Flashbacks November 2005

An Atlantic Scandal

A tale of one of the most notorious journalistic forgeries of the twentieth century

In the afterword of his new book, Lincoln's Melancholy, released this past fall, Joshua Wolf Shenk revisits an odd episode in the history of The Atlantic, one that had a pivotal role in the way the history of Abraham Lincoln was told. From the time of Lincoln's death until the early twentieth century, the legend of Lincoln's doomed romance with Ann Rutledge steadily grew. Rutledge was a young woman whom Lincoln met when he first arrived in New Salem, Illinois in 1831. Ann died in the summer of 1835, perhaps of typhoid fever, and soon after Lincoln fell into the first of his two major depressions.

Fueled first by the reminiscences of Lincoln's friends and then by popular historians such as Ida Tarbell and Carl Sandburg, who alighted on the story of Lincoln and Rutledge's relationship and her untimely death as a way of explaining Lincoln's lifelong melancholy, the tale gained force, even though there was never conclusive evidence of any special relationship between the two—no letters or notes between the lovers, demonstrating the nature of their attachment.

From the archives:

From Atlantic Unbound:

"Lincoln's Great Depression" (October 2005)
"Abraham Lincoln fought clinical depression all his life, but it gave the tools to save the nation." By Joshua Wolf Shenk

Until, that is, 1928, when a California woman by the name of Wilma Frances Minor came to The Atlantic bearing a trove of material that she claimed had been passed down through her family, and that offered proof not only that Rutledge and Lincoln had been in love, but that they were planning on getting married. In "The Discovery" (December 1928), The Atlantic's editor, Ellery Sedgwick, described in rather breathless terms the material that Minor had sent to The Atlantic, and the magazine's efforts to verify its authenticity. Included in the collection was correspondence between Lincoln and Rutledge—the first letters ever seen in Rutledge's hand; letters from Lincoln to his fellow surveyor and boss John Calhoun, describing Lincoln's love for Ann; reminiscences of the relationship from Calhoun's daughter Sally; an extensive diary kept by Ann's best friend, Matilda Cameron; a Bible given to Lincoln by Ann, which had his notes in the margins; along with sundry other items. Sedgwick described his excitement upon being presented with the find:

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!

Sedgwick explained that at first he and the other editors were skeptical; but after finding a chemist who determined that the paper was the right age and a historian, Ida Tarbell, who judged that the handwriting on the Lincoln documents seemed to match other examples, those at the magazine were persuaded. "No reader will be more incredulous than the Atlantic when the collection was first brought to our notice. Very gradually, as step by step we proceeded with our inquiry, conviction was forced upon us."

Minor had written a book-length manuscript about the Lincoln-Rutledge relationship, incorporating all of the materials in her collection. She and The Atlantic struck a deal that the magazine would run her manuscript as a three-part series, and would then publish an expanded version in book form. For the whole deal, Minor would receive $6,500—quite a remarkable sum for the time.

The series was titled "Lincoln the Lover," and ran in three successive issues: December 1928, January 1929, and February 1929. The Atlantic decided to break its firm rule against printing illustrations—in place since the magazine's founding—so that it could display facsimiles of the Lincoln-Rutledge correspondence. After setting the scene in New Salem, the tone of the pieces became more that of a sentimental romance novel than of serious-minded history. Minor described her heroine in glowing terms. "She was beautiful, popular, quick, industrious, and an excellent housekeeper; not cultivated, but richly endowed with natural graces and refinements. Her quilting, embroidery, and crochet work were the talk of the countryside." The correspondence depicted Rutledge and Lincoln as passionately attached to one another—but the letters also showed that Rutledge, at least, did not have much of a way with words.

my hart runs over with hapynes when I think yore name. I do not beleave I can find time to rite you a leter every day. stil I no as you say it wood surely improve my spelling and all that... I dreem of yore ... words every nite and long for you by day. I mus git super now. all my hart is ever thine.

And Lincoln, for his part, was presented as the epitome of a sentimental and attentive suitor.

My Beloved Ann:
...I am borrowing Jacks horse to ride over to see you this coming Saturday. cutting my foot prevents my walking. I will be at your pleasure to accompany you to the Sand Ridge taffy-pull. I will be glad to hear your Father's sermon on the Sabbath. I feel unusually lifted with hope of relieving your present worry at an early date and likewise doing myself the best turn of my life. with you my beloved all things are possible. now James kindly promises to deliver into your dear little hands this letter. may the good Lord speed Saturday afternoon.
affectionately A. Lincoln

In a diary entry written soon after Rutledge's death, Matilda Cameron detailed the depths of despair to which Lincoln had sunk.

deer diary as pore Abe ses him and me is going trough the vail of despond. our angel on erth has bin snached from us to the arms of the Lord. I am all broak up and fitles for anything. the kin ses Abe is luny. I think he is broaken-harted. he wants me to keep his 5 leters from her coz he is perswaded he will soon foler her I expect he will too.

But Lincoln did not follow Ann to the grave, of course. Instead, Minor described how Lincoln was inspired by Ann's death to fight for what he believed in and achieve political greatness. It was a touch designed to put the last bit of polish on the Rutledge legend.

As it turned out, however, the series did little to polish Rutledge's reputation, and much to tarnish The Atlantic's.

Almost as soon as the December issue was released, critics began denouncing the collection as an obvious fake. As recounted by the historian Don E. Fehrenbacher in an article on the scandal, a Lincoln expert named Worthington Chauncey Ford, the head of the Massachusetts Historical Society, wrote a note to Sedgwick asking, "Have you gone insane or have I? You are putting over one of the crudest forgeries I have known." Ford proceeded to send his views to The New York Times, which printed them on December 2. Arguments against the collection from two other experts were published the next day. Undaunted, Sedgwick went ahead with the second installment in the January issue, which by that time was nearly finalized. That installment, which included a larger trove of primary documents than the previous one had, provoked an even more violent storm of criticism. Still, Sedgwick ran the conclusion of the series in the February issue.

Interviews: "Commander in Grief" (September 26, 2005)
"Joshua Wolf Shenk on how melancholy both tore Abraham Lincoln apart and gave him strength."

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Katie Bacon is a former executive editor at The Atlantic. Her blog is Eating With Bisi.

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