Abraham Lincoln, John F. Kennedy (AP)

You gotta love a great literary hoax: Abe Lincoln and JFK get the "lost letters" treatment

Who could resist the newly unearthed letters between Lincoln and his first love? Or JFK's love letters from Marilyn


Melissa Katsoulis
November 8, 2015 4:30AM (UTC)
Excerpted from "Literary Hoaxes: An Eye-Opening History of Famous Frauds"

THE ABRAHAM LINCOLN LETTERS

ABRAHAM LINCOLN IS famous for many things, but being a great and passionate lover is not one of them. The man who quipped that people shouldn’t call him two-faced because if he were, he’d hardly choose to be wearing this one, has never exactly been matinée idol material. For a few months in the late 1920s, however, all that was set to change, thanks to a plucky young Californian woman called Wilma and one of the cheekiest hoaxes ever played on literary America.

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The Atlantic has always been America’s most highly respected journal of new writing, famous since its inception in 1857 for publishing Twain, Longfellow and just about every significant US writer since. Its staff has always been knowledgeable, educated and erudite and not at all the sort to be taken in by a beautiful, doe-eyed chick from San Diego with famously irresistible curves and a sparky wit. But when Wilma Frances Minor approached the magazine with a newly unearthed collection of love-letters between the sixteenth president and his first love, Miss Ann Rutledge, the editor, Ellery Sedgwick, was blissfully fooled.

It seems the idea had come to the young journalist in the mid-1920s when she had interviewed an old man called Scott Greene, who told her that his father had known Abraham Lincoln in the 1830s and had often heard the future president talk longingly about Ann, the young woman he had loved and lost. Ann had died before the two could wed and although the romance was not news in itself – historians had been discussing its significance for years – the interview gave Wilma the inspiration for the hoax that would make her infamous. She hatched a plan to ‘discover’ Lincoln’s lost love-letters.

Her accomplice in this project was her mother, one Cora De Boyer, to whom she was unusually close. However, De Boyer was no ordinary supportive parent: she was a clairvoyant, and one with a state-wide reputation for invoking the spirits of the great and the good. Some time later, Wilma would claim that the content of the letters had been taken down verbatim during a séance at which her mother had contacted the spirits of Abraham and Ann, but when she first made contact with The Atlantic she proffered the more credible explanation that she had inherited the letters from an older family member and now wished to turn them over to the nation.

Wilma proposed that the magazine publish her discoveries – with attendant contextual articles by her – in three installments and then bring out a complete study of them in book form. Ellery Sedgwick asked to see proof of the letters and the grainy photostats he received by return of post so impressed him that he decided to waive the magazine’s long-standing no illustrations policy to display them in their original form. He also handed over the extremely tidy sum of $6,500 for the exclusive rights.

For several weeks, the offices of The Atlantic were abuzz with what they were about to unleash on the world (and the glamorous young Wilma was no doubt doing some serious shopping in light of her windfall). The letters betrayed a yearning, adoring heart and a distinctly soppy turn of phrase which had been hitherto unsuspected in the venerable sixteenth president. He was, at the time of writing, a young man working at menial jobs in New Salem and convinced, as this letter from Ann shows, that semi-literacy was no bar to love:

my hart runs over with hapynes when I think yore name. I do not beleave I can find time to rite you a leter every day. stil I no as you say it wood surely improve my spelling and all that . . . I dreem of yore . . . words every nite and long for you by day. I mus git super now. all my hart is ever thine.

Not that young Abraham’s literary powers were much of a match for his obvious powers of attraction:

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My Beloved Ann . . . I am borrowing Jacks horse to ride over to see you this coming Saturday. cutting my foot prevents my walking. I will be at your pleasure to accompany you to the Sand Ridge taffy-pull. I will be glad to hear your Father’s sermon on the Sabbath. I feel unusually lifted with hope of relieving your present worry at an early date and likewise doing myself the best turn of my life. with you my beloved all things are possible. now James kindly promises to deliver into your dear little hands this letter. may the good Lord speed Saturday afternoon.

affectionately A. Lincoln

As well as letters like these, which were all carefully written on old paper (Sedgwick had a chemist test it for age), there were extracts from journals and notes by people who knew the courting couple and could attest to their love. This diary entry from Ann’s cousin Matilda, supposedly written after Ann’s untimely death, is typical of their eccentric style: ‘the kin ses Abe is luny. I think he is broaken-harted. he wants me to keep his 5 leters from her coz he is perswaded he will soon foler her I expect he will too.’

The Atlantic ran the first of the extracts in December 1928 and no sooner had the issue hit the stands than the magazine was receiving taunting notes from scholars who saw the letters were out-and-out fakes. ‘Have you gone insane or have I?’ asked W. C. Ford of the Massachusetts Historical Society. But alongside the dissent of critics as esteemed as Paul Angle, the Secretary of the Lincoln Centennial Association, who was the first officially to accuse Minor of trickery, there were enough venerable commentators who believed the letters to be genuine to encourage Sedgwick to bring out the other two installments as planned. The second one, which appeared in January 1929, attracted even more criticism than the first, and by the time of the trilogy’s conclusion in February that year even Sedgwick was beginning to smell a rat. For Minor had made the mistake of so many excitable young hoaxers and not checked her facts properly: one letter, dated twenty years before the state of Kansas was named, had Lincoln referring to ‘some place in Kansas’. Another spoke about surveying land in Sangamon County, where Lincoln was working, and referred to ‘section 40’ of a plot that could only, under federal planning law, have ever had thirty-six sections.

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The game was very nearly up for Wilma Minor, and a red-faced Atlantic launched an investigation into her claims, resorting to employing a private detective and a handwriting expert to examine the details of the case. But so lax was this careless mother-daughter hoaxing team at covering their tracks that when Mrs De Boyer wrote a stiff letter to the magazine asking them to stop hounding her ‘high strung and supersensitive girl who does not seem to understand how to cope with the rebuffs of this crass world’, it did not take a graphology expert to see that the handwriting was suspiciously similar to that of the lovestruck young Lincoln’s.

Finally, towards the end of 1929 the two women started to tell people that the truth was that the voices transcribed in the letters had come to them via the spirit world at one of their regular séances. By this time, however, the reading public and the historical societies of the United States were heartily sick of this pair of time-wasters, and wasted little more attention worrying about their claims.

Poor Ellery Sedgwick had to admit in print that he had been had, and although The Atlantic was an august enough organ to reclaim its good name after the affair, Ms Minor was not. She went on to flit through a number of ill-conceived marriages and incarnations as a writer but never made such a name for herself again as she did, briefly, in the roaring twenties. And the truth about Abraham and Mary remains their secret.

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THE JFK LETTERS

AFTER ABRAHAM LINCOLN, the next most iconic president of the United States is, without a doubt, John Fitzgerald Kennedy. So it is no surprise that he too was the subject of a bold literary hoax involving spurious letters supposedly written at a particularly intense time in his romantic and professional life. But the JFK letters, being ‘discovered’ in the age of multimillion dollar media deals, did more than embarrass a venerable literary journal: they netted a fortune not only for the perpetrator but for the Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist who was taken in by them.

It was in the mid-1990s that Lex Cusack, the son of an attorney who had worked for the Catholic archdiocese of New York, came forward with his revelatory stash of papers. Those papers, which he claimed to have found among his late father’s belongings, revealed that Lex Senior had been none other than Kennedy’s secret legal advisor and the documents were, without a doubt, absolutely the most inflammatory things anyone with an interest in JFK (i.e., just about everyone) could hope to read. They detailed, both in the form of legal contracts and tear-stained love-letters from a certain ‘Happy Birthday’-singing film star, the full extent of the mess the thirty-fifth president had found himself in shortly before his murder in 1963. He was a bigamist. He had been having an affair with Marilyn Monroe and had paid her a large sum of money to keep quiet about his bigamy, their affair and – perhaps worst of all – his connections with the notorious mobster Sam Giancana and various other underworld figures. And he was afraid that J. Edgar Hoover was on to him and his game would very soon be up.

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These three scandals had been the stuff of rumour and gossip ever since the mid-sixties but until Lex Cusack came forward with his father’s letters there had been no material proof of them whatsoever.

In 1985, Lex’s well known father Lawrence X. Cusack had died, leaving the big names in New York’s Catholic community bereft of one of their most trusted legal aides. His funeral mass was attended by every bishop, priest and nun who was anybody, and his career as a scrupulous and discreet attorney was celebrated lovingly in the press. His practice had spanned the most crucial years in twentieth-century American Catholicism: the period during which the Kennedy clan had risen to prominence amidst unprecedented allegations about rigged elections and double-dealings. If America’s first Roman Catholic president had, as the papers suggested, had a secret first marriage which was never officially ended but rather informally annulled by understanding bishops, Lawrence would have known about it. And so, according to these letters, he did.

In the immediate aftermath of his death, the Manhattan law firm of which he was a founding partner, Cusack & Stiles, instructed one of their clerks, who also happened to be his son Lex, to sort through the thousands of papers left behind in Lawrence’s office. Amongst these papers were, Lex would claim, the 300 or so which revealed the close advisory relationship, hitherto unknown to anyone, between Cusack and Kennedy. Cusack characterized his father as an all-knowing ‘Holmes’ figure to the troubled president, and this special partnership contained such damning evidence as a trust agreement committing Kennedy to paying for Monroe’s mother’s healthcare in return for Marilyn keeping quiet about all she knew of the president’s underworld connections and illegal marriage.

Just as the impulse to consolidate his father’s reputation by linking him with one of the most famous icons of the day is reminiscent of other bygone literary hoaxers such as William Ireland, so too is what Lex – in cahoots with his wife – did next.

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According to an investigation by The New York Times, the Cusacks decided that if they could get some of the less controversial papers in the collection authenticated by experts, it would make it easier to persuade purchasers that the more shocking documents were also genuine. There was no doubt that the trademark Kennedy scrawl on the notes and cards looked quite genuine to the untrained eye – as did the White House headed paper – but only with the stamp of approval of an expert could they proceed to cash in their treasure trove. They turned to the Connecticut memorabilia dealer John Reznikov, who took a look at the papers and supplied a letter attesting to their authenticity. Then the graphology expert Joseph Maddalena was approached with some equally small-fry letters and was willing to part with a few hundred dollars to buy them for his own collection, but never officially authenticated them. The Cusacks now had credibility enough to start selling the papers to the highest bidder.

It was not long before one of America’s best-known investigative journalists, Seymour ‘Sy’ Hersh sought a piece of the action. He had recently signed a seven-figure contract with Little, Brown to produce the definitive book about JFK’s assassination but once he connected with Cusack he turned his attention from the events of 1963 to the years before Kennedy’s death and the potentially far more explosive stories to be found there. Of particular interest to Hersh was the suggestion, in some of the letters, that the then FBI boss J. Edgar Hoover knew all about Kennedy’s insalubrious dealings with the mob and was using the information to make Kennedy’s life a misery.

Even before Hersh lent his good name to the project, however, Cusack had sold several of the letters to private collectors, earning himself enough money to live in far greater comfort than the average paralegal. His touting of a potential book written by himself about his late father had largely fallen on deaf ears, but once Hersh was on board, deals from big television networks and magazines were there for the taking and the money began rolling in in earnest. Letters such as the one in which Kennedy refers to ‘MM’, with her dangerous knowledge about his private life, needing to be sorted out even pointed to the popular conspiracy theory that Marilyn had been murdered by government agents trying to cover up a scandal. And another note, suggesting that just before her demise Marilyn was about to call a news conference and tell-all about the president who had broken her heart, only fueled the rumours further.

Sy Hersh, who had now used his access to Cusack’s papers to increase his book advance by several hundred thousand pounds, was as much of a Kennedy enthusiast as the next American, but he was also a highly professional journalist with a peerless reputation to protect. So, very sensibly, he began to ask friends and associates of the Kennedys to tell him what they knew about Camelot’s relationship with Lawrence Cusack (or ‘Larry’, as he chummily calls him in the notes). Worryingly, he drew a complete blank. Even Kennedy’s former secretary, whose name appeared on some of the letters, claimed never to have heard of the lawyer. Another graphologist was brought in to scrutinize the handwriting and although she conceded that it looked like Kennedy’s, she was able to discern the tell-tale stops and starts and minute irregularities in pressure that characterize a painstakingly forged script.

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By this point, with the finger of suspicion already hovering over Lex Cusack, some fatally damning careless mistakes were found in the letters. On one letter there was a zip code – something that had not yet been invented. Then it was discovered by forensic experts that some of the typewritten papers had been created on a machine which hadn’t existed at all in the early 1960s. But the detail which indicates most emphatically that Lex was the type of underachieving, glory-hunting son to make it all up was the discovery by Hersh that he had lied about his army qualifications and academic credentials in a wedding announcement in The New York Times. Hersh knew full well that hoaxers frequently turn out to have left a trail of mis-truths and self-aggrandizing lies, and eventually he had to admit he had been conned. In 1999 Lex was imprisoned for ten years for defrauding his buyers of a total of $7,000,000.

Astonishingly, despite Cusack’s conviction, and although scraps of paper were found in his office which appear to show him practising Kennedy’s handwriting, some of those buyers were determined to reclaim their property from the government lawyers who seized them in the process of the case. One collector, Mike Stern, who spent $300,000 on forty documents in the mid-nineties, told journalists: ‘We paid for them, we’re entitled to them. Stamp them with the word “forgery” if you have to, but we want to hang them on our walls even if they are fake.’ It seems, then, that the enduring strength of the Kennedy myth is very much above the law, whatever you believe about the man himself.

Excerpted with permission from "Literary Hoaxes: An Eye-Opening History of Famous Frauds" by Melissa Katsoulis. Copyright © 2015, Skyhorse Publishing, Inc.


Melissa Katsoulis

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