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Ostendorf and Walter Oleksy, eds. Lincoln's Unknown Private
Life: An Oral History by His Black Housekeeper Mariah Vance,
1850–1860. Mamaroneck, N.Y.: Hastings House Book
Publishing, 1995. Vol. 1, 303 pp.; vol. 2, 260 pp., illustrations.
In the spring of 1978, Alfred A. Knopf, Inc., asked me to review a Lincoln manuscript, "Mistah Abe." This turned out to be a rambling work by Adah Sutton of Attica, Indiana. The manuscript had actually been completed about 1960, with editing by Lloyd Ostendorf, but had found no publisher. With additional editing in 1977 by David Balsiger, it had been submitted to Knopf. Purportedly the manuscript contained the reminiscences of a black domestic, Mrs. Mariah Vance, as told to Sutton, about her life in the Lincoln home in Springfield during the 1850s.
My response, dated June 23, 1978, was sent to Ann Close at Knopf's New York headquarters. First, I told Close that Mariah Vance and Adah Sutton were real enough. Vance was found in a census return and Sutton in a cemetery record. But comments on the manuscript itself added up to disapproval. Knopf declined to publish it. Now it is back, tidied up in spots, as a handsome book entitled Lincoln's Unknown Private Life, edited by Lloyd Ostendorf and Walter Oleksy, and published by Hastings House of Mamaroneck, New York, in 1995. The serious faults found in "Mistah Abe" are still glaringly present, despite the efforts of the editors to paper over these anomalies by calling it an oral history. It is not history, oral or otherwise; with charity, it barely rises to the level of historical fiction.
Both the manuscript reviewed for Knopf in 1978 and the book published by Hastings House in 1995 go back to the same source: Adah Sutton. She is the key to any analysis of the book. So it is essential to look at her background.
In 1899, when she was sixteen years old, Sutton moved from Attica to live for a time with her married sister in nearby Danville, Il- Page [End Page 73] linois. In her preface to the manuscript (she dated this June 12, 1960), Sutton told of this move and how she had secured clerical employment in Danville. In 1900, now on her own, it became necessary for her to find a new way to get her laundry done. After some shopping around, she decided to take her "bundle" every two weeks to an aged black woman, Mariah Vance. During these visits, this garrulous laundress regaled her young patron with tales of how she had once worked in the home of the "Lincolumn" family. Eventually Sutton recognized that Vance was talking about Abraham Lincoln in Springfield. Soon she began jotting down notes of these Lincoln family stories "on any bits of paper available." These she took home on visits to show to her father, a Civil War veteran and a great admirer of Lincoln. According to Sutton, this practice went on until Vance died in Danville on December 23, 1904.
In her preface, Sutton tells how she returned home to Attica after her father's death in 1912. James A. Sutton had been on the invalid pension rolls since 1890. After his death, Mrs. Mary Sutton applied for and was granted a widow's pension. Sutton lived with her mother and worked in Attica at clerical jobs. Ultimately she and her mother devoted their time to a small antiques business, run out of their modest home. This income and the widow's pension enabled them to make ends meet. Mary Sutton died in 1947, less than a month from her hundredth birthday. By that time, according to Sutton, the Mariah Vance notes "had completely faded from my mind."
Sutton explained that her interest in Mariah Vance revived after her first contact with Lloyd Ostendorf about 1955. This contact resulted from an advertisement Ostendorf had placed in an antiques magazine asking for Lincoln-related pictures. Sutton responded, telling Ostendorf about pictures she had obtained from the Vance family years before. When Ostendorf learned of the Vance reminiscences, he urged Sutton to convert any surviving notes into a manuscript. In 1956, now seventy-two and retired on social security, Sutton began writing "chapters" and sending them to Ostendorf to edit and type. As Sutton told it later, she began this way: "I went over every note carefully. Many were badly worn, brittle, and writing so erased that they were not legible. First, I pasted [the legible notes] on large sheets of paper. Rearranging as best I could in the sequence and according to dates and historical facts she [Mariah Vance] often mentioned" (29). Guided by Ostendorf, the manuscript began to take shape. Over the next five years Sutton continued to refine and perfect her growing list of chapters. Page [End Page 74]
Wherever the manuscript circulated, there were raised eyebrows among Lincoln scholars. The fabricated Ann Rutledge letters left some vivid memories. Then there was the Howard Hughes biography fiasco, and the more recent Hitler diaries flap. Some wondered if Mariah Vance existed, or, if so, whether she ever worked for the Lincolns. Did young Adah Sutton really take her laundry to Vance in Danville? There seemed little firm ground.
So far as known, neither Lincoln nor Mary Lincoln left an account that Mariah Vance was an employee. Even so, there is adequate proof that Vance lived in Springfield and worked as a domestic in the Lincoln home. I had found her in Springfield census returns when reviewing "Mistah Abe" in 1978. This was later confirmed through research by Wayne C. Temple, who also found her Springfield marriage record. Moreover, Vance's obituary in the Danville Commercial News for December 25, 1904, states that for years she was "in the family of Abraham Lincoln." The clincher comes in a Danville interview with "Uncle Joe" Cannon, former speaker of the House of Representatives, in the New York Herald Tribune for July 27, 1926. In commenting on the death of Robert Lincoln the day before, Cannon told how Lincoln had come to Danville in 1900 to make a political speech at a McKinley rally (actually this rally was on October 30, 1896). Robert Lincoln, Cannon told the reporter, had disappeared from his hotel room and was finally located at the home of "an aged negress, Mrs. Maria Vance, enjoying one of the finest meals of corn pone and bacon you ever tasted." Cannon went on say that Vance had been a cook and nurse for the Lincolns before the war.
There is no real reason to question whether Sutton took her laundry "bundle" to Vance in the 1900–1904 period, or that she listened to chitchat about Vance's service in the Lincoln household in Springfield. Although independent proof is absent, Sutton probably did at times make little notes to herself about what Vance told her. The problems with this book lie elsewhere.
When Adah Sutton died in an Attica nursing home on July 10, 1976, aged 92, no publisher had yet been found for her manuscript. Ostendorf acquired rights to the manuscript from Sutton's niece (by marriage), Iris Sutton. In 1977 he contracted with David Balsiger, a California writer and movie consultant, to find a publisher. Balsiger rewrote parts of the manuscript. It was this version, entitled "Mistah Abe," that was considered and rejected by Knopf in 1978. Later Ostendorf dropped Balsiger and engaged Walter Oleksy, a former feature writer for the Chicago Tribune and a prolific Page [End Page 75] author, to manage the project. Oleksy did further editing on the manuscript and sought to market it as "A House Divided."
William Morrow and Company of New York became interested in the manuscript and offered a substantial advance, conditioned on favorable reviews by established Lincoln scholars. The reviews were generally negative, so Morrow exercised its option not to publish. In a courteous but devastating response sent to the Aaron Priest Literary Agency on June 24, 1993, Liza Dawson stated Morrow's reasons in part as follows: "Not to belabor the point, but now that we have the reports in, it is clear that the manuscript is not the document it was represented to be. Both in details small and in matters large, there is so much here that is patently wrong, fictionalized or fabricated, that we would be justifiably castigated for publishing A House Divided as anything other than fiction."
Ostendorf and Oleksy did not give up. They persuaded Hy Steirman of Hastings House to consider publication. He saw possibilities. In 1995 his company got out an impressive volume that included introductions, testimonials, and editorial comments. The final text of Adah Sutton's handwritten manuscript was published verbatim, along with an edited copy in type. There were changes in the "Uncle Remus" style of Black English attributed to Mariah Vance. Ostendorf contributed pictures from his famous Lincoln collection. The title was changed from A House Divided to an eye-catching tabloid version, Lincoln's Unknown Private Life. This is the book being considered here.
One can accept that Mariah Vance worked for the Lincolns in Springfield and that Adah Sutton took laundry to Vance in Danville. Agreement on these two points does little to allay doubts about serious historical stumbles scattered throughout the book. There are problems of provenance, unresolved questions as to authenticity of events described, impossible dates, abundant cases of embellishment, and worse, obvious instances of outright fabrication. To deal with all of these would stretch this analysis beyond tolerable limits. A few examples will suffice.
Sutton's Lincoln Research
Encouraged by Ostendorf, Sutton conducted active research in the 1950s to refine and perfect her growing list of chapters. She visited Danville and spent days in the Springfield library. During this time, she gathered piles of newspaper clippings and magazine articles about Lincoln and his family. An arrangement was made with Page [End Page 76] a niece in Washington, D.C., to do research in the National Archives. Sutton's discussion of this research in her preface is revealing. Based on internal evidence in the handwritten manuscript, and on directional clues found in the clippings and articles she saved (134 in two small boxes, made available by Mr. Chuck Hand, a Paris, Illinois, Americana dealer), it is evident that Sutton took one button, Mariah Vance, and sewed a whole historical shirt factory on it. That is, the central thrust of her research was more to discover materials to incorporate in her manuscript than to look for information to confirm or explain whatever legible notes remained of any Vance reminiscences. Moreover, the research she did do was poorly conducted and evaluated. My 1978 letter to Close at Knopf dealt with this point: "To be brutally frank, it seems to me that this manuscript ["Mistah Abe"] was in good part put together as a research job by only fair scholars, taking off from notes kept by Miss Sutton." Liza Dawson found this same problem when she reviewed "A House Divided" for publication. In her letter to the Aaron Priest Literary Agency, Dawson expressed this point in two cogent paragraphs:
There is overwhelming evidence that Adah Sutton conducted research which subsequently made its way into the text, completely altering Mariah's stories and irreparably diminishing the manuscript's validity as an historical document.
The form of the manuscript is not consonant with oral history: the long passages of dialogue many of which incorporate Adah's research raise serious alarms as does the tight chronology which also seems to have research-based origins. There is clear evidence therefore that the book's origins as oral history have been compromised.
In this same letter, Dawson responded to a suggestion that Morrow hire a historian to identify and edit out Sutton's errors and fabrications, then publish whatever remained. Dawson put this idea to rest in no uncertain terms: "And that is a task Morrow did not and will not agree to. We can't come along to edit out Adah's errors to obscure the fact that she introduced her own ideas and research into the document. For one thing it would be wrong, for another it would be impossible to do with any certainty that the remaining text would be an accurate reflection of what Mariah could have said."
These comments about Sutton's research, valid in 1978 and in 1993, are equally valid now. Where did the Lincolns end, and where Page [End Page 77] did Vance, Sutton, and the editors begin? Regardless of where this line is drawn, it is axiomatic that the dollar lure of "marketability" in a book has a strong tendency to enhance truth.
Shorthand and Memories
The publisher and the editors of this book repeatedly state that Adah Sutton's manuscript was based on "shorthand" she used in notes to record Lincoln stories told to her in 1900–1904 by her Danville laundress, Mariah Vance. Hy Steirman of Hastings House used the word, "shorthand" three times on page 12 in his publisher's letter, dated April 1995. His key sentence put it this way: "In 1900, Adah Sutton, a seventeen-year-old White girl, not only listened but wrote down in shorthand Mariah Vance's recollections verbatim" (emphasis added).
Lloyd Ostendorf's foreword to the book, dated March 18, 1995, describes a visit to Sutton's home in Attica, Indiana. At that time, he wrote, she told him more about Mariah Vance's reminiscences and "admitted that she was so fascinated that she took shorthand notes of Mariah's stories and anecdotes of the Lincoln home life" (15; emphasis added). Ostendorf used the words "shorthand notes" five times.
The final sentence of Oleksy's introduction, dated April 8, 1995, repeats the contention that Sutton took down Vance's stories in shorthand: "The copy of the original handwritten manuscript reproduced in this book is exactly as Adah Sutton transcribed it from her shorthand notes" (15; emphasis added). The intent of the publisher and the editors seems clear. Words such as "shorthand," "shorthand notes," "verbatim," and "exactly" were used to create confidence by readers that Adah Sutton faithfully recorded what Mariah Vance told her, and this was transcribed without change in the handwritten text. Moreover, they implied that it was possible to achieve such precision because Sutton was proficient in shorthand, suggesting that she used some standard shorthand system. It is hard to view this as anything but misleading.
Sutton's preface, which is dated April 12, 1960, cannot be construed to support a notion that she recorded any Vance reminiscence in shorthand. She made no such claim. Not once in her preface did she mention the words "shorthand" or "shorthand notes" or say that Vance chitchat was recorded "verbatim" or "exactly," as Steirman and Oleksy would have us believe. She did tell how she listened to Vance's stories, "which I jotted down on any bit of Page [End Page 78] paper available." She referred to these jottings in various ways, such as "these notes," "every note," and "the legible notes." But shorthand? Not even a hint of this—just a reference to notes on bits of paper.
Sutton left two small boxes of papers, mostly newspaper and magazine clippings, which were made available by Chuck Hand. Not one piece of paper was found that contained the familiar "pot-hooks" of shorthand. None. Nor was there any note of the type Sutton claimed to have "jotted down." None. This left a void, something that needed explanation. Put bluntly, the question arises: Did the publisher and the editors dream up the use of "shorthand," or "shorthand notes," as a way to deflect expected criticism about highly improbable word-for-word conversations reported by Sutton and attributed to Vance?
In an effort to resolve this, I put two basic questions to Ostendorf by letter: (1) Did Sutton use Pitman or any standard shorthand in recording Vance reminiscences? (2) Are any notes of Vance reminiscences extant?
In his September 7, 1996, letter to me, Ostendorf answered the first question thus: "No, Ada did not use any Pitman or formal shorthand. She used her own style of notes and words that would help her in later recall." The operative word here is "recall"—that is, memory. In his use of the word "recall," Ostendorf effectively abandoned the pretense in the book that Sutton's handwritten manuscript was based "verbatim" or "exactly" on shorthand notes recorded in 1900–1904. This position was impossible to sustain anyway, as Sutton admitted in her preface that after fifty years a good part of her notes had become illegible.
Ostendorf answered the second question by saying: "No, I have no reason to believe that any of Ada's notes or 'shorthand' is still extant." He explained that when Sutton died in 1976, a friend, Lois Johnson (now deceased), had authority to dispose of her possessions. People were sent in to clean the house. Old letters, papers, and the like were thrown out as worthless. By way of further explanation, Ostendorf added that it would be nice if Sutton's notes still existed, but he was not too disappointed since neither he nor anyone else would have the ability to understand them anyway.
All this leaves a reader longing for some proof of what Vance actually told Sutton. Not what she could have told her, but what she did tell her. It comes down to how much credit can be given to Sutton's handwritten manuscript. The two parties are long dead, and the notes are missing, presumed destroyed. Page [End Page 79]
Liza Dawson of Morrow and Company felt the same need, as expressed in her letter of June 24, 1993, rejecting publication of the manuscript under the title "A House Divided." She wrote in part: "On the issue of provenance the book's validity rested on an informed reader's being able to clearly track items in the final book back to the source: Adah Sutton's notes of her conversations with Mariah. But all these notes, not just the legible ones, as stated in the text, were destroyed. This means a vital link in establishing the manuscript's credibility has been lost."
So we must take giant leaps of faith. We are asked by the publisher and the editors to believe that Vance remembered everything forty years later, word for word, and that young Adah Sutton, all agape at being privy to history, took it down with exactitude in her own unique brand of shorthand, and, further, that Sutton used whatever scratchy notes survived after a lapse of fifty years to remember it in splendid detail, also word for word. Such prodigious feats of memory by Vance and later by Sutton are simply beyond rational belief.
Once Adah Sutton crossed the ethical line of "filling in," it became easier and easier to fictionalize, easier and easier to insert her own research. Possibly she felt justified. Abraham Lincoln was such a good man. All her sources agreed on that, didn't they? So what possible harm could come from putting Lincoln in the best light and attributing it to Mariah Vance?
The Lincoln Trip that Never Took Place
According to Adah Sutton (chapter 23, 283–288), the Vance family moved from Springfield to Danville, Illinois, shortly after Lincoln was elected president on November 6, 1860. Sutton's chronology would place the Vance family in Danville from then on, including the month of December. On page 284 of the book, Mariah Vance is quoted as follows:
Mistah Abe and Mastah Robert come to Danville 'bout Christmas time in 1860. They stop at the Etna [Aetna] House, if I rightly recomemba, for some meeting with some big men in politics and some of their friends. One was Dr. Fithian, I recomemba....
'Bout noon on that day, a messenga boy bring a note to our house.... It say on a slip of hotel paper he have sent by this messenga: "Am at this hotel for a short time today. Robert is Page [End Page 80] with me. I would like for you and Bill [Mariah's son] to come here between the hours of 3 o'clock and 4 o'clock. We will be very, very disappointed if you don't come. Give messenger your answer. With esteem. A. Lincoln and Robert."
The account goes on to tell how Mariah and Billie Vance were introduced to people in the Aetna House lobby. Lincoln reportedly asked Billie to sing for the group. He sang two of Lincoln's favorite songs: "Listen to the Mocking Bird" and a hymn. It was an emotional meeting and a tearful final parting.
There is just one thing. None of this ever happened. Lincoln and Robert did not make this trip to Danville. It is all a fabrication, a product of Adah Sutton's imagination. The publisher and the editors could have learned this with a minimum of effort, but that effort was not made. Let us examine the evidence.
The Illinois State Journal was published daily in Springfield. The editions beginning November 6, 1860, the date of the election, and running through February 11, 1861, the date Lincoln left Springfield for Washington, were searched. Remember, Lincoln was now a very famous man. Naturally the local paper kept up with his movements. The newspaper reported Lincoln out of town only twice from election day until he left for Washington. On November 21 he and Mary Lincoln left for Chicago by rail. In Chicago Lincoln met with Vice President–Elect Hannibal Hamlin and various supporters. The Lincolns returned to Springfield on November 26. This rail line did not pass through Danville. On January 30, 1861, Lincoln left by rail on a sentimental journey to visit his stepmother, Sarah Bush Lincoln, near Charleston in Coles County, Illinois. He returned to Springfield on February 1. His trip did not take him through Danville.
As a further check, a vertical chart was prepared listing the dates in descending order (1, 2, 3, 4, etc.) in each month from election day, November 6, 1860, through February 11, 1861. Then volumes 2 and 3 of Lincoln Day by Day were used to make a mark after each day where information would clearly place Lincoln in Springfield. The same procedure was followed by using The Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln, volume 4, where documents would show Lincoln in Springfield. When this was completed it was evident that Lincoln was not absent from Springfield during this period except for the two trips mentioned: that is, to Chicago and to Coles County.
With an excess of caution, I decided to explore this from the Danville end. Was there any Danville account of a Lincoln visit there Page [End Page 81] during this time period? I asked Donald G. Richter, president of the Vermilion County Museum Society, two pertinent questions: (1) Was there an Etna or Aetna House in Danville at the time Lincoln and Robert allegedly came to the city about Christmas 1860? (2) Does any area newspaper report such a Lincoln visit after the November 6, 1860, election?
Richter's letter of September 27, 1996, leaves no room for doubt. Here in pertinent part is what Richter reported with respect to these two questions:
The reference by Sutton to the Aetna House is an absurdity. Of course, she would know from her years of living in Danville that there was an Aetna House. But obviously she did not know that the hotel was built in 1865. As a result, Sutton has Lincoln and Robert meeting the Vances at this hotel in December 1860, five years before the hotel even existed.
In looking for an answer to the second question, Richter expanded his search, reaching back to September 1860 and extending on into February 1861. He reported the search as follows:
Here it became necessary to confront the question of whether Mariah Vance strung Adah Sutton along with this story of a Lincoln visit to Danville after the election. My conclusion had to be that Adah Sutton concocted the whole thing, just as she did other accounts running through the whole book. Liza Dawson did not mince words on this point in her rejection letter of June 24, 1993, Page [End Page 82] when she wrote: "There is so much here that is patently wrong, fictionalized, or fabricated."
Sutton's "Artemus" Fabrication
At some point in Sutton's research she evidently came across a reference to the cabinet meeting Lincoln called on September 22, 1862, to consider issuance of the preliminary Emancipation Proclamation. Before getting down to business, Lincoln read aloud a hilarious spoof, "A High Handed Outrage in Utica," by Artemus Ward [Charles Farrar Browne]. This levity left some of the cabinet puzzled, but others understood it was Lincoln's way of easing inner tensions. Artemus was too good for Adah Sutton to pass up. She decided to find a way to put Artemus into her Vance account. This she did in chapter 5, page 38, of her handwritten manuscript: "Mistah Abe picks up his'n sef and mossies to da front hall, props hen's sef gin a char back, pulls up hisn's knees and settles down to read. Must hab been 'notha Artemus he war readin for him kep da house noisy wid his loud laughs."
This "Artemus" episode is an outright fabrication. To begin with, it was supposed to have happened in 1850. A look at the biography of Charles Farrar Browne reveals that he was born in Maine on April 26, 1834. In 1850 Browne was a sixteen-year-old schoolboy. It was not until February 3, 1858, that his first "Artemus Ward" article appeared in the Cleveland Plain Dealer. Yet we are asked to believe that Lincoln was reading "'anotha Artemus" in his Springfield home eight years before Browne started writing such articles.
When the manuscript was turned over to David Balsiger in 1977, he added some new materials and sought to smooth over rough spots—such as the Artemus concoction. He only made it worse. Balsiger's revised version of the Artemus story appears in chapter 4, on page 42, of the typescript submitted to Knopf in 1978: "Mistah Abe pick up hisself and mosey to the front hall, props hisself 'gainst a chair back, pull up his knees and settle down to read. Must have been somethin' like Artemus he's reading for he keep the house noisy with his loud laughs."
On page 46 at the end of this chapter, Balsiger added four footnotes. Here is the last one: "'Artemus' was undoubtedly Charles Farrar Browne, American humorist whose pen name was Artemus Ward, 1834–1867. Mariah must have been aware of humorous writers like 'Artemus' and others who produced the type of witty works Lincoln enjoyed reading aloud" (emphasis added). The first sentence in this Page [End Page 83] footnote is typed. The underscored sentence was added to the typescript in longhand and in ink. To avoid the date trap inherent in Sutton's Artemus fabrication, the Balsiger typescript used a neat device: "'notha Artemus" was changed to the nonspecific words, "somethin' like Artemus." Then a clever footnote was constructed to fortify this deception. On this point, it should be noted that the handwritten Sutton manuscript still existed but there was no way to get her to delete or rewrite the Artemus section, for she had died on July 10, 1976.
After Balsiger was dropped from the project, Ostendorf and Oleksy decided to publish a facsimile of Sutton's original handwritten manuscript in tandem with a revised and more readable printed format. Reference to Artemus presented a dilemma. Obviously the Artemus deception in the Balsiger typescript could not be maintained. Readers would surely spot the flagrant contradiction between the printed version and the handwritten Sutton version covering the same alleged Artemus episode. What to do? Well, just finesse it. Fuzz up the text a bit, admit that Artemus was Charles Farrar Browne, and maybe the problems will not be noticed. Accordingly, the Artemus paragraph, now back in chapter 5, on page 110, was made to read as follows: "Mistah Abe picks hisself up and moseys to the front hall, props hisself against a chair back with a pillow, pulls up his knees and settles down to read. It must have been another Artemus [Charles Farrar Brown used the pseudonym Artemus Ward to write humorous/folksy letters on current events to newspapers] he was reading because he keeps the house noisy with his loud laughs." The evasive handling of the Artemus fabrication is not such as to inspire confidence in the integrity of the editorial process involved in publishing this book.
Ann Rutledge Again and Again
After Lincoln's death, his last law partner, William H. Herndon, arranged a series of lectures. The third lecture was delivered at the Springfield courthouse on November 16, 1866. Herndon entitled it "A. Lincoln—Miss Ann Rutledge, New Salem, Pioneering." In this lecture, Herndon revealed that his research led him to believe that Lincoln had once loved a young New Salem girl, Ann Rutledge, by then dead for more than thirty years (since August 25, 1835). The substance of this Ann Rutledge story was repeated in Lincoln: The True Story of a Great Life, by William H. Herndon and Jesse W. Weik (Chicago: Clark, 1889). Page [End Page 84]
Every modern Lincoln biographer has felt a need to examine the Lincoln-Rutledge romance. Their conclusions range from myth to acceptance. In a way, this is an exercise in futility. The poem by Edgar Lee Masters about Ann Rutledge's grave put logic out of reach. Ann Rutledge was and forever will be Abraham Lincoln's first love.
Adah Sutton was fascinated by the story. In the two small boxes of newspaper and magazine clippings she collected, there are eight about Ann Rutledge. In the end, it was too much for Sutton to resist: she had to find a way to introduce Ann Rutledge into the growing list of Mariah Vance reminiscences in her manuscript. Sutton found a way. Ann Rutledge became a central figure in the manuscript, with episodes involving her in chapters 4, 14, 15, 16, 17, and 22.
The thread begins in chapter 4, dated June 1850. Here Sutton has Mary Lincoln confide in Vance in a long discourse about her romantic maneuvering with Stephen A. Douglas and Abraham Lincoln. In the course of these admissions, Mary Lincoln supposedly told Vance that she once received an anonymous letter telling her that Lincoln would always be in love with a New Salem girl. Sutton inserted the name, Ann Rutledge.
Sutton continued her version of the story in chapter 14. She begins innocently enough by having Vance ask Lincoln "if he eber long for earlier days in Kentucky and Indiana." According to Sutton, Lincoln started with a long stilted speech about his family background, the Bible, Christ and the miracles, character, and spiritual values. This done, Lincoln finally got around to the subject of Ann Rutledge, all in the presence of Mary Lincoln. Here is how Sutton reported his praise of Ann Rutledge, word for word, at this point in her handwritten manuscript:
"I often review my life in New Salem. Especially my association with one person, a young girl some five years younger than me. We often talked about the new beginning, after coming to Illinois. About what was best for me to start out in, as a trade or profession. I had made some bad business ventures. After I had made a political stump speech the New Salem people liked, she encouraged me to study law. Had I not had great respect for her, for her sincere interest in me, and her intelligent judgement, I would never be where I am today. When God seen fit to take her for awhile, the bottom seemed to drop out of everything. Only knowing that I wanted to do what she Page [End Page 85] wished and planned, forged me ahead. I have setbacks and discouragements, but I've never doubted that I was led by her (Ann Rutledge) right advice and warm encouragement. She seemed more anxious for me than I was for myself. Even her memory brings forth my grateful thanks. By her help I went to the legislature in 1834. She died in 1835."
Da missy hab listen, but I guess her'n hab all her'n wanted to hear. Well her'n say "Let that dead girl rest. You've got a wife and family, that wife who has sacrificed and is still sacrificing for you. But what thanks and appreciation do I get. Even the little things you could do to show me you value my efforts, you shrug off, never ever mention. But this common kitchen servant you flount in my face." He'n said not 'notha word, but took his stove pipe hat and old gray shawl from da hall tree and start fa town. Dat woman war so mad her'n eyes flash fire—Now you'al see, Mariah, now you'al see. Is he still such a God-man to you? [The editors date this in 1854–56.]
A careful reading of this chapter leads to the conclusion that it was contrived by Adah Sutton as a means of painting Lincoln with her own religious convictions, as well as to introduce some bits and pieces of a reported Lincoln-Rutledge romance she had picked up in her research. The Ann Rutledge story begun in chapters 4 and 14 strains credibility beyond acceptance. And it gets cumulatively worse in subsequent chapters.
Ann Rutledge came up again in chapter 15, dated 1855–56. Sutton just drops this little gem into an alleged discussion with Vance about Mary Lincoln's jealousy. The implication is that Lincoln continued to praise Ann Rutledge to his wife: "When he say nice things of Ann, the New Salem girl, her [Mary Lincoln] was mad and jealous again. Her got so her didn't want Mistah Abe to praise anyone what her didn't like."
In chapter 16, dated 1857, Sutton really got down to cases in her continued saga of Ann Rutledge. Here she has Vance witness and report on an outrageous scene in the Lincoln home. It all began, she wrote, when Lincoln came home "by surprise" at mealtime. Sutton told it this way:
After he have a bite or two at the table, he say, "Mother, I have something here—(he reached in his pocket and drew out a picture)—that you've asked me about so often.
"Now this is not a picture taken of the little girl I knew and who was very dear to me in New Salem. However, it couldn't Page [End Page 86] look much more like her if taken of her. I picked it up in a picture gallery to bring home to show you."
De Missy take the picture and look at it and look at it. And the more her look the blacka her look. I hope to die right here on this spot if that woman didn't push her chair back, stand up, and slap the picture down hard on the table and say, "You'll never make me believe, if you tried to convince me before a tribunal, that a girl who looked like that cared an iota about you! The way she is dressed shows she is not a common country girl." [Ostendorf included this "look-alike" in the picture section of the book.]
"Well," say Mistah Abe, "It's the face, the face of a young innocent angel."
"Boo Boo," say de Missy. "Innocent! When she would go with you, while engaged to marry another?"
Her look like thunder and he look like he was struck by lightning. Her grab up the picture and start for the stove.
He quick—quicker that I ever see him move afore—grab her and squeeze the picture out of her fingers.
What followed, according to Sutton, was a flaming family row in front of Vance with Mary Lincoln screaming and Lincoln remaining coldly furious. At one point she tried to gouge out his eyes with a fork, and later she "draw back one hand and slap the man a Gawd-owful slap to the face." In the end Mary locked the door and threatened to kill herself if Lincoln left.
In chapter 17, dated 1858, Sutton again has Mary Lincoln confide in Vance about Ann Rutledge. Here Sutton reported Vance as saying:
Her [Mary] say, "It's a wonder Mistah Lincoln didn't mention that common Ann, from the backwoods where he came from. He's never directly told me he loved her, or that she loved him. He's mentioned her many times. He's even given her credit for his start in the practice of law.
"I've so often asked him what she looked like. I suppose she was a straggly, ill cared-for farm girl. He's always said she's too ethereal to describe." [Ethereal? What a word for Mariah to remember and pass on.]
Once I heard Mistah Abe tell de Missy, "She's the only one who ever reminded me of my mother, buried back there in Indiana. My mother, as I remember her, was a gentle Christian, as was Ann." Page [End Page 87]
De Missy say, "Whenever he speak of his mother or this Ann, he always becomes quiet and sad afterwards. He won't talk to anyone for a day or two, and wanders around as if in a daze. It leaves one wondering if it's his mother or this Ann who occupies his mind so completely."
By the time Sutton got around to a final version of chapter 17, she was so tangled up in her manuscript that she overlooked what she had already written in chapter 16. In that chapter, dated 1857, Sutton has Vance telling about the uproar that started when Lincoln brought home a little picture that he showed to Mary with the comment that "it couldn't look much more like her [Ann] if taken of her." Now in chapter 17, Sutton has Vance quote Mary Lincoln as saying a year later: "I've so often asked him what she [Ann] looked like." Mary's memory of the events described in chapter 16, of her outrage at being shown the Ann Rutledge look-alike picture and trying to burn it, seems to have been completely wiped out. Then there is the alleged comment by Mary Lincoln in chapter 16 about the picture: "The way she was dressed shows that she was not a common country girl." But in next chapter, Mary supposed just the opposite, that "she was a straggly ill cared-for farm girl." Sutton, it seems, was having trouble keeping track of the Ann Rutledge accounts she kept pouring into her manuscript.
The Ann Rutledge story is picked up again in chapter 22, which the editors solemnly inform us is told by Adah Sutton, though "closely based on her shorthand notes of Vance's reminiscences." Here we are asked to believe that Vance was present at a touching scene in the Lincoln home after the election in November. She observed Lincoln and Mary culling through the family picture albums. One small picture caught Lincoln's eye, a tintype of a young girl. When Mary asked who it was, Lincoln reportedly replied: "Well, Mary, you have always wanted to know just how Ann [Rutledge] looked to me. This is not her picture, but one so much like her, it could be her. To me it is her."
Sutton goes on, quoting Vance of course, to say that the album slipped to the floor. When Lincoln picked it up, the album remained open where he had replaced the little picture. Sutton then described what followed: "Mrs. Lincoln got up from her chair, stood behind him, and looked down at the picture. She, too, did not speak. But they both looked during the silence as if each sensed a benediction, as if to speak would make the silence less hallowed and consecrated." Page [End Page 88]
There is more of this sickening drivel in the chapter, but enough is enough. In this chapter, Sutton has again become entangled in her several accounts of Ann Rutledge. She completely forgets that in chapter 16 she told how the display of this same little tintype caused Mary Lincoln to throw a temper tantrum and threaten to kill herself. Now all is sweetness and light as they together gaze on this Ann Rutledge look-alike picture in a silence that is both hallowed and consecrated, whatever that means.
The full span of the Ann Rutledge accounts in this book raises increasing doubts that Mariah Vance ever heard that name in the Lincoln household. Dead since 1835, Ann Rutledge had no currency in the Lincoln mystique until William H. Herndon introduced the name in his 1866 lecture. But the question presented is not whether Lincoln might have developed an affection for this young woman during his New Salem days; rather the question is whether the several Ann Rutledge stories in this book are true. Here the editors ask us to fall into the old segue debating trap, to accept one premise as proof of a second.
The answer lies in Lincoln himself. Lincoln was many things, but foolish he was not. Knowing Mary Lincoln's fragile emotional temperament, is it likely that he would torture her by continually throwing Ann Rutledge into her face, taunting her into explosive reactions? For the cautious and peace-loving Lincoln, this is out of character, badly so. To my notion, Mariah Vance knew nothing about Ann Rutledge and did not pass any of this nonsense along to Adah Sutton. The conclusion has to be that Adah Sutton made it all up.
As for this little tintype, the provenance is shaky at best. Supposedly Lincoln got it at a picture gallery and put it in a family album; the album was discarded with the picture in it; Vance then salvaged the album; subsequently Vance sold the picture to Adah Sutton, who in turn sold it to Ostendorf.
One of the Ann Rutledge clippings collected by Sutton could have set off this whole mishmash about a look-alike picture. This is an article from the Washington Post for July 7, 1937, in which Josephine Chandler told how she learned that the only picture of Ann Rutledge, an ambrotype, had been lost. This is astonishing. Ann Rutledge died in 1835, some four years before Louis Daguerre revealed the results of his experiments with producing images on polished copper plates. Ambrotype photographs date from 1851, with improvements over the next few years. Page [End Page 89]
Little Lord Fauntleroy
In a chapter entitled "A New Tantrum," beginning on page 41 of Sutton's handwritten manuscript, we find this somewhat garbled opening paragraph: "Ah dressed mah sef in my best duds. Dressed Billie [her son] in he'n best. Pinned a wee flag in hen's sock cap and walked over to Mr. Abe's on the Fourth of July 1850. When wen's got dar ah foun Mr. Abe hab hitched Buck to a new buggy. Da missy war dress'n Bobbie in a little Lord Fauntroy. Her'n call it dat" (emphasis added).
At some point in the editing of the manuscript, the Black English in the original paragraph was cleaned up, and the one paragraph was divided into two. The second of these two paragraphs is of interest. Appearing on page 116, it reads: "When we got there, I found Mistah Abe have hitched Buck to a new buggy. Da Missy was dress up pretty and was dressing Mastah Robert in a 'Little Lord Fauntleroy.' Her call it that" (emphasis added).
The italicized references are to a style of boy's suit made popular because of a famous children's novel by Frances Hodgson Burnett, an English woman who emigrated to the United States in 1865. In this book, Little Lord Fauntleroy is a seven-year-old American boy, Cedric Errol, who found himself the only heir to his rich English grandfather, the grumpy Earl of Darincourt. In the illustrations for this book, Cedric wore this unique outfit with its distinctive white collar that quickly became known as a "Little Lord Fauntleroy."
Note the date, July 4, 1850, that Sutton used in her handwritten manuscript and that was carried forward into the printed revision. This is another impossible date. The novel Little Lord Fauntleroy was not published until 1886, thirty-six years later. When Sutton decided to add this embellishment to her manuscript, she overlooked the need to check out the crucial publication date.
The editors sought to gloss over this date problem with a notation in the printed text that it was "a memory mistake on Vance's part; as a laundress she washed many such outfits (Robert called them sissy suits), which subsequently were called 'Little Lord Fauntleroys.' Or perhaps she remembered reminiscing with Robert on one of his visits with her when he may have referred to his sissy suits as Little Lord Fauntleroys." This explanation is not convincing. (Incidentally, Burnett's novel was produced as a play in 1888 and has been made into four motion pictures. The best remem- Page [End Page 90] bered of these is Little Lord Fauntleroy, released in 1936 and starring Freddie Bartholomew and Mickey Rooney.)
Sutton Discovers Paregoric
The Encyclopedia Americana describes paregoric as a narcotic drug composed of opium, camphor, benzoic oil, oil of anise, honey, alcohol, and water. At one time it was widely used to quiet colicky babies and for coughs and stomach pains. Easy availability was restricted by the Harrison Narcotic Act of 1914. Paregoric is rarely prescribed today.
Scattered through Sutton's handwritten manuscript there are numerous references to Mary Lincoln's use of paregoric, all attributed to accounts by Mariah Vance. These references amount to an assertion that Mary Lincoln had become addicted to this drug. The pertinent paregoric passages from the handwritten manuscript were carried forward to the printed version as follows:
- April 1850, chapter 1, "Mariah Meets the Lincolns" (73);
- May–June 1850, chapter 3, "Mistah Abe 'Cures' Billie's Lice" (92);
- June 1850, chapter 4, "De Missy Gets Confidential with Mariah" (100–101);
- Spring 1851, chapter 8, "All's Well that Ends Well" (140–42);
- 1855–1856, chapter 15, "The Circus Comes to Town" (218–19);
- 1860, chapter 22, "The Ann Rutledge Likeness" (267).
By any legal standard, these accounts of Mary Lincoln's addiction to paregoric are pure hearsay. Even so, we must examine them carefully for any supporting evidence. Provably, Sutton had made up many stories for use in her manuscript and attributed them to Vance. However, this strand has a slightly different feel to it, a feel that Sutton found something that set her off in full cry that Mary Lincoln was addicted to paregoric. Clearly, something pushed the paregoric button. There is no hint of such a source in her preface or in the text itself. But a search of the two small boxes of clippings she saved turned up a most likely source, a newspaper clipping. It is right in point for use in concocting the story that Mary Lincoln's sometimes eccentric behavior was caused by paregoric addiction. The rest was easy: have Mariah Vance tell about it. Page [End Page 91]
The clipping is some ten inches in length and consists of eight short paragraphs. It bears no date or source. In part, it has this to say about paregoric:
Drug Store Ledger of 1850–54
Shows Purchase Made By
Abraham Lincoln used four gallons of paregoric in his home during the year 1854, and only seven quarts of brandy over the same period.
This, and other interesting information, is contained in the Hoy & James drug store ledger.
The Hoy & James drug store operated in Springfield, Ill. when Lincoln resided there....
Mr. Lincoln's account in the ledger runs from 1850 to 1854, during the years that he was a young married man with a family. This accounts for his large purchases of paregoric.
The newspaper clipping begins the paregoric account with this astonishing assertion: "Abraham Lincoln used four gallons of paregoric in his home during the year 1854, and only seven quarts of brandy over the same period" (emphasis added).
Now see the paregoric statement Sutton attributed to Vance on page 185 of her handwritten manuscript and repeated on page 92 of the printed version: "De Missy [Mary Lincoln] raised the paregoric bottle and drank from it. Ah know that bottle was a plumb gallon" (emphasis added).
The key words are "gallons" in the clipping and "gallon" in the book. Sutton was simply tracking her only paregoric source, the clipping, and the word "gallon" just slipped in easily. As we shall see, that clipping is wildly inaccurate with respect to the purchase of paregoric by the Lincolns.
Under close examination the paregoric account in the clipping begins to unravel. It has the earmarks of a garbled interview by a careless reporter with a badly informed source. Contrary to the express statement in the clipping, there was no Hoy & James drugstore in Springfield when Lincoln resided there. Addison C. James appears in Springfield records in 1882, and Edward M. Hoy, a pharmacist, first appears in 1886. These two purchased the drugstore at 122 S. Sixth Street in 1902 from Roland W. Diller and began operations as a partnership known as Hoy & James. This lasted Page [End Page 92] through 1905 when Hoy dropped out to pursue other interests. James continued as owner for a time. William E. Claypool purchased the drugstore in 1909 and ran it until his death in 1945.
Thus, (1) there was no Hoy & James drugstore in Springfield when Lincoln resided there. Lincoln left Springfield for Washington on February 11, 1861; the Hoy & James drugstore did not begin operations until 1902, and (2) so far as known, no Hoy & James ledger has survived. Further, such a ledger would have no relevance anyway as the Lincolns had been gone from Springfield for forty years when Hoy and James took over the store.
Therefore, Sutton's paregoric stories began with a contaminated source. Using this source she fabricated a whole line of outrageous accounts of Mary Lincoln's use of the opium-based narcotic. To demonstrate the true extent of this fabrication, we must look to the drugstore operations by the Dillers and their kin during the 1839–1902 period.
Members of the Diller family operated a drugstore on the east side of the square in Springfield for over sixty years. The site was given the number, 122 S. Sixth Street. The store began in 1839 as Wallace & Diller (William Wallace, Mary Lincoln's brother-in-law, and Jonathan Roland Diller). Jonathan Roland Diller died in 1849. A cousin, Roland Weaver Diller, and Charles S. Corneau, a druggist with the old firm, formed a new partnership known as Corneau & Diller Drug Store at this same location. Lincoln patronized the firm of Corneau & Diller from the time it was established until he left for Washington to become president. Some records of Corneau & Diller have survived, perhaps because they show purchases by a famous customer, Abraham Lincoln. The Illinois State Historical Library, Springfield, has acquired all these records: three day-books, three ledgers, and one blotter.
In the 1930s, Harry E. Pratt began doing research for his book, The Personal Finances of Abraham Lincoln (Springfield: Abraham Lincoln Association, 1943). At that time, Pratt examined two daybooks of Corneau & Diller, spanning the period from February 1, 1855, through December 31, 1860. He listed the Lincoln family drug purchases by date, item, and cost. He found no purchases of paregoric. He did list one fifty-cent purchase of cocaine on October 12, 1860.
The story of these records is fully explored in two excellent articles: Justin G. Turner, "Lincoln and the Lost Ledger" (Lincoln Herald, Fall 1961) and James T. Hickey, "The Lincoln Account at the Corneau & Diller Drug Store" (Illinois Historical Journal, Spring Page [End Page 93] 1984). The Hickey article is considered definitive as it brings together in one place all the Lincoln drug purchases at Corneau & Diller from August 10, 1849, to November 9, 1860. Hickey listed the Lincoln drug purchases from Corneau & Diller in a chart by date, item, and cost. The narcotic items purchased over this entire period are as follows:
|April 29, 1853||Paregoric 10 cents|
|July 25, 1853||Paregoric 10 cents|
|March 22, 1854||Paregoric 60 cents|
|October 12, 1860||Cocaine 50 cents|
Four gallons of paregoric used in the Lincoln home in 1854? A preposterous amount! Mary Lincoln addicted to paregoric? Nonsense! Surely addiction to paregoric can't result from the purchase of 80 cents' worth of this drug over a period of some eleven years. The vice of this fabrication is that it will become part of the Mary Lincoln mythology. It will come down in the future something like this: "Mary Lincoln was addicted to paregoric, wasn't she? I read somewhere that a black domestic in the Lincoln home in Springfield told about this." In time, repeated over and over again, it will be accepted.
The materials used in this review to refute Mary Lincoln's alleged paregoric addiction were equally available to the editors of this book, Lloyd Ostendorf and Walter Oleksy. Each had a duty to search out and review this evidence. Based on statements in the book, neither man seemed even mildly curious. Here is how Ostendorf handled the matter in his foreword (19):
Oleksy made things worse when he stated flatly in his introduction (47) that Mary Lincoln was a heavy user of paregoric and had become addicted. This is what he wrote on the subject:
Mary Lincoln was troubled most of her adult life with emotional and psychological problems. In Springfield, to calm her Page [End Page 94] nerves, Mariah Vance says Mary took paregoric, a popular drug sold in pharmacies in the nineteenth century...
Little was then known about the drug's side effects. For Mary Lincoln the side effects were depression, mood swings, and hallucinations. She believed she could communicate with her dead sons.
In the 1850s people were advised to take paregoric in small doses. Those taking the drug more regularly unknowingly became addicted. Nor were they aware of the effects of drug withdrawal when they tried to stop. Mary Lincoln and other heavy users of paregoric thought they were ill and that the medication would cure them.... Actually they got high on the drug, followed by depression. Without doubt, paregoric contributed to Mary's frequent mood swings, from her temper tantrums to what Lincoln called a "stupor."
Deaths in the family, drug addiction, and Mary's mental and emotional instability convinced Mariah Vance that the Lincolns had a very troubled and tragic family life. (emphasis added)
Admittedly, Mary Lincoln was a difficult woman. But did she deserve this? Page [End Page 95]