Lincoln pardon to be pulled

The National Archives says the date on President Abraham Lincoln's pardon of a soldier was changed.
The National Archives says the date on President Abraham Lincoln's pardon of a soldier was changed. (National Archives)
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Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, January 27, 2011

A pardon signed by Abraham Lincoln, with a date altered to make it appear to be one of the president's final acts before his assassination, will be taken out of circulation at the National Archives, which disclosed the tampering this week.

The document, which the Archives says was changed by a Woodbridge history buff to amplify its significance and promote the man's career, will be kept in a locked vault at the agency's downtown Washington headquarters, officials said Wednesday.

"People are now going to come through the door and say they want to see it," said Trevor Plante, the Archives' acting chief of reference, whose suspicions about the timing of the pardon were confirmed this month by investigators from the inspector general's office.

"It's now even more historically significant because of this case," he said. "If they're manhandling the document, it will be too much wear and tear."

An investigator at the Archives said the pardon would be a target for theft if the original were available to the public. "It's now a document of such notoriety," said Mitchell Yockelson. "There's no reason to ever pull it out again."

The original record of Lincoln's decision to spare a mentally incompetent Union Army private the death penalty for desertion will be replaced by a high-resolution scan. The reproduction will go into a box in the Archives' stacks, with a note of explanation about the case, said Plante, who delivered the document Wednesday morning to the Archives' preservation lab.

Archives officials said that Lincoln did pardon Pvt. Patrick Murphy but that it was issued April 14, 1864, exactly one year before his assassination. They said amateur historian Thomas P. Lowry wrote a 5 over the 4 in 1864 sometime in 1998 using a fountain pen. The lab will examine the alteration and determine whether it can be reversed. But preservation officials said such an effort would almost certainly do more damage.

"If we were to attempt to remove that five [in 1865], we would be causing more damage, and we still wouldn't have the original four" in 1864, said Mary Lynn Ritzenthaler, chief of the conservation lab. "What was is lost. But we will have a dossier on this for the public, a thorough explanation of what happened."

Lincoln's compassionate act was hailed by Civil War scholars as a major historical find when the pardon was discovered by Lowry and his wife, Beverly, in 1998 in a box of rarely touched documents at the Archives. The couple are amateur historians who specialize in Civil War military justice. The discovery jump-started Thomas Lowry's writing career, and the Archives exhibited the pardon in its downtown rotunda.

Archives officials said Lowry admitted this month to altering the document. Lowry, however, denies doing so. Although he acknowledges that he signed a written confession when two federal agents came to his house Jan. 12 after a year-long investigation, he said he was pressured to confess.

He cannot be charged with tampering with government property because the statute of limitations has lapsed.

Archives officials said it is the first case of tampering they know of at the agency, whose vast holdings include letters, reports, maps and charts, photographs, moving images and sound recordings of the federal government. The collection covers 31 million cubic feet. Much of it has never been sorted.

"He duped not only the National Archives but everyone with an interest in the Civil War, American justice and President Lincoln," said Yockelson, who specializes in military history. "What we're doing now is righting a wrong in history."

When Lowry announced his discovery to Archives officials, they did not check the pardon's veracity because they had no reason to suspect it was a forgery. The agency does not vet documents found in its original holdings, Plante said, even though the pardon contained a clue that it may have been altered. A line in red link at the bottom has a reference to the soldier's court-martial, issued by the Army's adjutant general. The year was 1864.

Plante said the curator who handled the case assumed the date was a reference to the year of the court-martial, not the pardon.

"We assume something found in our holdings is untampered with and correct," he said. "She took it at face value."

Plante said he received an e-mail this week from the curator, who now works at the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library.

"She is as shocked as everybody else."

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