The villain was, as you might expect, a columnist. The villainy was forgery of documents purporting to reveal the deepest motivations of a famous leader. The victim was a credulous magazine. The year was 1928, the magazine was Atlantic Monthly, the forgeries were letters from Abraham Lincoln to Ann Rutledge. The story, as told by Stanford's Don Fehrenbacher, America's foremost Lincoln scholar, is evidence that there really is nothing new under the sun.
Lincoln's life--his rise from humble origins, his tendency to melancholy, his tragic end in his hour of triumph--made him an irresistible subject for biographical embroidery, sentimentalism and the sort of speculative babble nowadays known as psychohistory. Hence the legend that young Abe fell ankles over elbows in love with Ann back in New Salem, and that her untimely death in 1835, when he was 24, made him especially spiritual and driven. One theory was that he submerged his private sorrow in public action, transferring his love to the Republic. As Edgar Lee Master expressed it:
Bloom forever, O Republic,
From the dust of my bosom!
In the summer of 1928, Atlantic received a letter from Wilma Minor, a San Diego columnist, claiming that Harper's wanted to publish her "true love story" based on original letters from Abe to Ann handed down in her mother's family. Minor said she preferred to publish in Atlantic. She was invited to Boston.
She had hot stuff, such as a letter written by Lincoln in the sixth year of his marriage to Mary Todd, confirming the legend that the memory of Ann ruled his life: "Like a ray of sun-shine and as brief--she flooded my life. . . . I see this picture before me--fever burning the light from her dear eyes, urging me to fight for the right. . . . I have kept faith. Sometimes I feel that in Heaven she is pleading for my furtherance." Minor quickly had a deal for three Atlantic articles and a book, and Hollywood was interested.
The first expert consulted for authentication saw only photostats of the documents and, reserving judgment, warned that the documents were suspiciously compatible with popular legend. The next expert saw photostats and immediately said the documents were spurious. Atlantic's editor said experts would naturally be prejudiced against new evidence. When Minor's "original" documents arrived, Atlantic's editor said the fact that they presented a coherent picture and confirmed legend was evidence against a hoax.
Ida Tarbell, a muckraking journalist and Lincoln biographer, loved the Rutledge legend and said Atlantic had "an amazing set of true Lincoln documents." Atlantic consulted no handwriting experts or manuscript dealers. Minor was receiving lecture invitations by the time the December 1928 Atlantic arrived with the first installment of "Lincoln the Lover." Carl Sandburg, whose "Abraham Lincoln: The Prairie Years" had appeared in 1926, visited Atlantic's editor at Thanksgiving and endorsed the documents, which he said "preciously and wonderfully coordinate and chime with all else known of Lincoln."
But on Nov. 27, the secretary of the Lincoln Centennial Association in Springfield pronounced the documents forgeries. In Chicago, the leading collector of Lincoln manuscripts concurred. On Dec. 4, Sandburg reaffirmed his belief that the documents "have come to stay in the Lincoln record." The next day he recanted, saying, "When I scrutinize original source material of this kind, I let my emotions have full play. I try to do my hard-boiled analyzing later."
Suddenly skeptics were in full cry, and Tarbell, the very model of a righteous journalist when judging others, denied she had vouched for the documents. Minor struck a pose of injured innocence as Atlantic published the second installment, "The Courtship." It included a letter from Ann to a nonexistent cousin whose diary, supposedly written in the early 1830s, mentioned someone not born until 1843.
When Atlantic urged Minor to defend herself in court, Minor's mother sent a handwritten letter saying her daughter's health would not permit that. Atlantic's staff instantly recognized the mother's handwriting: they had seen it in the Minor documents. Eventually Minor confessed that she had received her information with her mother, who went into trances and communicated as a medium with other worlds. Atlantic never published the confession or told how the fraud unraveled. The thirst of journalistic organizations for full disclosure has limits.
The legend of Abe and Ann, based solely on the reminiscences of Lincoln's law partner, receded. Historians could concentrate on the not uninteresting business of explaining Lincoln's career in terms of slavery, secession, a man's moral greatness and stuff like that.