sedgwick’s assistant, Theodore Morrison, in the process of shaping the manuscript into three installments, virtually rewrote it sentence by sentence.
Meanwhile, Sedgwick had taken up the task of verifying the authenticity of the Minor documents. Early in September he consulted the Reverend William E. Barton, an energetic, self-important man of sixty-seven years who regarded himself as the foremost living authority on Lincoln. Although his books tended to be superficial, discursive, and tediously detailed, Barton had few peers as a historical detective. “He is … a blood-hound after the facts, said one reviewer. Visiting Sedgwick’s office, Barton looked briefly at the Minor photostats but reserved judgment until he could see the original documents. He left Boston before the Originals arrived from California, however, and never did get a chance to inspect them. Barton found the pedigree of the collection “remarkably consistent and satisfactory.” But the collection itself, he warned Sedgwick, was suspiciously high in its yield of important historical data and suspiciously pat in its accord with popular tradition. In short, it seemed too good to be true. Sedgwick, however, was already bracing himself against negative evaluations. “I want the material fairly judged,” he wrote Barton on September 10. “I think the tendency of ‘experts’ would be to cast discredit on the possibility of finding important new material.”
Sedgwick also showed the photostats to Worthington Chauncey Ford, the peppery seventy-year-old editor of the Massachusetts Historical Society, who recently had prepared Albert J. Beveridge’s unfinished biography of Lincoln for posthumous publication. Ford without hesitation pronounced the collection spurious. The letters supposedly written by Lincoln, he said, bore no resemblance to Lincoln’s handwriting. Sedgwick’s response was to mark Ford down as biased and consult him no more. Thus Ford, like Barton, never saw the original documents.
The originals arrived from Miss Minor in several shipments, beginning on September 21, and they swept away any remaining doubts that Sedgwick may have had. To Barton, who was teaching the autumn semester at Vanderbilt University, he subsequently wrote: “There are so many documents in the complete collection and their source is so varied and their evidence so interlocking that a hoax is not, I think, within the realm of possibility.… I am sure we should have your blessing on our venture were you here.
With Barton not available, Sedgwick sought the help of Ida N. Tarbell, the famous muckraking journalist, business historian, and Lincoln biographer. Miss Tarbell, whose writings on Lincoln dated back to the 1890’s, entertained a deep affection for the Ann Rutledge legend, although she had toned the story down somewhat in her most recent book. Sedgwick called on her in New York, and they spent hours going over the documents. Immediately afterward he wrote: “She feels not only the same confidence that I do, but is joyful because the contention in which she has always believed seems now proved to the hilt.” In a telegram and a letter, both dated October 19, Miss Tarbell expressed reservations on a few specific points but came down firmly on the positive side. “My faith is strong,” she declared, “that you have an amazing set of true Lincoln documents—the most extraordinary that have come to us in many, many years. The decisive influence of her endorsement is revealed in the minutes of an Atlantic staff meeting held on October 19: “As Miss Tarbell’s comments … were favorable, Mr. Sedgwick feels justified in going ahead with the magazine articles and with the book.”
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. ”
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. ”
For Barton, the situation had become highly embarrassing. He could no longer hope to preserve both his warm relationship with Miss Minor and his reputation as a Lincoln scholar. On December 5 he wrote to the Atlantic declaring the Lincoln letters forgeries, and he said the same thing in an interview with a Boston Herald reporter on December 9. “I confess I am not happy,” he sighed, “when I think what Miss Minor is likely to say when she learns that I have deserted her.” Not until December 11 did Barton work up enough courage for a letter to California, but then he wrote with brutal frankness and sent a copy to Sedgwick. “I have come to the conviction,” he said, “that the letters which you are sending to the Atlantic … are not genuine. And, my dear, I am afraid you know it. I could omit this last sentence, but it is right that I should be utterly honest with you. I am very sorry, very sorry.”
This communication reached Boston first and caused an uproar in the Atlantic ’s offices. Sedgwick, in acknowledging it, used the phrase “defamation of character.” Miss Fitzpatrick telegraphed Wilma, warning her of what Barton’s letter contained and urging her to seek legal advice. Wilma received the “dastardly document” on December 17 and immediately fired off an indignant letter, the first of several in which she demanded a retraction, threatened a lawsuit, and reminded Barton of his calling. “What sort of Christianity do you follow,” she asked, “that makes you use such methods to undermine a sincere and stainless charactered girl?” Eventually, in desperation, she showed her claws to their full length by writing: “And then there is the very amorous effusion that you dashed off to me after our meeting. I think you will remember it as the one you wrote on the train. I am strongly advised to give it to the Associated Press, and if you persist in this public tirade that is utterly lacking in real foundation, I must in turn be forced to humiliate you by broadcasting that letter, and if your mind serves you well you will remember that each passage when viewed by a coldly critical, dispassionate world will brand the Reverend Barton as a silly old sheik.” Barton refused to be intimidated, however, and Wilma made no move to carry out either of her threats.
By mid-December it was plain that Sedgwick had no scholarly support whatever. Yet he clung stubbornly to his faith. “We must remember,” he wrote bravely to Wilma, “that the greater the excitement now, the greater will be the triumph of the book if we can compel the acquiescence of leading critics.” “Let us gird our armor and fight our way through to victory,” Wilma replied.
On about December 10, proof sheets of the second installment of “Lincoln the Lover” came off the press, and a set of them, obtained from Sandburg, circulated quietly among Barrett, Angle, and Ford. At Angle’s suggestion, the three men prepared a joint statement for release as soon as the January issue appeared. The Boston Herald and The New York Times printed it on December 23.
The second installment, titled “The Courtship,” was richly documented. It contained one or more letters from Lincoln to Ann Rutledge, from Ann to Lincoln, from Ann to her cousin Mat Cameron, and from Lincoln to John Calhoun, together with excerpts from Mat’s diary and passages from the memorandum of Sally Calhoun. When the three sharpshooters opened fire, these documents proved to be pitfully vulnerable. The Cameron family Bible indicated that Matilda (Mat) Cameron never existed. The same was probably true of Sally Calhoun. Mat’s diary, supposedly written in the early 1830’s, mentioned Martha Calhoun, who was not born until 1843. Mat wrote twice of the “boat from Springfield” as though speaking of a regular service, but the Sangamon was only rarely navigable by boats of any size, and besides, Springfield was six miles from the river. Ann at one point mentioned Spencer’s copybook, which did not appear in print until thirteen years after her death. Lincoln, writing to John Calhoun at a time when both men were publicly employed as surveyors, referred to a controversy over “Section 40,” but in the land-survey system, sections were numbered no higher than 36. And, in the same letter, Lincoln spoke of a family as leaving “for some place in Kansas”—this at a time when the region was not called Kansas and was not yet open to white settlement.
It was a devastating attack, and Sedgwick may have been tempted to follow the advice given him earlier in the month by the librarian of Brown University: “Better eat your peck of dirt now before it becomes a bushel.” Instead, he publicly reaffirmed his confidence in the Minor collection, insisting that “noted experts” had studied the material and pronounced it authentic. But at the same time, his letters to California sounded weary and discouraged. “Our own efforts seem to have come up against a stone wall,” he admitted. “It is useless to disguise the fact that we are confronting very serious evidence.” Wilma continued to play the undaunted heroine. “Situation gives no cause for alarm,” she telegraphed on December 26, and in a letter the next day, she declared: “The objectionists die hard, they are now jumping at and clinging to, flimsy straws but the more they bark the more optimistic I become. On January 2 she issued a lengthy defense which appeared in newspapers across the country. Most of it, however, was elaboration of the history of the collection. She said little in direct response to the Angle-Barrett-Ford attack.
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.
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. …
“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.