The Minor Collection: A Criticism

More

I

Those of us who engage in historical research are likely to assume that everyone will know what tests to apply in order to establish the authenticity of a series of historical documents, and will possess the knowledge necessary for the successful application of those tests. The assumption is unwarranted, of course. Rarely will all possible criteria suggest themselves even to highly intelligent persons without historical training, and more rarely still will they possess the specialized knowledge without which the criteria are useless.

In view of this fact it will be worth while at least to itemize the tests which a collection, such as the alleged Lincoln documents published serially in the Atlantic for December 1928, January and February 1929, should pass before its genuineness can be accepted. First come the purely physical criteria: Is the paper of the proper age, and is the ink that of the period in which the documents are supposed to have been written? Next, the soundness of the collection's pedigree, so to speak: Has it come down through a line of well authenticated, reputable owners? Then, if the documents purport to be the work of a well-known character, comes the question of handwriting. Does it resemble that of letters and papers of undoubted genuineness? More intangible, but very important, is the question of general content. Are the sentiments expressed in any given document in harmony with the known views of the person who is supposed to have written it, or even with his general character as established beyond dispute? Finally, do specific incidents mentioned in the challenged documents check with demonstrable historical fact?

It is not often that all of these tests can be brought to bear against a body of material so effectively as in the case of the Minor collection. Almost every item revealed such serious flaws that belief in the genuineness of the entire group became untenable. Recognizing this, the editor of the Atlantic not only published a statement withdrawing former expressions of confidence in the collection, but asked me, as one of those active in attacking its claims to credence, to state the case against it. In undertaking this, I hope I shall be pardoned for appropriating to my own use the contributions of Mr. Worthington C. Ford, Mr. Oliver R. Barrett, Mr. Louis A. Warren, Mr. Logan Hay, and Captain James P. Murphy, without which the prompt expose of the character of these documents would not have been possible.

As soon as the collection was presented for publication, the Atlantic submitted specimens of the paper to a distinguished chemist for analysis. The report described it as 'pure linen with a trace of cotton.' Since modern paper is largely made from wood pulp, the presumption was that the paper of these documents was of sufficient age.

However, that is not a fact of positive importance. The first concern of every forger is to secure old paper, and on the whole it is easily accomplished. In this case a suspicious resemblance to the flyleaves of old books sugggests the source from which it was obtained.There is another disquieting feature of physical appearance: several of the documents are written green ink. Green ink usually has an aniline dye as a coloring agent, and aniline dyes were not in use prior the second half of the nineteenth century. However, the color of the ink could do no more than arouse suspicion, since inks of all colors have long been used to some extent.

When the lines of descent of the Minor Collection was critically examined serious weaknesses appeared. The story of its formation and transmission was related with considerable explicitness. For various plausible reasons, Lincoln and Ann Rutledge gave each other's letters to a common friend, Matilda Cameron. Matilda added her own diary, and the collection passed to Sally Calhoun, described as the daughter of John Calhoun, Lincoln's friend and benefactor. Sally added memoranda of conversations with her father and letters from Lincoln, and gave the entire group of documents to two friends, Margaret Morrison and Elizabeth's brother, Frederick Hirth. In time, these joint owners transferred it to Elizabeth's brother, Frederick Hirth. With the addition of a letter Hirth is supposed to have received from Lincoln it attained its final form, and descended trough Hirth's widow and Miss Minor's own mother to the present owner.

Examination, however, fails to reveal satisfactory evidence that the first two reputed owners of the collection, Matilda Cameron and Sally Calhoun ever actually existed. Matilda is described as one of the eleven daughters of John Cameron of New Salem, and Ann's cousin as well as bosom friend. But the page from the Cameron family Bible on which the names and birth dates of the children were inscribed, now in the possession of Mrs. Edna Orendorff Macpherson of the Illinois State Historical Library, fails to record a Matilda among them.

However, in the family record only the first names and middle initials are given, and 'for three of the girls the middle initial was M. Might not that have stood, in one case, for Matilda? Matilda's diary destroys the possibility. In the entry dated July 10, 1833, occurs this statement: 'I will keep everthing in my box James giv me last' crismas.' my. first bow wuz James nd now Sam Anns wuz first John and now Abe. she wuz 17 when she met John and I wuz 19 when I first met James.' Since James and Matilda were lovers 'last crismas,' their first meeting could not have occurred later than 1832, If Matilda was then nineteen, she must have been born not later than 1813. But Vicana M., the second of the Cameron girls and the first to bear the middle initial M., was born on December 31, 1815. A daughter was born in 1813, but her name was Elizabeth P.

Equally conclusive is the argument against the existence of Sally Calhoun. John Calhoun, whose daughter she is supposed to have been, was born in Boston, Massachusetts, in either 1806 or 1808 — both dates are given in different accounts. He came to Springfield, Illinois, in 1830, and on December 9 of the following year married Sarah Cutter. According to John Carroll Power's History of the Early Settlers of Sangamon County, Illinois, he had nine children, but among them a Sally or Sarah is not to be discovered.

However, it has been pointed out that the birth dates of two of Calhoun's children, as recorded in this volume, are three months apart; and it is argued that if his account is in error in this respect it is not unreasonable to doubt the infallibility of his list of the children's names. The fact remains, however, that in spite of this error—probably a printer's mistake — Power's History is a very reliable compilation, so reliable that it is constantly used by Springfield lawyers in the examination of abstracts, and readily accepted in court as furnishing satisfactory proof of heirship.

But the case against the existence of Sally rests on other evidence than Power's History. In a letter written from St. Joseph, Missouri, December 12, 1928, Mrs. Adele P. McCord, the only living grandchild of John Calhoun, stated: 'I was an only grandchild on her side of the family & very fond of my Grandmother Sarah Cutter Calhoun. I became closely associated with her & my Aunts, and never once did I hear any of them called Sally.' Mrs. McCord added that Mrs. Mary W. Inslee Kerr, of St. Joseph, Missouri, was the only person still alive," who would have first-hand knowledge of the Calhoun family, and stated that she would get in touch with her if possible. In due time Mrs. Kerr's daughter answered on behalf of her mother, now ill. 'General John Calhoun and his family,' the letter reads, 'were intimate friends of hers and there was never a daughter named, or called, Sally Calhoun.'

Jump to comments
Presented by
Get Today's Top Stories in Your Inbox (preview)

A Fascinating Short Film About the Multiverse

If life is a series of infinite possibilities, what does it mean to be alive?


Elsewhere on the web

Join the Discussion

After you comment, click Post. If you’re not already logged in you will be asked to log in or register. blog comments powered by Disqus

Video

The Death of Film

You'll never hear the whirring sound of a projector again.

Video

How to Hunt With Poison Darts

A Borneo hunter explains one of his tribe's oldest customs: the art of the blowpipe

Video

A Delightful, Pixar-Inspired Cartoon

An action figure and his reluctant sidekick trek across a kitchen in search of treasure.

Video

I Am an Undocumented Immigrant

"I look like a typical young American."

Video

Why Did I Study Physics?

Using hand-drawn cartoons to explain an academic passion

Writers

Up
Down

More in Entertainment

More back issues, Sept 1995 to present.

Just In