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:

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

"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.

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.)

Sedgwick then traveled to Illinois to meet with Paul Angle, and the two agreed that Angle would write a critique of the Minor collection for the April issue of the magazine. The resulting article, "The Minor Collection: A Criticism," was a withering, step-by-step deconstruction of the documents. Angle explained that he and other experts had subjected the documents to a series of tests, "and that almost every item revealed such serious flaws that belief in the genuineness of the entire group became untenable." The magazine had placed much stock in the fact that the collection was printed on old paper. But as Angle pointed out, "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 suggests the source from which it was obtained." Also, Angle argued convincingly that Matilda Cameron and Sally Calhoun—whose diaries were part of the collection and who had supposedly each been part of its chain of ownership—never existed.

Angle then moved on to the content of the letters.

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 an alleged letter to John Calhoun, printed in the December Atlantic, Lincoln commented, "but John I guess it takes a queer fellow like me to sympathise with the put upon and the downtrodden. those blacks John don't 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." In a real letter, written at roughly the same time to the sister of his good friend Joshua Speed, Lincoln expressed very different sentiments:

'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.... 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.'

Angle's article was full of other damning criticisms, including the fact that Ann and Matilda consistently refer to the local school teacher by the wrong name; that Ann mentions a book that wasn't published until more than twelve years after her letter was supposedly written; and that Matilda referred to the "last boat from Springfield," when actually Springfield was five miles away from the closest river.

After shredding to bits what little reputation the Minor collection had left, Angle ended the piece with a flash of humor.

That exposure [of the forgery] 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.

How had The Atlantic let itself be duped by a collection so obviously fake? Fehrenbacher suggests that Sedgwick's rash decision to publish the collection had something to do with his rather loose editing philosophy, one that in other cases probably benefited the magazine. "An editor, Sedgwick declared, should have an open mind, always steering closer to credulity than to skepticism. In any encounter with improbability, he should 'put on the brakes gently but let the motor run.'" In addition, Sedgwick was both charmed by Minor and tempted by the publicity that the publication of such a sensational group of documents would bring to the magazine. Sedgwick had rushed the articles into publication, leaving little time for their authentication, so that he could use the series as part of a subscription promotion for the holiday season. The magazine had then run an advertising campaign announcing the series to the world:

At last, after nearly a century during which their existence was always suspected and hoped for, appear the priceless documents which lift the veil surrounding the love affair between Abraham Lincoln and young Ann Rutledge... This feature alone, the first printing of these documents, will make an Atlantic subscription for the coming year a life-long keepsake—and incidentally a most appropriate Lincoln remembrance.

The collection did change the way Lincoln was remembered, but undoubtedly not in the way that Sedgwick expected it would. The Minor affair not only consigned the Lincoln-Rutledge romance back to the realm of unsubstantiated legend, but also helped usher in a new era of Lincoln history, one that placed all its value on the work of professional historians. As Shenk points out in his book, Angle used his piece not just to critique the Minor collection, but to "scold amateurs who tried to write history. The baton," with The Atlantic's unwitting help, "had been taken by a new generation."

—Katie Bacon