If there is one life of which the American people wish to know everything, it is Abraham Lincoln's. And it is probable that no life in history has been studied with more eager care than his. Historians, students, collectors, lovers of his name, have for three generations followed his every footstep, run down a thousand false trails and a hundred true ones, uncovered all that letters, recollections, tradition, even rumor, had to tell. And in all that career, already in our ears half legendary, there is no chapter which seemed more utterly closed, or which most of us, men and women, have more eagerly desired to open, than the idyll of New Salem, the love of Abraham Lincoln and Ann Rutledge. Historians have for the most part passed it over as casual fancy of boy and girl. The romancers have had a truer inspiration, but, in the absence of tangible facts, a vague tradition was but slender nourishment for the imagination. A few patched together references, an occasional letter, records of a scattered group of places and people completely outside the fairy circle of the two to whom for a season it was all in all—such scant fare was all that the most industrious research supplied. Obviously the evidence was in. The whole book was closed, and that chapter had not even been really opened.
Such was the situation. It was hardly to the editor's discredit that, when he heard that the letters which once passed between Abraham and Ann still existed, he remarked, 'Interesting, if true,' and went on with his work. But the thought, once entered, would not leave his mind. He investigated. Rumor turned to evidence, evidence to proof. In this place he would like to put on record the Atlantic's gratitude for the kindness and helpfulness of Miss Wilma Frances Minor, who, when a strange turn of fortune presented her with a treasure beyond price, felt instantly her responsibility. In the brief period during which she has owned the materials by which the love story of Lincoln and Ann can be fully told for the first time, she has by travel, inquiry, and unceasing effort sought through living tradition, wherever it could be found, material which might add still more to the picture of Lincoln in the New Salem years.
Her collection itself is amazing. There are letters, passionate and real, which Abraham wrote to Ann and Ann to Abraham. There are other letters of Lincoln's own, written to his benefactor John Calhoun, telling of the love he bore Ann Rutledge. There is the most natural and human of diaries kept by Ann's cousin and bosom friend, Matilda Cameron. There is the affectionate record of 'Sally' Calhoun, daughter of John Calhoun. There are touching examples of Ann Rutledge's needlework, and a silver pin which Lincoln salvaged from the barrel which yielded him a treasure-trove of books. There are books, brittle and stained with age, Lincoln's daily companions during his odd-job and post-office days, containing marginalia of intensest interest, including the Bible given him by Ann herself, bearing her own and Lincoln's signature.
What a collection! Here is the human Lincoln, before the sterility of his deification.
Picture an orderly and prosaic office when Aladdin's treasure was dumped on the editor's desk! First, accompanying Miss Minor's manuscript, came photostatic copies of the original documents in the collection. These photostats were in themselves cogent evidence, but in matters like this the mind must shut itself against the will to believe. Every expert knows that examination is worthless until the veritable documents have been scrutinized and tested.
With the helpful cooperation of Miss Minor, we received in due time a mass of original evidence—actual letters and diaries of the principal actors in the New Salem drama, together with books bearing signatures and marginalia in Lincoln's hand. Such was the body of material which we subjected to expert trial as well as to our own most careful scrutiny. No reader will be more incredulous than was the Atlantic when the collection was first brought our notice. Very gradually, as step by step we proceeded with our inquiry, conviction was forced upon us.
One fundamental test was obvious. Paper of the period of these letters was not made, as is most paper today, of pulp. It was composed rather of linen or cotton rags. If any trace of pulp could be found in them, it was evident at once that the letters were genuine. We accordingly submitted specimens of the paper—minute bits clipped from the originals—to the distinguished chemist, Dr. Arthur D. Little, and to his associates. The resultant analysis showed 'pure linen with a trace of cotton.' No suggestion of pulp!
So much for the paper. For the more general physical characteristics of the documents, we had not only the evidence of our own eyesight, but the assistance of experts, who examined with the wisdom born of experience and knowledge the faded ink, the browned and stained paper, the fragile creases and folds. Other questions apart, there could be no doubt of the age of the collection.
It is well to emphasize the importance of the books in establishing the genuineness of the whole group of documents. These books, in their original bindings, and, save for a crudely mended page or two, wholly in the natural state in which they have been handed down through the generations, form a prima facie case of the most convincing import to laymen and scholars alike, once the handwriting of the signatures and other marginalia has been satisfactorily compared with Lincoln's own.
Our first step had been accomplished when we subjected the physical characteristics of the collection to exacting tests. Our next step was to subject the documents to tests of handwriting and internal evidence. To this end we submitted the letters and books to scholars familiar with Lincoln's handwriting, character, and personal history. Dr. Barton, distinguished Lincoln student and collector, kindly gave us his personal help in our consideration of the evidence, but unluckily it was necessary during his visit to work only with photostats, since the originals, were in the mail. With Miss Ida M. Tarbell, who during her long and distinguished career has unearthed no less than three hundred previously unknown letters of Lincoln, the editor passed several afternoons comparing under a magnifying glass the original letters and books of this collection with known Lincoln letters of the corresponding period.
This is not the place to go into the minutiae of the investigation. With greatly enlarged facsimiles, a's were compared with a's, and so on through the alphabet. Upstrokes, downstrokes, flourishes—every characteristic of penmanship was carefully considered. With every test the genuineness became more and yet more certain.
As students know, Lincoln had two definitely distinct styles of writing his name—the formal signature, identified with legal documents or public business, and the more rambling and haphazard hand of friendly and familiar intercourse. The letters in this collection were of the second category, but fortunately it was possible to compare them with unquestioned letters of the identical period. No letters of Ann Rutledge apart from those which are in Miss Minor's collection are known to exist, nor have we been able to find other specimens of the hand of Sally Calhoun.