The few facts known about Isaac Cogdal say little of the man and nothing at all to help solve several mysteries about him. Although he is an important witness in the ongoing debate about the legend of Abraham Lincoln and Ann Rutledge, personal details on Cogdal are scant. According to T. G. Onstot, Isaac Cogdal "was an all around man [who] had a large stone quarry.... He was quite a noted [Whig] politician and was always up for some office; he was admitted to the Illinois bar in 1860, having been encouraged in the law by his old New Salem friend, Ab. Lincoln."[2]

Several unique features gave Isaac Cogdal's testimony instant preeminence. Not only did he claim to have interviewed Lincoln directly and to have asked specific very personal questions about his relationship with Ann Rutledge, he also chose to quote Lincoln's exact words, or claimed to. And since his Lincoln interview was either during or shortly before February 1861, with his becoming one of William Herndon's informants only four or five years later,[3] there was no question of his having to struggle with "dim and misty memories" as had been a complaint with other informants.

Then too, both the situation and the feel of Cogdal's firsthand Lincoln quotations seem to place his evidence on a different plane from that of other informants. Not that Cogdal himself made any such claim; he simply said that after Lincoln was elected president (but before being sworn in), he suggested one day:

"Ike Call at my office in the State house about an hour by sun down. The Company will then all be gone"— Page  [End Page 69]

Cogdal[4] went according to request & Sure Enough the Company dropt off one by one—his, Ls, Clerk included.

"I want to enquire about old times and old acquaintances," Said Lincoln. He then said—"When we lived in Salem there were the Greens, Potters, Armstrongs—& Rutledges. These folks have got scattered all over the world—some are dead. Where are [the] Rutledges—Greens—&c."

"After we had spoken over old times—persons—Circumstances—in which he showed wonderful memory I then dare[d] to ask him this question—

May I now in turn ask you one question Lincoln[,] [s]aid Cogdal[.] Most assuredly. I will answer your question if a fair one with all my heart. then it was that he answered—as follows[:]

Abe is it true that you fell in love with & courted Ann Rutledge," Said Cogdal. Lincoln said, "it is true—true indeed I did. I have loved the name of Rutledge to this day. I have Kept my mind on their movements ever since & love them dearly"—said L[incoln].

Abe—Is it true—Said Cogdal, that you ran a little wild about the matter:

"I did really—I ran off the track: it was my first. I loved the woman dearly & sacredly: she was a handsome girl—would have made a good loving wife—was natural & quite intellectual, though not highly Educated—I did honestly—& truly love the girl & think often—often of her now."[5]

J. G. Randall, in his critique of Cogdal's account, [6] commented, "The most obvious thing about this effusive statement is its unLincolnian quality." Noting how disinclined Lincoln always was to express private feelings, Randall added, "In the face of such reticence, the Cogdal record seems artificial and made to order. It was given out after Lincoln's death; it presents him in an unlikely role; it puts in his mouth uncharacteristic sayings."[7] Page  [End Page 70]

Indeed so. In fact, hardly a phrase of it could pass as likely Lincoln language—either to those who accepted Randall's revisionism at the time, or to Lincoln students who might read it today.

Yet on the basis of Cogdal's account, some forty-five years after Randall's comments, Lincoln scholar Douglas L. Wilson in his 1990 article[8] attacks the whole notion of questioning it, charging, "We have no more reason to doubt [Cogdal's] testimony than did Herndon, who knew Cogdal as a man highly regarded in his community and an old friend of Lincoln's." Later, in a 1993 paper,[9] Wilson sharpened his attack, stating firmly that "Angle[10] and Randall had no more reason to doubt Cogdal's testimony than that of many other witnesses they chose not to question." And that "Their disposition to treat Isaac Cogdal as untruthful is clearly the result of their disinclination to accept what he had to say." [11] In short, Wilson argues none too pleasantly that Angle and Randall arrived at their conclusions from personal bias, not evidence.

This serious accusation is notable for two reasons. First, it very aggressively defends Cogdal, leaving Wilson open to the same charge of bias he makes against Angle and Randall. Second, Wilson's quick dismissal of Randall's objections never seriously engages them.

The underlying reason for Wilson's aggressive defense of Cogdal is clear. Although he has some two-dozen other informants whose statements he cites to bolster the believability of the Ann Rutledge legend, none of that testimony holds a candle to the power and seemingly irrefutable detail of Cogdal's firsthand information. As Randall crisply made clear, most of the informants' memories were either too vague, secondhand, or in one case too "dim and misty" to be reliable. But in Cogdal's testimony Wilson could point to what seemed both recent and straightforward. Page  [End Page 71]

However, in touting Cogdal and rejecting Randall, Wilson ignores a set of penetrating observations: the "unLincolnian quality" of the "Cogdal record"; that it "seems artificial and made to order"; and that "it puts in [Lincoln's] mouth uncharacteristic sayings." In fact, all of the opposition to Randall which has appeared in print in the 1990s—from the seminal article by John Y. Simon,[12] to later writers Douglas L. Wilson and Michael Burlingame, [13]—have failed to answer or to honor Randall's case on Cogdal. In the meantime, Cogdal has become the witness of choice for those who, for whatever reason, have chosen to go with the flow toward a rebirth of the great romance.

Sometimes the size of a changed posture is impressive. After a lifetime building a well-earned reputation as a top Lincoln scholar, David Donald suddenly does an about-face on his whole position toward Ann Rutledge. In his 1995 bestselling biography Lincoln, he largely accepts the romance, restating not a word of his previous ridicule and doubt concerning the legend. However, in the midst of quoting several "uncharacteristic sayings" attributed to Lincoln, Donald does qualify his argument; at a crucial turnaround point he wisely inserted the proviso, "if Cogdal's memory can be trusted." [14]

Indeed, the trusting of Cogdal is the nub of the matter. Not that there is anything fundamentally new here about the Cogdal/Lincoln interview; it has been in the literature since Herndon put it there well over a century ago. What is new, however, is that serious scholars now embrace it. In fact, the problems with Cogdal's testimony that Randall pointed to in 1945 have become even more Page  [End Page 72] glaring in the light of certain computer-assisted observations that quickly underscore the bottom line: What in Lincoln is the real Lincoln versus How to spot a counterfeit a mile away.

Not so hard to do. Forgers and counterfeiters who try to invent language for Lincoln face a surprisingly tough and treacherous task. Handwriting experts know that in forging a signature, it is much harder to convincingly reproduce writing that is full of straightforward lines and curves than it is to fake an elaborate autograph. [15] The same is true in speech, where at first glance it might seem that common words and phrases, by their very plainness, offer great leeway to the counterfeiter. But the fact is that he walks a slippery slope on which the slightest stumble leaves a faulty footprint.

Perhaps because Lincoln had great mental precision in both his speaking and writing, he avoided using paired duplicates and near-duplicate adjectives; it was as if he held to some inner rule to be direct, to express himself once and clearly, and then leave it there. He also had a well-known track record of warding off personal questions. If anyone had ever had the temerity to ask Lincoln if he fell in love with, and courted, Ann Rutledge—and was foolish enough to ask two questions at once in this way—and if Lincoln had chosen to answer such a question at all (a double if not a quadruple improbability), nothing in his style suggests that he would have stammered it out three or four times in one phrase after the other, with the likes of, "It is true—true indeed I did [love her]"; or that he "loved the woman dearly & sacredly"; or that he "did honestly—& truly love the girl"; or that he thinks "often—often of her now [italics added for delineation]." Certainly nowhere else in Lincoln's language is there any such unctuous laying-on of empty duplicates, least of all at the service of persuading a listener to believe him. Nor for that matter is there evidence of his ever having said he loved any woman (or man), even where we have reason to believe he probably did.

Lincoln's alleged use of "sacredly" is another case in point (even if it weren't paired and weakened with "dearly"). He often borrowed scriptural words to use in decidedly non-religious ways, as in his First Inaugural Address where he spoke of "the better angels of our nature," and where his meaning is so powerful and in- Page  [End Page 73] stantly clear, one neither has to be religious, nor to believe that angels actually exist in order to catch his cadence, and be moved by it. Likewise it was often Lincoln's style to evoke the best and broadest meanings of "sacred" without implying religion in any sense—as in "our sacred soil"; "the sacred name of democracy"; "the sacred cause of liberty," and "our sacred right of self-government." Note that all his meanings have to do with principles, rights, and broad beliefs, not the narrow stuff of personal action and aggrandizement. Nevertheless, might these broad meanings sometimes have been extended to include adverbial possession, as in Cogdal's "I loved the woman dearly & sacredly?" One might well suppose so, and yet it is not true. Not in the entire Collected Works including the Supplements does Lincoln use the word sacredly so much as a single time.

Not that the issue rests merely on the use of a few unlikely words. Much of Lincoln's personality and his basic style are contradicted in still other parts of this dubious interview. For instance, when Cogdal proposes asking a question, Lincoln is quoted as saying, "Most assuredly. I will answer your question if a fair one with all my heart." But nowhere else in the Lincoln style does he give guarantees in advance ("Most assuredly. I will"), or demand fairness ("if a fair one"), nor was Lincoln ever known to give a gushing promise ("with all my heart"). Trivial as such examples may seem, they are the epitome of what Randall labeled as "unLincolnian" and "uncharacteristic sayings." [16] In a sense, they are as transparent as the emperor's new clothes.

If it is safe to assume, as now seems certain, that Cogdal "made up" most if not all the particular words and phrases he attributed to Lincoln, then what, exactly, was he up to with his falsifications? One must be careful here. It is often tempting to extend a villain's villainy beyond the hard evidence. When Paul Angle debunked the Lincoln/Ann Rutledge romance in his "Lincoln's First Love?" he overextended his case by labeling Cogdal a "mediocre lawyer"—a charge for which the present study has found no evidence, either pro or con. In fact, rather the contrary, or something close to it. If one steps beyond the legend into strictly Lincoln land, Cogdal seems unusually well-informed. In his first interview with Herndon, he casually mentions in passing that he has known Lincoln since that day in July 1831 when Lincoln first stepped off his little boat to begin life in New Salem, followed by several details of Lincoln first meeting and boarding with "Jas. Rutledge," of his helping Denton Page  [End Page 74] Offutt in various ways, and of clerking in his store—all with more precision than Herndon had heard from Mentor Graham or from several others who were among Lincoln's first contacts in New Salem. In short, Cogdal displayed an easy accuracy, indicating that he had, indeed, long known Lincoln, and that he had a mind for detail. Thus it is unlikely that he misremembered any chat with the President-elect. But this realization only intensifies the question of why he should risk his integrity and take big chances by exaggerations and direct quotes that could hardly help his case, and in the end destroyed it.

Of course, there was no way at the time Cogdal could have guessed in his wildest dreams that, down the road, computers would be invented—let alone that these could gobble up tens of millions of words said by and about Lincoln, and in a fraction of a second could spew them back out in correlations and comparisons to answer questions nobody had ever dreamed of asking before. Still, why would Cogdal want to trouble himself making up imaginary language for Lincoln, or to otherwise exaggerate his evidence? If results are any clue to intent, then clearly one of his main motives was to add strength, even undeniability to the legend. But again, why should he want to do so? Given that the basic story was not his but Herndon's, what could Cogdal hope to gain from bolstering it? And by the way, how did the whole legend get to be Herndon's tale in the first place?

This latter question was partly answered almost fifty years ago by Roy P. Basler, editor of the Collected Works. When he got to the name of John Hill as a player in Lincoln's life he inserted a sizable footnote, reading in part:

Lincoln's resentment of Hill's lack of respect for truth is all the more interesting in view of the fact that Hill became the prime source of the Ann Rutledge story ... and a number of other spurious or dubious traditions concerning Lincoln's New Salem years, when in the Menard Axis, February 15, 1862, he published an article entitled "A Romance of Reality," composed largely of family gossip. It was this article which led Herndon to elaborate on the Ann Rutledge episode when he began collecting material for his biography of Lincoln in 1866, and Hill rather than Herndon deserves recognition for primary irresponsibility in first publishing stories which have been perpetuated in popular belief.[17]Page  [End Page 75]

Not that Basler was entirely correct here; Herndon began his interviews of local informants in 1865, not 1866. But even that was three full years after John Hill's Menard Axis story. Thus Herndon was clearly not "first" with the Ann Rutledge saga, even though Hill had not actually mentioned her by name. (Alas, what Herndon was first with was the dripping sentimentality and maudlin detail of the deathless drama with which he led the public and more than a few experts down that garden path).

Yet from inside the "Great Romance," as Herndon spelled it out, gapes one gigantic hole: the case of Isaac Cogdal—now suddenly revealed in an entirely new dimension. If Cogdal had interviewed Lincoln in February 1861, that would have been at least a full year before John Hill or anyone else had pulled together the first threads of the Ann Rutledge story. How could Cogdal have known to ask highly specific questions about Lincoln and Ann that early? Or more exactly, how could he have accidentally-on-purpose geared his questions, along with his contrived Lincoln answers, to precisely cover weak points that were not to show up in Herndon's argument until at least four years later?

Clearly Cogdal and his entire testimony reeks of deliberate fraud, though major questions still remain. First and foremost, Did Cogdal ever interview Lincoln at all? If so, one wonders again what he was up to. Possibly he may have had some kind of interview with Lincoln, but if he did we are left without a single reliable word of what was said on either side. As for Cogdal's exact motive, we shall never know for sure; his particular brand of secrecy and fakery suggests it may share the drive of many another large and small forgery and fraud—from Piltdown man and crop circles, on down to numerous forged Lincoln signatures, false documents, and fake bits of memorabilia—hoaxes often traceable to nothing more than some ego-gain hoaxers get from teasing or tampering with history.

A more interesting question arises at the opposite extreme from fakery and fraud. Namely, what factors are involved in the discovery, and then in the fate and timing of important new ideas? In Lincoln history, nothing seems to "control" events; it may take a few or a very great many years for particular new ideas to make their way to the surface, to be recognized as important, and then—in what might be called an up-cycle—to build to a peak of popularity. It took eight full decades after Herndon handed us a very mixed bag of facts, interviews, and ideas of his own before fate finally brought it to the attention of J. G. Randall for "sifting" into piles of gold and chaff. Page  [End Page 76]

But then what about the down-cycle? Or must there always be one? The answer to that question is, probably, Yes. But before traveling this road, it not only seems appropriate but useful to acknowledge the impact of Randall's accomplishment. Its effect on Lincoln scholarship was tremendous. Seemingly overnight it produced a major turnaround in the attitude of most professionals toward the whole Ann Rutledge saga; it was as if the dam had been ready to burst at the moment Randall bombed it. No doubt many were already doubtful of the legend, though still silent; others such as Carl Sandburg still held onto the Herndon version, and had even amplified it. But Randall quickly swept the field (Sandburg retreated and rewrote his material). Benjamin Thomas soon summarized the new stance: "Most Lincoln students [now] regard the Ann Rutledge romance as improbable, and reject utterly its supposed enduring influence upon Lincoln." [18]

Much more than a mere fad, Randall's argument held sway unchallenged for almost half a century. But considering what fate tends to do to overwhelming success within the scheme of things, might this mean the Randall revolution was especially vulnerable to the onslaught from Simon and Wilson? Time-wise, very probably. Forty-five to fifty years seems about par for the course of constancy in history—long enough for the very strongest evidence to come under attack, get cycled into disbelief, or as is often the case, even reversed. That no Randall opponent has yet grappled with several of his sharpest charges (let alone answered them) suggests that replacements for Randall are not yet quite ready, or as is more probable, simply do not hold. In any event, it is remarkable and a tribute to Wilson in particular that the energy and persuasion of his multiple papers have proved powerful enough to carry some of his arguments forward, even though they depend enough on Cogdal and on distant informants to falter under close examination. Page  [End Page 77]


  1. Onstot, T. G., Lincoln and Salem: Pioneers of Menard and Mason Counties (Forest City, Ill.: T. G. Onstot, 1902), 231; Newton Bateman and Paul Selby, comps., Historical Encyclopedia of Illinois (Chicago: Munsell Publishing Co., 1894), 749. return to text
  2. Herndon's Isaac Cogdal interview was dated 1865–66, thus the ambiguity of whether four or five years had elapsed. return to text
  3. The spelling Cogdal himself used. return to text
  4. These quotations are from the William H. Herndon interview of Isaac Cogdal (1865–66), as reported in Douglas L. Wilson and Rodney O. Davis, eds., Herndon's Informants: Letters, Interviews, and Statements about Abraham Lincoln (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1998), 440. return to text
  5. Randall, "Sifting the Ann Rutledge Evidence," in Lincoln the President: Springfield to Gettysburg, 2 vols. (New York: Dodd, Mead, 1945), 2:321–42. return to text
  6. Ibid., 335. return to text
  7. Wilson, "Abraham Lincoln, Ann Rutledge, and the Evidence of Herndon's Informants," Civil War History 36 (Dec. 1990): 301–24. Republished as chap. 5, Lincoln before Washington: New Perspectives on the Illinois Years (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1997), 74–98. Quote on page 88. return to text
  8. "William H. Herndon and His Lincoln Informants," Journal of the Abraham Lincoln Association (Winter 1993): 15–34. Republished as "Herndon's Legacy," chap. 2 in Wilson's Lincoln before Washington (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1997), 21–36. Quote on page 31. return to text
  9. Paul M. Angle, "Lincoln's First Love?" Lincoln Centennial Association Bulletin 9 (Dec. 1, 1927): 7. return to text
  10. Wilson, "Herndon's Legacy," in Lincoln before Washington, 31. return to text
  11. John Y. Simon, "Abraham Lincoln and Ann Rutledge," Journal of the Abraham Lincoln Association, 11 (1990): 13–33. return to text
  12. Michael Burlingame, The Inner World of Abraham Lincoln (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1994), xxiii. Note especially the "court of law" charge that critics of Randall often mistakenly cite. What Randall said was, "In the law of evidence it is insisted that testimony ought to come straight. If witnesses arrange their recollections so as to make them agree, or if they seek to build them up where they admit uncertainty, the result lacks the validity of statements obtained from witnesses separately and unretouched." "Sifting the Evidence," 329. return to text
  13. In two of his previous books, Lincoln's Herndon (New York: Knopf, 1948) and Lincoln Reconsidered (New York: Knopf, 1956), Donald offers no accepting words and mostly sharp derision for both the legend and for Herndon's presentation of it. Remarkably, in his 2001 revision of Lincoln Reconsidered (New York: Vintage Books), he retains unchanged his comments on Ann Rutledge, gently conceding: "I have come to adopt a more tolerant view of the [Ann Rutledge] episode, which I have presented in my Lincoln" (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1995), 186. return to text
  14. Clarence A. Tripp, Fritz A. Fluckiger, and George H. Weinberg, "Measurement Of Handwriting Variables," Perceptual and Motor Skills, Monograph Supplement 5, 1957. return to text
  15. Randall, "Sifting the Evidence," 334, 335. return to text
  16. Roy P. Basler, ed., The Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln, 9 vols. (New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press, 1953–1955), 4:104. return to text
  17. Benjamin P. Thomas, Abraham Lincoln: A Biography (New York: Knopf, 1952), 51. return to text