Shelbyville Daily Union

August 28, 2007

Is This Letter From Lincoln the Real Thing?

For those of you who may not have watched the PBS series, “History Detectives” last night, Shelbyville native and Lincoln historian, John Lupton played a central role in authenticating a document supposedly written by Abraham Lincoln in 1858.

Lupton is Associate Director of the Papers of Abraham Lincoln at the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum in Springfield , IL .. His position there requires him to make sure the documents that enter into the collection are authentic.

The one-hour show featured Lupton in a 20 minute segment, filmed in Springfield at the Lincoln Presidential Library and at the old Springfield capitol building. "We did the 'detective' work at the Lincoln Presidential Library, and we filmed the segment on the context of the documents at the old capitol.”

The letter was found at an estate sale in Tampa , Florida several years ago. At that time, the owner had scanned and e-mailed copies to Lupton and Christie’s Auction Co. But without the genuine article, verification of the letter was impossible.

In May of this year, the owner of the letter, Joseph Skanks, contacted History Detectives and they went to work, bringing Skanks and his letter to Springfield to be inspected by Lupton.

However, Lupton had already recognized the shaky handwriting in the e-mail sent from Skanks. It was similar to that in a book published in the late 1800s by a lawyer in Urbana named Henry Clay Whitney. Whitney is known for producing a nine-volume set, The Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln, which contains facsimiles of letters he had received from Lincoln .

Once the History Detectives had given the document to Lupton for inspection in the lab, the mystery of its authenticity came to light.

To the naked eye, the document appeared to be a forgery. The handwriting was not smooth and fluid as Lincoln ’s style tended. The ink was dark and “something was not quite right.” Lupton pondered, “Why is this document strange? Why is it different from all the others?”

The answer lies in a common process used in reproducing documents called “lithography.” The original Lincoln letter had been traced over with an oil-based ink so the writing could be transferred to a lithographic plate which was then used in making Whitney’s book.

“By looking at the document under the microscope, I could see Lincoln 's handwriting underneath this heavy black ink, where somebody had traced over his original handwriting. Either Henry Clay Whitney or his publisher wrote over Lincoln 's handwriting to make a master of the facsimiles to be published in the book. No photocopiers were available back then and that was the only way to do it.”

Lupton said there were certain quirks to Lincoln ’s penmanship that make it hard to replicate. “We see so many forgeries that sometimes you just develop a feeling when something is not quite right. Lincoln 's handwriting is extremely fluid. It is clear he was a very slow and deliberate writer. Lincoln generally wrote with a quill pen, either actual feather pen or later a steel nib pen. Lincoln mostly crossed his t’s backwards. Not 100 percent of the time, but certainly the majority of the time, maybe 75%.”

The Lincoln Papers Project is sponsored by the Illinois Historic Preservation Agency and co-sponsored by the University of Illinois , Springfield .