History is not like wine or scotch; it does not get better as it gets older. Much of the time it turns sour as the distance grows between the original event and our telling of it.
Yet in some cases the original story was vanishingly told by one person to another, who never wrote it down at all. Then, it must be rediscovered. Such a rediscovery happened two weeks ago at the Presidential Library.
In March 1901 a lady with good handwriting wrote from Boston to a well-known Lincoln collector in Chicago named Charles Gunther. She enclosed, by registered mail, a highly interesting artifact. She wrote:
“I send you the letter written by Willie Lincoln. It is probably the only one in existence. It was kept in the same box with a bon-bon he gave my uncle that was taken from the table at the banquet given for the Prince of Wales at the White House and some of it melted during the warm weather and got on the letter. Very sincerely, Adele Rathbun.”
Miss Rathbun was mostly incorrect. Was her 1901 attention fixed upon the death of Queen Victoria 6 weeks earlier, and the ascent to the throne of the Prince of Wales? That Prince, known now as Edward VII, had indeed been fêted at the White House, but in October 1860, by President Buchanan.
So Willie took no such bon-bon. Nor was this the only letter he ever wrote; about 10 survive today.
Still, this one is the earliest survivor. In its entirety it reads:
Springfield April 1859
I will write you a few lines to let you know how I am getting along I am pretty well The roads are drying up It is Sunday and a pleasant day I have not any more to say so I must bring my letter to an end
Wm W Lincoln
Who was Adele’s “my uncle”? Who was Willie’s “Dear friend”? Since Willie makes no mention of an enclosed sweet, we assume that its recipient put the letter into a box with some chocolate – where else to save a letter from your friend?
The State Historical Library (now the ALPLM) acquired this letter and Adele’s in 1978 from a Chicago dealer, without any story. It has lain orphan-like with a few later (and clean) missives by the dutiful Willie. Gwen Podeschi, Reference Librarian at the ALPLM, was asked to start hunting ‘Rathbun.’ She found dozens of possibilities, but never an Adele, and no one the right age. The key was her turning up of the marriage, in Springfield in June 1858, of Hannah Rathbun to Dr. John Shearer. Aha: that would be Hannah Shearer, close friend of Mary Lincoln. Some Maryists would know (but this historian did not) that Hannah’s first husband, Edward Rathbun, had died in Brooklyn, leaving her with two boys, Edward Rathbun, Jr., and James Miner Rathbun, obliging Hannah to move to the home of her brother, Springfield. Hannah soon met and married Dr. Shearer, and they settled on 8th Street across from the Lincolns. The ‘uncle’ to whom Adele Rathbun referred was thus one of these Rathbun boys, sons of the Shearers.
The other clue was found, plainly enough, in Mary’s published letters. On April 24, 1859, she sent the first of her 11 known letters to Hannah Shearer, who had left Springfield after only 8 months on 8th Street, for the clear air of Wellsboro, Pennsylvania. These letters are spicy, full of gossip (not all of it kind), as well as wistfulness for a distant friend whose boys were nearly the same ages as Willie and Tad Lincoln. Mary wrote on April 24th – Easter Sunday – and one can picture Willie sitting politely next to his mother, writing to his friend, too. Mother to mother; son to son.
The sadness of this story, striking like so much in Mary Lincoln’s life, came by degrees. The Shearers never quite managed a long-planned visit to the White House in 1861, implored though they were; and Willie died on Feb. 20, 1862. War and death spoiled everything for nation and friends. Mary never wrote Hannah again … except in November 1864 when she heard that Hannah’s oldest, Edward, Jr., had died. And never after that. How painful, yet again, must Mary’s memory of her own lost boy have been, in the reflection of his friend’s early death.
That death left the younger ex-neighbor, James Miner Rathbun, as the father of Adele. Edward Jr. was thus the uncle in Adele’s 1901 letter.
The Rathbun boys, shortly after moving to Pennsylvania with mother Hannah and her new husband Dr. Shearer, welcomed a new baby brother, or rather half-brother. The boy was christened William Lincoln Shearer.
The chocolate letter, for all its sad associations in the lives of Mary Lincoln and Hannah Rathbun Shearer, can now be remembered in a better way. It remains as a happy, and colorful, remembrance of friendly mothers and sons, sharing two Easter Day letters. Another Prince of Wales will soon ascend to the throne of the United Kingdom, new stories will be invented around that occasion. Please keep your letters and emails, pass them to kids, and get the stories right.