Found  /  Debunk

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

The Atlantic Monthly reported on newly found love letters between Lincoln and Ann Rutledge, his supposed sweetheart. Even biographers fell for the hoax.

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 would 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 brought Minor out to Boston. She “proved to be a handsome woman,” historian Don E. Fehrenbacher wrote. 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 $6,500about $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.”