A classic gag line from the Marx Brothers film A Night at the Opera deals with contract clauses. Groucho reassures Chico about the contract: “That’s in every contract, that’s what you call a sanity clause.” To which Chico responds: “You can’t fool me, there ain’t no sanity clause.” The question of the existence of Santa Claus is the theme of the movie A Miracle on 34th Street. Maureen O’Hara plays a divorced mother, Doris Walker, who hires Edmund Gwenn, who plays the character Kris Kringle, to be a seasonal department store Santa Claus. When she discovers that the person she hired actually believes himself to be the real Santa Claus, Doris must decide whether to keep the very popular Kris Kringle on staff or dismiss him as potentially dangerous and delusional. Julian Shellhammer, played by actor Philip Tonge, is a colleague of Doris and offers her this advice: “But … but maybe he’s only a little crazy like painters or composers or some of those men in Washington.”
This brings us to the mysterious statements made by the painter Freeman Thorp, who claimed to have sketched Lincoln from life on two separate occasions. Thorp was born in Geneva, Ohio, and claimed that he made a pencil sketch of president-elect Lincoln as the train passed through the town on its way to Washington, D.C. (This sketch will be the subject of a later blog.) Thorp was an accomplished painter who did numerous oil portraits of famous Washington figures that hang in the United States Capitol. They include Abraham Lincoln, James G. Blaine, Schuyler Colfax, David B. Henderson, and Joseph G. Cannon. The success of his art career allowed him to retire in Pequot Lakes, Minnesota. But time was not kind, and the painter died a poor man in Brainerd, Minnesota, in 1922. Shortly before his death, Thorp wrote the following letter which remained unfinished but made a rather astonishing claim. It is unclear to whom it was directed other than ‘Editor.’ Spelling and punctuation have been modernized.
“Hubert Minn. Dec 24th 1921
“Dear Sir If you care to consider a matter that can easily be of great importance to your paper to the country and to the world I will be glad to give you all the facts in the matter. As to my personal standing and reputation I can refer you to the Senior Senator from Minnesota Knut Nelson to my congressman Harold Knutson whip of the House, and Geo. D. Lass President of the First National Bank of Brainerd, Minn. my banker and if permitted will come to Chicago and present convincing proof of what I desire to lay before you. In brief it is about Lincoln is new and has never been given to or published in any paper as an item of Lincoln’s life, is by far the most important to mankind of any of the great ideas of his master mind, and more important to the World than any other idea of any mortal man in the World, as you will yourself see, if it is practical and I have the indisputable proof that it is easily practical. The idea is wholly Lincolns no other man ever thought it out or even thought of it. Yet put in general operation, it will make every acre of land in the World, upland or lowland, desert or swamp, hill or valley the best in the world for the production of all that the world wants in food or raw material of a vegetable nature for life, health, comfort, and enjoyment, producing 4 times as much per acre as can now be done by the best methods now known to Agriculture. Fruit, timber growth or grazing, and doing this by the Lincoln method eliminates floods, drought, and any possible famine, converts stream beds now alternately dry or flood of muddy water, into living streams of pure water all the year round, quadrupling the water power, maintaining a uniform navigable stage of rivers, makes it unnecessary for the United States to ever buy or import a dollar’s worth of nitrogen, potash, phosphate, guano, or any commercial fertilizer, enables the continued cropping of the soil for any number of years without lowering its fertility. All this with less labor per acre than now required to make the meager living of the farmer by much harder labor than this requires. Of course this seems incredible but it has been worked out proven absolutely and put in operation on my demonstration tract of 1500 acres here at Hubert, Minn., and is easily practical for the whole World. If I can be assured of a hearing I will gladly come to Chicago soon after the New Year at my own expense and go over the whole matter with you showing how I came to know Lincoln and what is more important to know more about him, and the ideas of his than any other man has ever had the opportunity to know that which it is important to learn about him.”
Thorp does not provide a clue to what Lincoln’s “great idea” might be. The only evidence Thorp offers is that it was tested on his own farm in Hubert, Minn. That he died poor the following October does not offer much evidence of the success of Lincoln’s idea. Clearly, Thorp was more successful at delineating images of people than their ideas.