The Minor Collection: A Criticism


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are likely to assume that everyone will know what tests to apply in order to establish the authenticity of a series of historical documents, and will possess the knowledge necessary for the successful application of those tests.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.

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