Jesse W. Fell and the Lincoln AutobiographySkip other details (including permanent urls, DOI, citation information)
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The name of Jesse W. Fell, of Normal, Illinois, has become of more than local renown through its association with an autobiographical sketch of Abraham Lincoln, the writing of which Fell was the prime instigator. Lincoln produced three other holograph writings, which contain the basic facts of his life, but this one that he did for Fell is the most widely and popularly known. 
Lincoln and Fell first met and became acquainted while attending a session of the Illinois state legislature at Vandalia in the winter of 1834–35. Lincoln was there as a member and Fell as a lobbyist in behalf of his newly adopted McLean County. They remained staunch political friends through the years, and as both were adept in getting around, their paths frequently crossed.
In 1858 Lincoln began to receive some national repute as a result of his debates that year with Stephen A. Douglas. Fell had made one of his eastern trips, and on his return he was all agog. Observing Lincoln one late afternoon coming out of the Page [End Page 49] Bloomington courthouse, Fell led him into his brother Kersey's office on the south side of the square and proceeded to deliver his message. He told Lincoln of his last trip East and of how so many people in that area wanted to know more about this man Lincoln who was coming to the fore back in the Middle West. But Fell became aware that he knew little of Lincoln's background, and the purpose of this interview, he told him, was to ask for a self-made sketch of his life that Fell might use to boost his name as a possible nominee for the Presidency of the United States. 
Lincoln at first refused to comply with Fell's request in this conversation in Bloomington, but a little time brought about a change. During the following year he made several out-of-state trips on his own. Fell, too, kept after him until he finally gave in. Lincoln wrote a two-and-one-half 12×8 page autobiographical sketch and, with a brief letter of explanation, mailed both to J. W. Fell, Esq from Springfield, dated Dec. 20, 1859. Fell was of course elated and immediately rushed the manuscripts off to Pennsylvania, his native state, where his friend Joseph J. Lewis used them in preparing an article on Lincoln which was printed in the Chester County (Pa.) Times, February 11, 1860.  This article, reprinted in other newspapers, became the first widely read bio- Page [End Page 50] graphical sketch of Lincoln and served as a basis for the first three Lincoln campaign biographies in book form.
It is interesting to pursue the history of the originals of these manuscripts, the Autobiography and its accompanying letter. In rushing them off as Fell did, with no attempt to copy them and with no request for their return, he demonstrated that as keepsakes in themselves they were of little importance to him. But after more than ten years had elapsed he received a special request for them that prompted him to get them back in his possession. The Ward H. Lamon biography of Lincoln was being prepared for publication by James R. Osgood and Company, of Boston. Lamon, a one-time resident of Bloomington and an acquaintance of Fell, asked that the documents be placed in the hands of his publishers, that they might serve as a corrective reference source and also be included in facsimile in their volume. Fell consented to the publishing of the Autobiography, but he did not furnish the letter Lincoln sent with it. Instead, he delivered to Lamon his own letter of transmittal, under date of February 19, 1872, at Washington.
Before making this facsimile of the original sketch, preparatory for its inclusion in the Lamon book, certain liberties were taken with it. Lincoln had not addressed it to J. W. Fell, nor had he signed it. This was taken care of in his covering letter enclosed. To make the original writing appear as an independent document, without the need of its accompanying letter, the "Hon. J. W. Fell" and "Yours very truly/A. Lincoln" were added at the end. These additions were clipped from another Lincoln letter Fell had in his possession, and pasted on.  Also added in the lower half of the third page, evidently in the hand of David Davis, is a certificate dated at Washington D.C. March 20, 1872, that the foregoing statement is in the handwriting of Abraham Lincoln, and this is signed David Davis, Lyman Trumbull, and Charles Sumner. The now three-page document, in facsimile reduced in size, was bound in the back of Lamon's "Life of Abraham Lincoln." Page [End Page 51]
The publishers of the Lamon biography also issued at this time the Lincoln Autobiography in facsimile in the form of a large 20×16 broadside suitable for framing, which also included a picture of Lincoln, a statement by Jesse W. Fell, dated at Normal, Illinois, and some extracts from Lincoln's speeches and addresses. These broadsides were distributed over the country, a limited number finding their way to Bloomington, where they were sold for one dollar each. The McLean County Historical Society has one framed.
After another ten years went by, in 1882, the original manuscripts left their owner's hands again, this time one of them never to return to him or his heirs. Osborn H. Oldroyd, native of Ohio, owner of a Lincoln collection then twenty years in the making, had for a while been a resident of Springfield. He conceived the idea of erecting in Springfield a Lincoln Memorial Hall, in which to house his collection and eventually donate to the state of Illinois. With this goal in view, he asked Mr. Fell to contribute the manuscripts to his care, which was done, accompanied by the following letter:
Normal, Illinois, March 9, 1882.
Osborn H. Oldroyd,
My Dear Sir:
It is with much pleasure that I have learned of your purpose to erect at Springfield, Illinois, a "Memorial Hall," in which is to be stored whatever is interesting as connected with, or illustrating the life and character of that most remarkable man and patriot, Abraham Lincoln. In answer to your polite request for the original manuscript of what is known as the "Autobiography of Abraham Lincoln," I herewith present you that paper, to be placed in your large and valuable collection of memorials of Mr. Lincoln. Not doubting your great success in so patriotic an undertaking, I am with sincere respect,
Jesse W. Fell Page [End Page 52]
In the following year, 1883, Mr. Oldroyd was afforded the opportunity of installing his collection in the Lincoln homestead in Springfield. Evidently giving up his earlier objective, he accepted and remained the tenant and custodian of the home until 1893, when he removed to Washington with his collection and took over a like job in the house where Lincoln died. 
Jesse W. Fell died in his home in Normal, Illinois, in 1887. His heirs, fully aware of its value, finally retrieved from a reluctant Oldroyd the original Lincoln Autobiography. They never, however, succeeded in getting back the covering letter. The Oldroyd collection was sold to the U.S. Government in 1926, but this letter was not in the sale. Oldroyd died in 1930,  and through his heirs it went into the possession of Oliver R. Barrett, of Chicago, noted collector of Lincoln manuscripts.
Oliver R. Barrett had previously made an effort to also add the Autobiography to his collection. He had some correspondence with the two Fell sisters, then possessors of the manuscript, and through a nephew of theirs had practically made a deal. As Carl Sandburg tells the story, the nephew attempted to deliver the manuscript to Barrett on a Saturday afternoon, and the banks being closed, he was to come back the following Monday with the document. Failing to return, Barrett later learned from the newspapers of his death from a heart attack. Writing again to the Fell sisters, they "replied that the sudden death of a cherished nephew had seemed almost a warning and so they were not going to part Page [End Page 53] with those sheets of manuscript on which Lincoln had written the story of his life."
Alice and Fannie Fell, unmarried daughters of Jesse W. Fell, left their home in Normal, Illinois, and moved to California in 1923. Alice died there in 1927,  and her sister Fannie in 1931.  Soon after the death of Alice, Fannie Fell made a will, in which she disposed of the Lincoln Autobiography in the following language:
Item Three. In case I make no disposition of the original manuscript of the Autobiography of Abraham Lincoln, which was written in 1859 at the request of my father, Jesse W. Fell of Normal, Illinois, and which is now in the custody of Emmet L. Richardson of Milwaukee, Wisconsin, I give and bequeath the same unto my niece, Harriet F. Richardson, granddaughter of Jesse W. Fell and her son Robert D. Richardson, both of Milwaukee, Wisconsin, and the survivor of them, in trust however, as follows, to wit:
I direct them to present said Autobiography in the name of the children of my parents, Jesse W. Fell and Hester V. Fell, late of Normal, Illinois, to some public institution selected by them or the survivor of them, where the said Autobiography will be well cared for and made available to the people of the United States and especially to students of the life and times of Abraham Lincoln, hereby authorizing them to make such conditions in connection with the gift and with respect to the care and preservation and availability of the manuscripts as they or the survivor of them may deem best, suggesting among other things that the letter addressed to Jesse W. Fell by Abraham Lincoln transmitting the Autobiography, ought to be secured and kept and exhibited with the Autobiography.
The trustees who had come in charge of the Autobiography kept control of the item for several more years. The original was displayed to the public through the Daily Pantagraph's 100th anniversary exhibit held at Bloomington in November, 1946,  and Page [End Page 54] on Lincoln's birthday, February 12, 1947, Robert Dale Richardson, great-grandson of Jesse W. Fell, in behalf of the family, presented the manuscript with appropriate ceremony to the Library of Congress. Robert Dale Richardson also compiled a book, titled "Abraham Lincoln's Autobiography," first published in December, 1947, by the Beacon Press, of Boston. Within its covers are full size facsimiles of both the covering letter and the Autobiography, together with explanatory text. 
The original letter of transmittal or covering letter, whichever we wish to call it, was still separated from the Autobiography when the latter was turned over to the Library of Congress by the Fell heirs. The Fell family had more than once in the past expressed themselves revealing their desire that this letter find its way back to join its companion piece. It was still in the hands of Oliver R. Barrett, of Chicago. Mr. Barrett died in 1950, and in 1952 his collection of Lincolniana was dispersed at auction in New York. The Library of Congress was the noncompetitive successful bidder for the letter at $2,000. Thus, parted for more than half a century, the two manuscripts came together again, and they now rest in all-time peace and security in the Library of Congress in Washington, where they are kept in appropriate and continuous public display along with exhibits honoring other Presidents, including George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Theodore Roosevelt, and Woodrow Wilson. Page [End Page 55]
- Louis A. Warren, Lincoln Autobiographies (Fort Wayne, Indiana: Lincolniana Publishers, 1942).
- Frances Milton, "The Life of Jesse W. Fell," University of Illinois Studies in the Social Sciences 5 (June 1916): 19.
- Osborn H. Oldroyd, ed., The Lincoln Memorial Album—Immortelles (New York: G.W. Carleton & Co., 1882), pp. 472–76.
- Paul M. Angle, Lincoln 1854–1861: Being the Day-by-day Activities of Abraham Lincoln from January 1, 1854 to March 4, 1861 (Springfield, Illinois: The Abraham Lincoln Association, 1933), p. xxvi.
- Because of the prominence of the person making the assertion and because of the simple fact that it may be found in print, there are Bloomingtonians who still accept the false statement that Lincoln wrote has life sketch for Fell in the courthouse then standing in Bloomington, (See Transactions of the McLean County Historical Society 1 (1899):349.) Our authentic source for the facts originates with Jesse W. Fell, one of the participants. Fell left of record his story of what occurred, first printed in the Lamon biography of Lincoln, and on a broadside, both distributed in 1872, and later, in Osborn H. Oldroyd's book, The Lincoln Memorial Album—Immortelles, published in 1882. This falsity, too, has long been preserved in bronze by the Daughters of the American Revolution. The plaque is fastened to a block of granite which stands in front of the east entrance to the present-day (1971) courthouse in Bloomington. As Paul M. Angle commented, soon after it was placed there, "bronze is hard material to change." (Bulletin of the Abraham Lincoln Association 28 (September 1932), p. 10.)
- William E. Barton, "The Lincoln of the Biographers," Transactions of the Illinois State Historical Society 36 (1930).
- Joseph J. Lewis, Lincoln's Kalamazoo Address Against Extending Slavery (Detroit: Fine Book Circle, 1941), pp. 47–63.
- Roy P. Basler, ed., The Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln (New Brunswick, New Jersey: Rutgers University Press, 1953): p. 126.
- Ward H. Lamon, The Life of Abraham Lincoln: from his Birth to his Inauguration as President (Boston: James R. Osgood, Co., 1872).
- Bloomington (Illinois) Daily Pantagraph, 27 December 1872.
- Oldroyd, Lincoln Memorial.
- Ida M. Tarbell, The Early Life of Abraham Lincoln (New York: S.S. McClure, 1896), pp. 237–240.
- Bloomington (Illinois) Daily Pantograph, 26 February 1887.
- I visited in the summer of 1922 the house in Washington where Lincoln died. Osborn H. Oldroyd, the custodian, showed me through the rooms and pointed out the various items comprising his collection. When he learned I was from Normal, Illinois, thoughts of Jesse W. Fell and the Lincoln Autobiography came to his mind. He then led me into a room he used for an office and took from a drawer of his desk the original Lincoln letter that had belonged with the autobiographical sketch done for Fell. While I stood holding the letter in my hand, Mr. Oldroyd told me, with marked sincerity I recall, that Fell gave him both manuscripts to keep. I do not remember, however, that he explained why he had long before returned to the Fell family the Autobiography, but not this letter. H.K.S.
- David C. Mearns, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress, to Harold K. Sage, 24 July 1959.
- Louis A. Warren, ed., Lincoln Lore 89 (22 December 1930).
- Carl Sandburg, Lincoln Collector: the Story of Oliver R. Barrett's Great Private Collection. (New York: Harcourt, Brace & Co., 1949), p. 158.
- Bloomington (Illinois) Daily Pantograph, 23 March 1927.
- Los Gatos (California) Mail-News, 24 September 1931.
- McLean County (Illinois) Probate Court, Will of Fannie Fell Estate, filed 23 January 1933.
- Bloomington (Illinois) Daily Pantograph, 18 November 1946.
- Ibid., 12 February 1947.
- Robert Dale Richardson, Abraham Lincoln's Autobiography (Boston: The Beacon Press, 1947).
- Library of Congress, Quarterly Journal of Current Acquisitions (May 1953): 160–61.
- Lincolniana Collected by the Late Oliver R. Barrett (New York: Parke-Bernet Galleries, Inc., 1952), p. 90.
- Roy P. Basler, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress, to Harold K. Sage, 12 August 1970.