Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

Abraham Lincoln's Most Notorious Forgers

The Bixby Letter

Abraham Lincoln
Abraham Lincoln

For more than 140 years, the Bixby letter has been hailed as one of President Abraham Lincoln's most remarkable prose masterpieces. It has been displayed in museums across the United States and has more recently served as the inspiration of Steven Spielberg's movie Saving Private Ryan. Yet, since the letter's creation, its authenticity has been debated by countless handwriting experts, historians and scholars. To date, there is still no concrete evidence proving it was actually written by Lincoln or simply the work of a forger.

The famous Bixby Letter
The famous Bixby Letter

The letter, which was allegedly written by Lincoln in the fall of 1864, was addressed to Lydia Bixby, a Bostonian widow and mother of five sons. It was believed that all of Mrs. Bixby's sons were killed in action during the Civil War. Upon her son's deaths, the grieving widow purportedly received a letter of condolences from Lincoln in which he attempted to console her great loss.

Intriguingly, the letter has been treated with much skepticism because of several major historical inaccuracies, most of which are attributed to the actual fate of Mrs. Bixby's sons. There is evidence that two, not five, of Mrs. Bixby's sons died in battle during the war. According to a brief article by Abraham Lincoln Online, one of the boys, "deserted the army, one was honorably discharged and another deserted or died a prisoner of war."

There are other details concerning Mrs. Bixby herself that have led many to doubt the authenticity of the letter. An article by U.S. News and World Report stated that she was not only a liar, but also a Confederate sympathizer, the madam of a brothel, and in ardent opposition of Lincoln. If true, it would make it less likely that Lincoln would have risked his reputation and political position by writing the letter. Thus, evidence points to the letter as being a fraud.

John Hay, Lincoln's Secretary of State
John Hay, Lincoln's Secretary of State

Some historians believe that John Hay, Lincoln's secretary, may have authored the famous letter to Mrs. Bixby. According to the U.S. News and World Report article, Professor Michael Burlingame, a Lincoln biographer who has studied the Bixby letter, is a strong proponent of this theory. He stated that when analyzing the document he found syntactical similarities between letters written by Hay and the Bixby letter. However, he could not find any similarities between Lincoln's grammatical style and the letter of condolence. Moreover, the author of the book, Great Forgeries and Famous Fakes, Charles Hamilton, further supported this theory by asserting that Hay actually claimed to have written the document.

Great Forgeries and Famous Fakes
Great Forgeries and Famous
by Charles Hamilton

Yet, there are those who refute the premise that Hay wrote the Bixby letter. According to an article by Lauristan Bullard, it is suggested that there is evidence that the letter was actually authored by Lincoln. Bullard stated that no one, as far as he was concerned, "has offered any letter or document written by Hay in what looked like Lincoln's script."

Bullard suggested that there is at least one exact copy of the "actual" Bixby letter allegedly penned by Lincoln, which is believed to be in existence today. Of course, there are also many forged copies, some of which vary slightly in content and writing style. However, if there is one "true copy," it is unclear which of the many documents it is.

Bullard refers to two letters written in 1909 between Abraham Lincoln's son Robert T. Lincoln and a librarian at Columbia University named Dr. James Canfield, which he believes supported his theory that an original copy of the letter exists. In the first letter, Robert T. Lincoln inquired about the Bixby letter, which he had seen on exhibition at New York's Huber Museum. He wrote to find out if the letter was an original, "or a very clever forgery."

Dr. Canfield wrote back and informed Robert T. Lincoln that after receiving his letter, he retrieved the Bixby document from the Huber Museum and examined it. After analysis Canfield discovered the letter was a lithograph or copy. It was suggested that it had been made from the "original" document, which was thought to have been in the possession of the Huber Museum in 1909.

Though there may have been an original Bixby document, there is no substantiating evidence proving it was the work of Lincoln. Hamilton stated that he had once owned the "original" manuscript from which countless reproductions had been made. Yet, he suggested that the document was crudely forged and almost definitely not a Lincoln creation.

When Hamilton compared the document to other writings by Lincoln, he found that, "the forger had stumbled badly. The paper was not of the variety used by Lincoln, the ink was modern, the folds were not correct to accommodate envelopes of Lincoln's era and the letter itself had been first drawn in pencil and then retraced in ink." Moreover, he stated that the writing was "halting and awkward," unlike Lincoln's scriptural style. Therefore, it can be assumed that the Bixby letter may not have been a Lincoln creation at all, but rather a forgery. Unless another more convincing version of the Bixby letter emerges, the "original" document and the many lithographs will be regarded as phonies.

The Bixby letter is not the only document attributed to Lincoln whose authenticity has been questioned by collectors, dealers and historians. In fact, there are many documents in circulation today that have been passed off as "original" Lincoln pieces that are actually forgeries. Handwriting and document experts have been able to expose many of the forgers, some of whom have been acknowledged as geniuses in the art of deception.

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