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.
But that same month, a week after the issue had already gone to press, the editors added a lengthy and tortured justification of the magazine's decision to run the series, in which they attempted to respond to the critics' charges. The article's not-quite-apologetic title, "With Charity for All," set the tone. The editors felt that all of the criticisms of the first installment—that the handwriting and style of the Lincoln letters didn't match established examples, and that some of the historical details were faulty—"were clearly susceptible to two opinions." But they were forced to admit that two details in a letter in the January installment were undeniably false. The letter, supposedly from Lincoln to his boss, the surveyor John Calhoun, asked a question about the "North East quarter of Section 40," in Sangamon County—except that according to the federal government's system of surveying land, in place since 1785, townships were always "laid out in tracts six miles by six," for a maximum of thirty-six sections. Lincoln also mentioned a family that was moving to "some place in Kansas"—this twenty years before the state of Kansas came into existence.
The editors urged readers to keep an open mind about the authenticity of the collection, and, in their conclusion, argued that the criticism of the documents was not unwelcome—while at the same time launching into an attack against their critics.
To us the letters seemed to furnish a very interesting explanation of the unexplained change which came over Lincoln's character in the formative years, and we think that any person whose prejudice does not blind his judgment will find in this material—particularly in the diary of Mat. Cameron—evidence that if it is fabricated, an artist's hand has been at work.
For the criticism of scholars and students, no matter how unfavorable, we are not ungrateful, for the truth in this matter is a source of deep interest. We do feel that multifarious criticism by persons quite ignorant of the merits of the controversy proves once again how inequitably sense and intelligence are distributed in this world.
In a short note in the February "Contributor's Column," the magazine offered further justifications for its decision to publish the collection, and further attacks on one of its most persistent and vociferous critics. Paul M. Angle, the secretary of the Lincoln Centennial Association and a graduate of the master's program in history at the University of Illinois, had already, by the age of twenty-eight, become a well-known authority in the Lincoln field. According to Fehrenbacher, the previous year Angle had published an article questioning the truth of the Ann Rutledge legend. And he was "the first critic to say publicly that the Lincoln letters in the Atlantic were forgeries." Angle published his charges in several newspapers around the country, and sent a copy of them to Sedgwick as well. But The Atlantic had gotten hold of a rather embarrassingly self-promotional letter about the affair that Angle had written to his parents, and that had then appeared in a local newspaper. The magazine printed the letter, along with some snide commentary designed to undercut Angle's authority as an unbiased critic of the Rutledge collection.
'I was going at it [the Minor material] in a leisurely way, intending simply to write the editor a letter. But Monday noon Alvin Barrett came into the office. He insisted that I give the story to the press. That's what I had wanted to do, knowing that it would be great advertising for me, and good publicity for the Lincoln Memorial Association.... The New York Times is going to print it to-morrow; the Chicago Daily News and the St. Louis Post Dispatch to-night. It's the biggest thing that ever happened to me. One doesn't get a chance very often to put the magazine of the country in the frying pan and cook it brown.'
It seems fair that Mr. Angle should have the advertising which means so much to him.
As Fehrenbacher recounts, Angle continued his research, piling up more and more evidence that the Minor collection was a sham. In the meantime, Sedgwick went on vacation, and in his absence the staff at The Atlantic started an investigation of their own, bringing in a handwriting expert who declared that the documents were forgeries and hiring a detective to investigate Wilma Minor and her mother, Cora DeBoyer. In response to a call that the head of the circulation department placed to Wilma Minor, the magazine received a handwritten note from her mother, explaining that her daughter's health was in decline due to the scandal. "She is a very high strung and supersensitive girl who does not seem to understand how to cope with the rebuffs of this crass world." The staff was not so much interested in the text of the note as in the hand it was written in—which looked suspiciously like the handwriting in the letters of the collection. Sedgwick cut short his vacation to confront Minor and DeBoyer in California. The two women denied his charge that the documents were forged; but the three of them agreed to a joint statement that they had decided not to release the Minor collection as a book. And Sedgwick, finally, in Fehrenbacher's words, "acknowledged publicly that the documents lacked authenticity." (A few months later the two women amended their story, claiming that Lincoln, Rutledge, Matilda Cameron, John Calhoun, and Sally Calhoun had told them their stories through a medium.)