Eventually Abraham Lincoln fell in love. William H. Herndon learned of this love affair from a wide variety of informants in the year following Lincoln’s death, but he so sensationalized it in a public lecture in 1866 and so offended Lincoln’s family and the public’s sensibilities that the story itself eventually came into disrepute. In a landmark study, the Lincoln scholar John Y. Simon has traced the public career of the Ann Rutledge story from its first appearance in Herndon's lecture and has shown that by mingling evidence with speculation, by embellishing the story of Lincoln's derangement, and by tastelessly offending Lincoln’s family, Herndon “grossly mishandled a major incident in the Lincoln story,” from which “neither Herndon's reputation nor that of Ann Rutledge ever recovered.”1 The situation was further aggravated in the first half of the twentieth century, when such leading Lincoln scholars as Paul M. Angle and James G. Randall declared the evidence on which the story was based to be insubstantial, being nondocumentary, inconsistent, coaxed from the witnesses by leading questions, and after the fact.2 As a result, the principal thing that most present-day students have been taught about Lincoln’s love affair with Ann Rutledge is that it is largely a myth.
But the character and weight of the evidence ultimately show that this view is very much mistaken. A series of recent studies, culminating in John E. Walsh’s full-length investigation, have demonstrated that the testimony relating to Lincoln’s love affair with Ann Rutledge was not induced or fabricated by Herndon, that it came from the same sources as other information accorded credence, and that it is not only basically consistent but fairly overwhelming. In these circumstances, the prohibition that has prevailed for so long against the love affair in Lincoln biography must be lifted.3
Ann Rutledge was the daughter of one of the founders of New Salem, James Rutledge, and was eighteen years old when Abraham Lincoln arrived in 1831. Accounted the prettiest girl in the village, she had already had, by this time, a number of suitors. Some descriptions of her, like that of William G. Greene, seem extravagant: “This young lady was a woman of Exquisite beauty, but her intellect was quick -- Sharp -- deep & philosophic as well as brilliant. She had a gentle & kind a heart as an angl -- full of love -- kindless -- sympathy. She was beloved by evry body and evry boody respected and lovd her -- so sweet & angelic was she. Her Character was more than good: it was positively noted throughout the County.”4 Other descriptions, such as James Short’s, are more moderate: “Miss R was a good looking, smart, lively girl, a good house keeper, with a moderate education, and without any of the so called accomplishments.”5 But there was wide agreement that Ann Rutledge was bright, attractive, kindly, and well liked.
Lincoln seems to have admired the young woman who combined these qualities from an early date. Jason Duncan, who came to New Salem at the same time as Lincoln, wrote Herndon: “he [Lincoln] was verry reserved toward the opposite sex. while I lived and boarded in the same place with him, do not recollect of his ever paying his addresses to any young lady though I Know he had great partialities for Miss Ann Rutlege, but at that time there was an insurmountable barrier in the way of his ambition.”6 Duncan, who left New Salem in 1833, is describing the state of affairs he knew at first hand and is referring to Ann’s engagement to a man named John McNeil, which must have occurred within a few months of Lincoln’s arrival.7 According to her family, she had been courted by both partners of the mercantile firm of Hill and McNeil, not knowing that the latter’s name was really McNamar. Her brother Robert told Herndon: “Samuel Hill first courted Ann, she declined his proposition to marry, after which, McNamar paid his addresses, Resulting in an engagement to marry.”8
The neighborhood tradition reported by Thomas P. Reep was that Hill, an irascible and impetuous man, was so angry at his partner’s successful suit that he wrote him an abusive letter demanding that he either buy him out or sell out to him at the inventory price.9 McNamar, a native of New York who had assumed the name of McNeil in coming West to recoup his family’s fortune, sold out and announced his intention of returning to New York to bring his family to Illinois.10 He apparently left about the time Abraham Lincoln was returning from the Black Hawk War in July 1832 and did not come back for three years.11 “In the mean time,” Ann’s brother Robert told Herndon, “Mr Lincoln paid his addresses to Ann, continued his visits and attentions regularly and those resulted in an engagement to marry, conditional to an honorable release from the contract with McNamar. There is no kind of doubt as to the existence of this engagement David Rutledge [Ann’s older brother] urged Ann to consummate it, but she refused until such time as she could see McNamar -- inform him of the change in her feelings, and seek an honorable release.”12
In legend, Ann is always the tavernkeeper’s daughter and Lincoln the love-struck boarder, and while they probably became acquainted when he was staying at the tavern during his first year in the village, she was promised to another at that time, and her courtship with Lincoln was actually carried on at least two years later. By this time she was living on a farm with her family in the Sandridge neighborhood, several miles north of New Salem. Almost no details of this courtship have come down to us, and a large part of the reason surely has to do with the unusual circumstances just described. As far as her friends and neighbors were aware, Ann was publicly engaged to John McNeil, or McNamar, and very few outside the family knew differently. James Short, who lived near the Rutledge family at Sandridge, told Herndon: “Mr L. came over to see me & them every day or two. I did not know of any engagement or tender passages between Mr L and Miss R at the time; but after her death, which happened in 34 or 35, he seemed to be so much affected and greived so hardly that I then supposed there must have been something of the kind.”13 Here Short is acknowledging that he knew Lincoln visited the Rutledge farm every few days but didn’t realize at the time that there was a courtship in progress. Though a majority of Herndon’s two dozen informants giving testimony about the Ann Rutledge affair affirmed the existence of an engagement between Lincoln and Ann, most of them, like Short, probably learned about it after the fact.
Ann’s reluctance to become publicly engaged to Lincoln while still betrothed to another man suggested to Herndon (and many others since) that perhaps she and Lincoln were never actually engaged. But her family, whose spokesman was Ann’s brother Robert, insisted otherwise: “after McNamar left Menard Co. to visit his parents and during his prolonged absence, Mr Lincoln courted Ann, resulting in a second engagement, not conditional as my language would seem to indicate but absolute, She however in the conversation referred to by me, between her & David Rutledge urged the propriety of seeing McNamar, inform him of the change in her feelings & seek an honorable releas, before consumating the engagement with Mr L. by Marriage.”14 In other words, Ann felt justified in becoming engaged to Lincoln but thought, contrary to her brother David, that she owed McNamar an explanation before actually being married.
The engagement was most likely agreed to sometime in the first half of 1835, after state assemblyman Abraham Lincoln, then 26 years old, had returned in February from his first session in the Illinois legislature. The marriage was to take place, according to Ann’s brother, “on the completion of the s[t]udy of law,” which Lincoln had then been seriously pursuing since August 1834. Robert told Herndon that his understanding about the engagement had been corroborated by James McGrady Rutledge, “a cousin about her age & who was in her confidence.” McGrady Rutledge had even more specific information: “Ann told me once in coming from a Camp Meeting on Rock creek, that engagements made too far a hed sometimes failed, that one had failed, (meaning her engagement with McNamar) Ann gave me to understand, that as soon as certain studies were completed she and Lincoln would be married.’”15 “Certain studies” may well have included Ann’s as well as Lincoln’s, for there is evidence in one of her brother David’s letters that she had “a notion of comeing to school” at the female academy in Jacksonville.16
But these bright prospects were not to be realized. The summer of 1835 was unusually hot, and the Illinois country became a breeding ground for disease. A medical thesis written the following year by a resident of Springfield spells it out:
Spring and summer of 1835 was the hottest ever known in Illinois: from the first of March to the middle of July it rained almost every day, and the whole country was literally covered with water. When the rain ceased, the weather became excessively hot and continued so until sometime in August. About the 10th of August, the people began to get sick -- lasted until October 1st -- a number terminated fatally. Twelve practicing physicians in Springfield [population fifteen hundred] were continually engaged almost day and night.17
It was in these conditions that Ann Rutledge was stricken with what may have been typhoid but which her family knew only as brain fever. Whatever it was, it proved to be fatal.
The agony of Ann’s last illness may well have been magnified by emotional turmoil. Herndon’s biography seems to have taken a page from romantic fiction in raising this possibility: “But the ghost of another love would often rise unbidden before her. Within her bosom raged the conflict which finally undermined her health.”18 The idea that Ann’s illness was somehow related to anxiety and guilt over her two engagements, however, was not original with Herndon but came from his informants. Mrs. Hardin Bale, one of the first people to talk to Herndon about Ann Rutledge, had said in a follow-up interview that Ann had “died as it were of grief.”19 Parthena Hill was a new bride at the time of Ann’s illness and repeated what her husband, Samuel (not a disinterested observer), had said: “Mr Hill told me that Anns Sickness was Caused by her Complications -- 2 Engagements -- She -- Ann did not hear of McNamar for a year or more -- at last got a letter from McNamar telling her to be ready they having been engaged &c to be married.”20 In a letter to her son many years later, Parthena added an interesting detail: “Anne got a letter from him [McNamar] just before she took sick. Saying, be ready -- he would buy furniture in Cincinnati and wanted to be married as soon as he got here, and go to house keeping.”21 Ann’s worst fear may well have been the specter of McNeil/McNamar arriving expectantly with his family and a wagonful of wedding presents. And if a suddenly realized nightmare cannot induce typhoid, it can probably make its onset more debilitating and more difficult to bear. On August 25, after an illness of some weeks, Ann died.
1 John Y. Simon, "Abraham Lincoln and Ann Rutledge," Journal of the Abraham Lincoln Association, 11(1990), 15.
2 See Paul M. Angle, "Lincoln's First Love?" Lincoln Centennial Association Bulletin, 9 (December 1, 1927), 1-8; and J. G. Randall, Appendix: "Sifting the Ann Rutledge Evidence," Lincoln the President: Springfield to Gettysburg, 2 vols. (New York: Dodd, Mead, 1945), 2:321-42.
3 In addition to Simon, see Douglas L. Wilson, “Abraham Lincoln, Ann Rutledge, and the Evidence of Herndon’s Informants,” Lincoln Before Washington: New Perspectives on the Illinois Years (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1997), 74-98. The most detailed treatment of the subject is John Evangelist Walsh, The Shadows Rise: Abraham Lincoln and the Ann Rutledge Legend (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1993).
4 William G. Greene to WHH, May 30, 1865, Herndon’s Informants, 21.
5 James Short to WHH, July 7, 1865, Herndon’s Informants, 73.
6 Jason Duncan to WHH, [1866-67], Herndon’s Informants, 541.
7 Duncan gives the date of his leaving New Salem as 1834 in his letter to Herndon, but he was writing newspaper articles from Macomb in the fall of 1833 and winter of 1834. See the handful of surviving issues of Beardstown Chronicle and Illinois Military Bounty Land Advertiser, edited by Francis Arenz, in the Illinois State Historical Library.
8 Robert B. Rutledge to WHH, November 18, 1866, Herndon’s Informants, 383.
9 Reep, Lincoln at New Salem, 49.
10 For the Rutledge family’s understanding of the reasons behind McNamar’s concealed identity and details of his sojourn, see Robert B. Rutledge to WHH, [c. November 1, 1866], Herndon’s Informants, 383.
11 McNamar told WHH that AL had not yet returned from the Black Hawk War when he left Illinois and that on his way East he met soldiers on their way to the war. John McNamar to WHH, June 4, 1866, Herndon’s Informants, 259.
12 Robert B. Rutledge to WHH, [c. November 1, 1866], Herndon’s Informants, 383.
13 James Short to WHH, July 7, 1865, Herndon’s Informants, 73.
14 Robert B. Rutledge to WHH, November 18, 1866, Herndon’s Informants, 403.
15 Ibid., November 21, 1866, 409.
16 See the postscript of David H. Rutledge’s letter, dated July 27, 1835, reprinted in Walsh, The Shadows Rise, 47.
17 Quoted from the doctoral dissertation of Lorenzo D. Matheny (1836) in Milton H. Shutes, Lincoln’s Emotional Life (Philadelphia: Dorrance, 1957), 45.
18 William H. Herndon and Jesse W. Weik, Herndon’s Life of Lincoln, ed. Paul M. Angle (Cleveland: World Publishing, 1949 ), 112. This was mild compared with the accent given the idea in WHH’s 1866 lecture: “In her conflicts of honor, duty, love, promises, and womanly engagements -- she was taken sick. She struggled, regretted, grieved, became nervous. She ate not, slept not, was taken sick of brain fever, became emaciated, and was fast sinking in the grave.” From a reprinting of Herndon’s lecture in Lincoln and Ann Rutledge and the Pioneers of New Salem (Herrin, Ill.: Trovillion Private Press, 1945), 40.
19 Esther Summers Bale (WHH interview), [October 1866], Herndon’s Informants, 527.
20 Parthena Hill (WHH interview), [1865-66], Herndon’s Informants, 604.
21 John Hill to Ida M. Tarbell, February 6, 1896, Tarbell papers, Allegheny College Library.
This excerpt is reprinted with permission of Alfred A. Knopf.