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are likely to assume that everyone will know what tests to apply in order to establish the authenticity of a series of historical documents, and will possess the knowledge necessary for the successful application of those tests.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

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.'


Analysis of physical qualities and examination of the manner in which it was preserved are the only standards by which the Minor collection as a whole can be judged. In describing the outcome of tests other than these, it will be an advantage to divide the collection into several parts: (1) Lincoln letters, (2) the books bearing Lincoln marginalia, (3) the Ann Rutledge letters, (4) Matilda Cameron's diary, and (5) Sally Calhoun's memoranda.

Since no unchallenged specimen of Ann Rutledge's writing is known to have been preserved, and since the very existence of Matilda Cameron and Sally Calhoun is at best doubtful, it is obvious that only the Lincoln letters and the books which he is supposed to have annotated can be judged on the score of handwriting. Yet the test is of the utmost significance. If the handwriting of the Lincoln documents in the Minor collection is indistinguishable from that of genuine Lincoln letters of the same approximate date, the presumption of authenticity is strong; but if it markedly different, then all other flaws do no more than make the proof of spuriousness overwhelming.

Important as handwriting may be, however, there is little one can say about it. Actual comparison of specimens is the only test. Nevertheless, it may be worth while to point out one or two features of general appearance which can be reported in words. In the letters from the Minor collection Lincoln is frequently made to begin sentences with small letters. Letters of known authenticity never show this feature. Moreover, until the last few years of his life Lincoln usually— not always, of course— employed a short dash in place of a period. But in the Minor documents dashes are used only to indicate breaks— not terminations— of the thought.

In explaining the rakish, uneven appearance of the handwriting of these letters it has been argued that "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...'

This statement is true only to the extent that, in signing official papers as President, Lincoln usually wrote his name 'Abraham Lincoln,' while he signed letters of all descriptions with the familiar 'A. Lincoln.' Legal pleadings were generally signed 'Lincoln,' followed either by 'p q.' (pro querente) or 'p. d.' (pro defendant). So far as the character of the handwriting is concerned, there is no distinction, beyond that due to a greater or lesser degree of haste, between that to be found in the body of public and legal documents and that to be found in the body of letters.

It is true that not all specimens of Lincoln's writing are exactly similar, but the variations are the result of the writer's age rather than the character of the subject matter. Thus the handwriting of his youth shows immaturities not discernible in that of middle age, while letters written as President show clearly the effect of advancing age and mental strain. But the widest variations from these natural causes are as nothing compared with the difference between two intimate letters of the same approximate date, one from the Minor collection, the other indisputably genuine.

But in ruling out the Lincoln letters we need not depend on handwriting alone, conclusive as that should be. There is the evidence from 'known character,' so to speak. Does the Lincoln of the Minor letters harmonize with the Lincoln of historical fact? Or are they two different, distinct individuals—so different and distinct as not to be explained as variant phases of the same person?

In answering these questions I shall disregard, as being in the last analysis a matter of opinion, my belief that the distorted and unnatural individual pictured as the writer of the letters in the Minor collection does not square at all with the Lincoln of historical fact. Instead, I shall quote, for the reader's own comparison, two expressions on the same subject — slavery.

In one of the letters to John Calhoun, printed in the Atlantic for December 1928 (undated, but presumably written during his term in Congress), Lincoln is made to recount a conversation with a slave at the time of one of his two visits to New Orleans. Asked whether he was happy in slavery, the black had raised 'a face of hopeless resignation' and answered, '"No — no Marse I nevah is happy no mo. whippins is things that black folks nevah can stop remembrin about — they hurt so." Lincoln then reminds his correspondent: 'this is one I forgot to tell you before. but John I guess it takes a queer fellow like me to sympathise with the put upon and down trodden. those blacks John dont live—they simply exist. I never trapped an animal in my life and slavery to me is just that both filling my soul with abhorrence.'

Compare the foregoing with the following extract from a letter to Mary Speed, the sister of the one man with whom Lincoln's intimacy is unquestioned. 'By the way, a fine example was presented on board the boat [Lincoln was describing his return from a visit at the Speed home] for contemplating the effect of condition upon human happiness. A gentleman had purchased twelve negroes in different parts of Kentucky, and was taking them to a farm in the South. They were chained six and six together... In this condition they were being separated forever from the scenes of their childhood: their friends, their fathers and mothers, and brothers and sisters, and many of them from their wives and children, and going into perpetual slavery, where the lash of the master is proverbially more ruthless and unrelenting than any other where; and yet amid all these distressing circumstances, as we would think them, they were the most cheerful and apparently happy creatures on board. One whose offense for which he had been sold was an over-fondness for his wife, played the fiddle almost continually, and the others danced, sang, cracked jokes, and played various games with cards from day to day. How true it is that "God tempers the wind to the shorn lamb," or in other words, that he renders the worst of human conditions tolerable, while he permits the best to be nothing better than tolerable.'

It is only fair to point out that in 1855 Lincoln described this incident less amiably, calling slavery a 'continued torment.' My own belief is that this quickened perception of slavery's evil was a direct result of the agitation caused by the repeal of the Missouri Compromise in 1854. In any event, comparison of the two passages suggests, at least, the argument which could be built upon stylistic differences if space permitted. Is it possible for a man to write clear, easy prose in 1841, and seven years later to be guilty of verbiage resembling the stilted effort of a high-school freshman?


So much for the general character of the Minor letters from Lincoln in Washington to Calhoun in Springfield. The difference between the Lincoln of these letters and the Lincoln of historical fact is great enough to make a careful student skeptical, even if disquieting suspicions have not previously been aroused. And a skeptical student, if competent, will at once commence the most exciting of all tests— the search for errors of specific fact.

The method consists in the critical examination of every fact which admits of independent verification. As this examination largely concerns John Calhoun and his relations with Lincoln, some comment upon him is necessary.

John Calhoun came to Springfield in 1830, and continued a resident of the town until his appointment as Surveyor-General of Kansas and Nebraska in 1854. From 1832 until 1835 he was Surveyor of Sangamon County. The county, then considerably larger than now, was being settled rapidly, and the demand for a surveyor's services was greater than one man could satisfy. At the instance of mutual friends Calhoun appointed Lincoln his deputy with the specific duty of making surveys in the northwestern part of Sangamon County, now the separate county of Menard.

As time went on, Calhoun occupied other public offices. In 1838, he was elected to the legislature from Sangamon County. Four years later he was appointed Clerk of the Circuit Court and held the position until 1848, serving simultaneously as trustee of the defunct State Bank. As Lincoln advanced to a prominent position in local Whig circles, Calhoun gained place in the Democratic Party, becoming one of Douglas' trusted lieutenants when that leader rose to national prominence. Frequently Lincoln and Calhoun clashed in debate, and local tradition, well supported, has it that Lincoln feared no one, Douglas not excepted, more than Calhoun.

With these facts in mind, let us examine closely the letter of July 22, 1848. Aside from the fact that it implies a degree of political accord which did not exist, it contains several historical inconsistencies. 'Jed was here and called on me about a month ago. he told me of your trip to Gentryville and your clearing the boundries, titles etc.' — so Lincoln is made to write. Calhoun's trip must have taken place in 1848, or Lincoln, who took his seat in Congress in December 1847, would have known about it. But in 48 Calhoun was Clerk of the Circuit Court, and the records show that he was performing the duties of that office person. Relatively few legal papers for 1848 remain in the court files, but those that do contain his signature under the file date. Several were filed every month — frequently every week — during the entire year. For the month of May — the time most likely, according to the letter, for Calhoun have made his Gentryville trip, the record is especially complete.

Moreover, even if Calhoun had gone to Gentryville, he could not have had for the reason of his visit that alleged in the letter. 'He told me of your trip to Gentryville and your clearing the boundries, titles etc; Dear. John at this time I want to extend my deepest gratitude for the service rendred my Mother,' etc. The inference that Calhoun cleared 'boundries, titles etc.' for Lincoln's mother is inescapable. But in 1848 Lincoln's mother had no interest in any land at Gentryville. When Thomas Lincoln had removed from Kentucky to Indiana he entered one hundred and sixty acres near the present town of that name, but he never succeeded in obtaining a patent to more than eighty acres. This holding he sold to James Gentry in the winter of 1829-1830, shortly before removing to Illinois.

The last sentence of the letter is also open to suspicion. 'Mary is well thank the Lord and joins in love to you and yours,' Lincoln is suppose to have concluded. That Mrs. Lincoln was in Washington is a necessary inference. That she actually was in Washington is extremely doubtful. She had accompanied Lincoln there in the winter of 1847, but in the following spring she and the children had returned to the family home at Lexington, Kentucky. Her own letters show that she contemplated remaining there during July and August, and Lincoln's letters, particularly one dated July 2, show that he was fully conversant with her plans, and did not expect her to join him soon. There is no direct evidence of Mrs. Lincoln's movements from early July until mid-October, but all the information accessible indicates that her presence in Washington on July 22, 1848, is highly improbable.

So much for the letter of July 22 1848. That to Calhoun of May 9, 1834, offers even greater inconsistencies, one in particular admitting no explanation of any sort. 'There seems some controversy,' Lincoln writes, 'between him and Green concerning that North east quarter of Section 40— you remember?' Since 1785 the government system of surveys had provided for townships divided into thirty-six sections, numbered consecutively from one to thirty-six. Natural irregularities occasionally resulted in townships with fewer than thirty-six. sections, but never in one with more than that number. For Lincoln to have inquired of Calhoun — both men being official surveyors —regarding a 'Section 40' is unthinkable.

In the same letter Lincoln remarks that 'the "Bixbys" are leaving this week for some place in Kansas.' Kansas, however, was not open for white settlement until twenty years after the date of this letter. A few squatters, guides, and Indian traders were clustered about its military posts at an earlier date, but that was all. It is doubtful whether even the word 'Kansas' was in common use as designating the region it now describes. Most maps of the period referred, to describe the vast territory west of Missouri and north of Arkansas Territory simply as 'Missouri Territory' or 'Indian Territory,' while the gazetteers list the word only as the name of a river.


The books bearing Lincoln marginalia in the Minor collection are no more worthy of credence than the letters. The handwriting is equally unlike that which is indisputably his. In addition, there is no indication that Lincoln was in the habit of underlining and commenting upon passages in the books he owned. Many books from his library are in existence, but not one whose authenticity is above suspicion contains any writing other than his name or a simple presentation inscription.

Moreover, no reliance need be placed upon these general consideration, to prove spurious the notations in at least one of the volumes of the collection. This is Newman's Practical System of Rhetoric, containing many underscorings and comments. The book was published in 189 at Andover, Massachusetts. On the flyleaf is the name of its original owner: 'Miss Susan Y. Baker, March 15 Eastport Academy.' At the bottom of the title-page is the signature, 'A. Lincoln; Gentryville.' At the top of the page, in the same handwriting, are a few lines expressing gratitude to Miss Baker for her gift of the book. All seems regular enough (the handwriting always excepted) until one discovers that the preface of the book is dated, in type, May 1829. Consequently Miss Baker's inscription, 'March 15,' could not have been written earlier than 1830. And on March 15, 1830, Abraham Lincoln not residing in Indiana, having, according to his own statement, departed for Illinois some two weeks before that time.

When these specific discrepancies are added to the evidence of spuriousness which the examination of handwriting, general content, and documentary history amassed, proof becomes overwhelming. No matter what the character of the rest of the collection, the Lincoln documents are worthless.

The other items in the Minor collection contain even more historical inconsistencies than the Lincoln material. Two grave errors are to be found in the Ann Rutledge letters alone.

Twice Ann refers to the New Salem schoolmaster as 'Newton Graham.' The name, in fact, was Mentor Graham. In the Illinois State Historical Library are poll books for the year 1834 signed Mentor Graham. In the Menard County records at Petersburg, Illinois are several legal documents in which the name is given as Mentor Graham; and Mrs. Henry Bradley, a grand, daughter living at Greenview, Illinois has two deeds and three promissory notes so signed. Moreover, Mrs. Bradley, who knew Graham before his death never heard him called by any other name than Mentor. Her recollection is supported by several other, members of the family who were in close contact with him for several years, and who, also state that they never knew of his using any other name than Mentor.

More conclusive, however, than a mistake in a name is the following sentence from one of Ann's letters to Lincoln. 'I am greatfull,' the writer says, 'for the Spencers copy-book I copy frum that every time I can spair.' Since Ann Rutledge died on August 25, 1835, —the date is recorded in the family Bible,—this letter was written prior to that time. But Spencer's first publication on penmanship, under the title of Spencer and Rice's System of Business and Ladies Penmanship, was not issued until 1848.

It has also been suggested, nevertheless, that although Spencer's first formal treatise on penmanship was not published until 1848 he might have been issuing copy books or leaflets many years before that time, all trace of which has since disappeared. As a matter of fact, the work here mentioned was not a formal treatise, but exactly the sort of publication contemplated in the suggestion I have stated. It consisted of small slips of paper with mottoes lithographed in Spencerian writing, each packet of slips being enclosed in a long envelope similar to those in ordinary use to-day.

I have already referred, in connection with the question of whether or not Matilda Cameron was a real person, to one grave error in her diary. There are others. Twice she writes of boats from Springfield. On July 10, 1833, she states that her church got the first Missouri Harmony Hymn Book 'last boat from Springfield'; while a later entry records that 'the boat being, du Satiday cum in while we wuz by the mill.' Both references indicate plainly that boats carrying passengers were running between Springfield and New Salem on a regular schedule.

To anyone familiar with the Sangamon River, and the country through which it passes, the idea is absurd. The river swings around Springfield in a rough semicircle, coming no nearer than five miles at any point. Besides, it is called a 'river' more by courtesy than because the size of the stream merits the description. Generally it is no larger than a good-sized creek, and in July when, according to Matilda, boats were running regularly — it will hardly float a canoe. Moreover, it meanders from Springfield to New Salem in wide curves, probably running a course of fifty miles between the two towns, less than twenty miles distant by air line. Under these circumstances, a packet line was simply impossible.

Lincoln's published correspondence reveals a second flaw in the Cameron diary One of Matilda's boats —the one which was 'du Satiday' brought 'Dave turnham a frend of Abes from gentryvile' to New' Salem. This was the same Turnham to whom Lincoln, on October 23, 1860, wrote a letter in which the following statement occurs: 'I well remember when you and I last met, after a separation of fourteen years, at the cross-road voting place in the fall of 1844.' Thus we have Lincoln's'own word that he had not seen Turnham from the time he left Indiana in 1830 until he made a campaign trip to the vicinity of his old home in the fall of 1844.

Another entry in the diary commences with the statement, 'Marthy Calhone teched Ann sum new patern of kroshay and; she is going to tech me.' This entry must have been dated 1835 or earlier, yet Martha Calhoun, sixth child of John Calhoun, was not born until January 9, 1843. This somewhat startling weakness in chronology has been explained on the ground that Calhoun had a sister Martha, to whom the reference might naturally apply. The explanation is possible, of course, but very unlikely. In the first place, if Calhoun's sister Martha was living with him she would not have been at New Salem, — a misapprehension which runs through all these documents, — but at Springfield. In the second place, Calhoun's father was a prosperous Eastern merchant, well able to support his family. It hardly seems likely that a young woman would have left a comfortable home in an established community for the hardships of life in a raw Illinois village.

One more observation, and we are done with Matilda Cameron. Her final diary entry, dated March 1, 1836, contains the following statement: 'sum folks has left Sand Ridge and also a lot in Salem . . . . John Calhone and family has alreddy gone. Abe is tendin surveying for him hear what litle ther is to do.' The statement contains two errors of fact. Never having lived in New Salem, John Calhoun of course had not migrated. In 1836, as for the past six years, he was living in Springfield. And whatever surveying Lincoln was doing was for Thomas M. Neale, not Calhoun who had resigned his position the previous year. I have not been able to find the exact date of Calhoun's resignation, but as early as September 26, 1835, Neale was signing surveys as Surveyor of Sangamon County.

Only the memoranda of Sally Calhoun remain. Several of the objections raised against the other documents apply here with equal force— the failure of the picture of Lincoln there drawn to harmonize with his known character, the improbability of an interest in Lincoln great enough to have led Calhoun to dictate these reminiscences, the frequent use of the name 'Newton Graham.' Most important, however, is the fact that the memoranda, dated St. Joseph, Missouri, imply the presence of Calhoun, although Calhoun — be it insisted yet once more — was still living in Springfield. It is useless to cite evidence proving that Calhoun was actually in Springfield on certain dates, for only one of Sally's memoranda is dated. That one was supposedly written on June 2, 1848. On May 29 Calhoun put his file mark and signature on legal papers in Springfield, and it was practically impossible for him to have been in St. Joseph four days later. Even if, by strenuous traveling, he had succeeded in making the trip in that time, it is straining credulity too far to believe that he would at once have put his daughter to recording incidents in the early life of Lincoln.


Thus every test except that of the fitness of the paper has found the Minor collection defective. Critical examination showed glaring weaknesses in the line according to which the collection is supposed to have descended. The handwriting of the items which purport to have been written by Lincoln bears no resemblance to that of authentic documents. The content of the Lincoln letters is not in complete harmony with his known ideas on one subject at least, slavery, and it is difficult to believe that such wide stylistic differences as have been pointed out can occur in the writing of the same individual. All the number of historical inconsistencies, some of which admit no possible explanation, is very large. By no possiblity can the Minor collection be genuine.

Then who fabricated it? We know what sort of person the forger was, for in these documents he has drawn the outlines of his own characters. Considerable cleverness dictated the explanation of the collection's formation and descent to the present. The character of Matilda Cameron, exceedingly well drawn, indicates no small degree of creative ability. Wide though superficial reading provided enough information about Lincoln's life to deceive those whose knowledge was fairly extensive. Only when cleverness, artistic skill, and general information could no longer suffice, and sound knowledge became indispensable, did the forger fail. Certainly he—or she— was not familiar with Lincoln's correspondence, either in its original or published form. Complete ignorance of the geographical setting of the story was coupled with defective knowledge of the minor characters. Under the circumstances it was only natural that the forger, like an amateur playwright, should overdraw his Lincoln, emphasizing too strongly his best-known traits.

That exposure followed quickly should cause no regret, for the Lincoln of the Minor collection was, after all, a sorry character. What he wrote was full of inflated sentimentality, and the manner in which he wrote it suggested a man no more than half literate. To me, at least, a belief in the common authorship of these documents and the Gettysburg Address was impossible— and I much prefer the Gettysburg Address.