• Washington Post

Abraham Lincoln’s Love Letters Captivated America. They were a Hoax.

Washington Post photo by Bonnie Jo Mount
Visitors gather at the Lincoln Memorial on May 18.

Her name was Ann Rutledge, and she was said to be Abraham Lincoln’s sweetheart. No one knew much more until nearly a century later, when a prominent national magazine in 1928 touted an amazing find: love letters between this 20-something American Romeo and Juliet, both destined for tragic ends.

“With you my beloved all things are possible,” wrote “Abe” after alerting Ann that he’d squire her to the “Sand Ridge taffy-pull.” For her part, Ann’s passion outpaced her spelling: “All my hart is ever thine.”

It was all a hoax, the product of a California newspaper columnist who hoodwinked editors and Lincoln biographers by producing one of history’s most elaborate literary frauds. For her part, fabulist Wilma Frances Minor, a former vaudeville actress, blamed the whole mess on chatty spirits from the great beyond.

Atlantic Monthly editors first learned about a cache of Lincoln “love letters” in the summer of 1928, when they got a note from Minor, who profiled local notables for the women’s section of the San Diego Union. Could she enter a narrative based on the letters in the magazine’s nonfiction contest, with a $5,000 top prize? The answer: Let’s talk!

Negotiations soon began, and the magazine flew Minor out to Boston. She “proved to be a handsome woman,” wrote historian Don E. Fehrenbacher. Editors were charmed.

The letters, said to have been passed down through her family after Rutledge’s cousin Matilda Cameron saved them, were not literary masterpieces. (Rutledge to Lincoln: “My hart runs over with hapynes when I think yore name.” Lincoln to Rutledge: “My fervent love is with you.”)

Minor’s trove included a diary entry by Matilda: “Abe and Ann are awful in love.” There was also a later letter, dated 1848, in which Lincoln describes Rutledge to a friend: “Like a ray of sun-shine and as brief . . . she flooded my life. . . . I have kept faith. Sometimes I feel that in Heaven she is pleading for my furtherance.”

The magazine showed the letters to experts. Ida Tarbell, a pioneering muckraker turned Lincoln biographer, believed they were real. So did Lincoln biographer Carl Sandburg, who said they “seem entirely authentic.”

With its editors convinced, the Atlantic Monthly in late 1928 began publishing a three-part “Lincoln the Lover” series, written by Minor and based on the letters. Minor would be paid $6,500 – about $113,000 today – for the articles and a planned book.

Skeptics pounced. The handwriting in letters by different people looked similar. An 1834 letter referred to Kansas, which didn’t yet exist. Neither, apparently, did cousin Matilda. And Lincoln didn’t sound like Lincoln. Wouldn’t even a young Abe show some of the remarkable wordsmithing powers that gave us the Gettysburg Address? Instead, he remarked on his “furtherance.”

Atlantic Monthly editors bristled, and Minor told off one critic who dared to “undermine a sincere and stainless-charactered girl.” Her mother described her as “a very high strung and supersensitive girl who does not seem to understand how to cope with the rebuffs of this crass world.” (Minor, who was cagey about her age, appears to have been in her early 40s at the time.)

Eventually, Minor offered an otherworldly explanation for the letters: She wrote them, but she was assisted by the dearly departed spirits of Rutledge and Lincoln. They spoke to a spirit guide who reached Minor through her mother, who conveniently happened to be a medium. As for the Atlantic Monthly, it ran a single article debunking the letters and moved on.

The Lincoln letters stand out among literary deceptions, said London author Melissa Katsoulis, who wrote about them in her 2009 book “Literary Hoaxes: An Eye-Opening History of Famous Frauds.” For one, their suspicious spelling and “kooky idiom” make them a “low-quality” forgery, she wrote, adding, “They read like a fake note written by a 6-year-old pretending to be his mother.”

Speaking of moms, historians suspect that Minor conspired with hers to produce the letters. A mother-daughter team is “unusual and somewhat charming” in the annals of literary fraud, Katsoulis said.

Unlike the love letters, Ann Rutledge was real. Like Lincoln, she lived in the village of New Salem, Ill., in the early 1830s, when both were in their early to mid-20s. “They certainly knew each other because it was a very, very tiny community, and he knew her family,” said Joshua Zeitz, a Lincoln biographer.

Lincoln, who worked various jobs and won a state legislative seat around this time, appeared to have been anything but a major catch. He was pockmarked, awkward and homely, according to historian Harold Holzer, who has written many books about him. “I think Lincoln was kind of timid around girls, or at least uncertain, insecure,” he said.

For her part, Rutledge was pretty and “quick of apprehension, industrious, and an excellent housekeeper,” wrote William Herndon, a former Lincoln law partner who interviewed residents of New Salem after his friend was assassinated. They had a romance, he wrote, that was brief, intense and doomed: Rutledge died in 1835 at just 22, apparently of typhoid fever.

Americans went along with Herndon’s narrative. “The culture wanted to believe that Lincoln had found some domestic and personal happiness in his time,” Holzer said.

Lincoln, of course, was married for more than two decades to Mary Todd Lincoln. But Herndon detested her – the feeling was mutual – and preferred to anoint Rutledge as the love of Lincoln’s life. “He wanted to believe that Lincoln spent his whole life pining for this poor dead girl in New Salem,” said historian Stacy Lynn, author of a Mary Todd Lincoln biography. “Biographers ran with that story, and it became part of the mainstream Lincoln narrative.”

Indeed, Hollywood portrayed a Lincoln-Rutledge romance on screen again and again. The poet Edgar Lee Masters, known for “Spoon River Anthology,” rhapsodized about her lasting impact on not only Lincoln but the nation in a poem: “Wedded to him, not through union,/But through separation./Bloom forever, O Republic/From the dust of my bosom!”

All this is a kind of Mary Todd erasure, Lynn said. “It’s important to see the Lincolns as human beings and to see their marriage with much more nuance,” she said. “He was not a god, and she was not a monster.”

For her part, Mary Lincoln tried to fight back. In an 1867 letter, she denied that her dead husband’s heart “was in any unfortunate woman’s grave.” In fact, “in all his confidential communications, such a romantic name was never breathed,” she wrote.

Historians continue to argue over whether Ann and Abe were an item. Lynn, who’s writing a book about Lincoln’s relationships with women, is skeptical. Lincoln indeed may have been devastated by her death, she said. There are accounts that he fell into a deep depression, and historians continue to try to understand what that says about him. But the entire village probably felt a terrible loss, she said, and Lincoln was a very empathetic man. And she noted that Rutledge was engaged to a friend of his.

“He may have loved her,” Lynn said. “But I suspect if he did love her in a romantic way, it was an unrequited love. Lincoln was too honorable a person to make a move on a friend’s woman. And I don’t think he pined for her for the rest of his life.”

We’re not likely to learn more unless authentic letters show up. But curiosity will remain. “[Lincoln’s] reticence feeds the fascination,” historian Zeitz said. “The less we know, the more we want to know.”