Missed Opportunities in Lincoln Gossip, Pt. I
Will we ever know the truth about the Lincolns' courtship?
Note: This was piece was published in the most recent edition of Manuscripts, the quarterly journal of the Manuscripts Society.
This post is exceeding Substack’s word limit, so I am splitting it into two parts. This one is pretty short.
The year 1909 marked the 100th anniversary of Abraham Lincoln’s birth. The newspapers and magazines were saturated with (alleged) reminiscences. Many released entire Lincoln-themed editions. The appetite for new Lincoln facts was exhaustless. Who could resist getting in on the action?
Quite a few, it turns out—especially on the west coast. They weren’t particularly reticent about their Lincoln connections, or even their possession of juicy information about his much-debated personal life. But, though the west coast was much less isolated by the early twentieth century, the gossip it contained never made it into the national press.
The most glaring lack of follow up I’ve found occurred in the case of William Reid, whom I’ve written about previously. For more than a decade before his death, he gave newspaper interviews mentioning his possession of Mary Lincoln letters, and said that he had ghostwritten a memoir for her. Neither have ever surfaced, and the interviewers posed no follow-up questions. Nor did Lincoln scholars do so when they interviewed his descendants as late as the 1930s, seeking evidence of Lincoln’s Christianity—even marveling over the Psalm Book that Mary had given Reid as payment for writing the memoir from those letters.
Reid, who came to the U.S. in 1874 after meeting Mary in his native Scotland, spent most of his adult life in Portland, Oregon, a hot zone for these frustrating— and tantalizing -- missed opportunities. Oddly, at the time of the Civil War, the region may have contained more knowledge of Lincoln’s courtship and wedding than could be found even in Springfield, IL, where those events had happened twenty years earlier.
The Lincolns’ romance had become a topic of national speculation shortly after Lincoln’s death in April 1865. His longtime law partner, William H. Herndon, gave lectures starting later that year in which he implied or claimed, among other things, that Lincoln had never loved his wife because he had never gotten over the death of Ann Rutledge, a woman he had courted years earlier before he moved to Springfield.1 Works based on Herndon’s interviews with associates of Lincoln, including a biography published in 1872, received significant and mortifying press coverage during Mary Lincoln’s lifetime. The biography claimed that after the pair had gotten engaged, Lincoln became briefly infatuated with Matilda Edwards, a young and beautiful relative of Mary’s brother-in-law, who was visiting Springfield. Overcome by guilt, he confessed to Mary that he did not love her, and broke off the engagement shortly before the wedding. Herndon later alleged that the breakup was not immediate, and only became final when Lincoln failed to show up for a wedding ceremony, leaving a humiliated Mary at the altar. The details of what actually happened remain unclear after 150 years of debate, but the record shows that there was a long estrangement before the Lincolns married in November 1842, and it appears that the breakup wasn’t initiated by Mary. While it is hard to make sense of the contradictory accounts later offered by friends and relatives, the record unquestionably indicates that Lincoln was overwhelmed by guilt and distress in the aftermath of whatever happened.
Throughout the 1850s, several of Lincoln’s Springfield associates had relocated to the west coast, some joining Oregon’s active newspaper community.2 One was Simeon Francis, who had long edited Springfield’s [Daily Illinois State] Journal.3 He is mostly remembered today for having owned the house in which Abraham Lincoln and Mary Todd secretly courted. Simeon’s wife offered them a meeting place and pushed them to reconcile. Mary’s sister Elizabeth Edwards, at whose house she lived until her marriage, was quoted by Herndon as follows:
“The world had it that Mr. Lincoln backed out, and this placed Mary in a peculiar situation; and to set herself right, and free Mr. Lincoln's mind, she wrote a letter to Mr. Lincoln, stating that she would release him from his engagement . . . Mr. Edwards and myself, after the first crush of things, told Mary and Lincoln that they had better not ever marry; that their natures, minds, education, raising, &c., were so different, that they could not live happy as man and wife; had better never think of the subject again. All at once we heard that Mr. Lincoln and Mary had secret meetings at Mr. S. Francis's, editor of ‘The Springfield Journal.’ Mary said the reason this was so…was that the world, woman and man, were uncertain and slippery, and that it was best to keep the secret courtship from all eyes and ears…The marriage of Mr. Lincoln and Mary was quick and sudden…"4
Most accounts corroborate this basic story of Mrs. Francis’s involvement.
**Part II is here.**
Douglas L. Wilson, "William H. Herndon and Mary Todd Lincoln," Journal of the Abraham Lincoln Association 22, no. 2 (2001): 1-26. “…on November 16, Herndon delivered his fourth public lecture on his former law partner, revealing for the first time, in what was, even for him, baroque and extravagant language, the story of Lincoln's love for Ann Rutledge. Herndon's revelations, and his highly conjectural interpretation of the episode's permanent effect on Lincoln, seemed to many observers, then and later, as heedlessly insensitive and deliberately hurtful… Because he had had it printed in advance as a broadside, it was rapidly reprinted in newspapers throughout the country, where the reaction was far from favorable. As Herndon certainly realized, he was violating accepted standards of taste and decorum just by disclosing such intimate matters as Lincoln's young love affair and his troubled bereavement. He must surely have been aware that by even suggesting, as he did, that Lincoln never again loved another woman as he had loved Ann Rutledge, he would deeply offend Mary Todd Lincoln and members of her family.”
Oregonian newspapermen with Lincoln connections included Simeon Francis and his relatives, D.W. Craig, T.J. Dryer, and William Lysander Adams. Dr. Anson G. Henry, who knew many of the details of the courtship and is believed to have been present at the wedding, also moved to Oregon, and later to the Washington territory. He died in a shipwreck shortly after Lincoln’s assassination.
“Simeon Francis (1796-1872).” Mr. Lincoln and Friends (blog). Accessed September 26, 2020. http://www.mrlincolnandfriends.org/the-journalists/simeon-francis/. “When Lincoln was appointed Secretary of the Oregon Territory in 1849, he requested that Simeon Francis be named instead; Francis did not, however, get the appointment.” Instead, Francis relocated there in 1859, having sold the Daily Illinois State Journal, which he had long owned and edited, and became editor of the Oregonian.
Ward Hill Lamon, The Life of Abraham Lincoln (Boston: James R. Osgood & Co., 1872).