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Book Reviews

Lincoln Legends

December 1, 2020

Lincoln Legends: Myths, Hoaxes, and Confabulations Associated With Our Greatest President.
by Edward Steers Jr. (The University Press of Kentucky, Lexington, KY, 2007, 264p.) $24.95

Ed Steers, Jr. is an expert on the Lincoln assassination and its aftermath, including the pursuit and capture of John Wilkes Booth, as well as the trial and execution of the conspirators. He occasionally appears on C-SPAN and The History Channel and has written two books: Blood on the Moon: The Assassination of Abraham Lincoln and The Trial: The Assassination of President Lincoln and the Trial of the Conspirators. (I think the title “The Trial” was already taken.) He is well-known for his position on the case of Dr. Samuel Mudd and has not endeared himself to Mudd partisans. He is fond of saying the doctor’s name is still MUDD.

This original work contains fourteen chapters dealing with popular theories and questions related to Lincoln. The press release states: “The pervasiveness of these tales attests not only to Lincoln’s continued popularity but also to the public’s ongoing desire to embrace myths in spite of their false origins. In light of the people’s propensity to idolize Lincoln, Steers insists that his greatness must transcend attempts to mythologize him and suggests one may see a clearer, more human Lincoln by stepping away from false history. Lincoln Legends is an invaluable contribution to the mythplagued debates over the president’s life and career as well as an insightful read for those seeking to eschew hearsay and historical inaccuracy to learn about Lincoln as he would have liked to be remembered.”

First off, I don’t think the word “confabulations” in the title makes any contextual sense, but who am I… William Buckley? (Rest in Peace, Bill!) This is a fairly short book and, as such, just “touches the surface” of Lincoln legends and myths. Such tales are legion. Most, if not all, post-date the assassination, likely beginning with William Herndon’s lecture series to promote his bio of Lincoln. Indeed, the assassination spawned many conspiracy theories, many propounded by later-day authors and “scholars”. There were hoaxes perpetrated on the public for financial gain or notoriety. Spurious documents were “discovered” and, more often than not, readily accepted by the public and academic community. Many individuals offered reminiscences that featured them as “players” in the Lincoln saga. In many cases, there was no one to refute such claims, and they persisted far beyond their “natural life. “

Some of the topics covered include: the authenticity of the birthplace log cabin, contradictory claims regarding Lincoln’s paternity, Ann Rutledge and the Wilma Frances Minor letters, quotes that Lincoln DIDN’T say, the circumstances regarding the writing of the Gettysburg Address and the number of different drafts extant, whether Lincoln was gay, Stanton’s role in the assassination, Dr. Mudd’s guilt or innocence, and the “missing pages” from Booth’s diary. Each topic is thoroughly discussed by Steers, usually resulting in another popularly-held belief or theory being shot to pieces. Still, Steers is resigned to the reality that many of these beliefs will persist despite the overwhelming evidence against them. In some cases, he is willing to assign some residual benefit to such delusions, as they serve a need in the public psyche. Steers’ project is made somewhat easier by the fact that most myths or theories arose many years after lincoln’s death which, in itself, makes them suspect. Eyewitness accounts are given many years after-the-fact – “original” documents no longer exist (replaced by photostats or typescripts). Stories and documentation are riddled with inconsistencies and are easily debunked using primary source material.

Of course, some topics can never be resolved – their “chapters” have no end. These topics (the romance with Ann Rutledge, Lincoln’s sexuality) will always generate diverse points-of-view. For the most part, however, Steers is able to provide closure for many of these. Sometimes, he is willing to “leave the door open.” In the case of Lincoln being gay, there is ample evidence to the contrary. Regarding the claim that John Hays wrote the Bixby Letter, Steers falters in his objectivity and claims he has proof that the claim is false. He quotes a letter that Robert Todd Lincoln wrote to researcher Isaac Markens in 1917, to the effect that John Hay admitted to him that Hay had no knowledge of the Bixby Letter prior to it being published. First off, the primary evidence that Hays wrote the Bixby Letter revolves around the use of certain words and phrases that Lincoln normally did not use. Steers fails to mention this at all. Secondly, there is no way that John Hay would have told Robert Todd Lincoln that he, not President Lincoln, had written the letter, unless he totally lacked sensitivity. After writing an entire book about people who lie about Abraham Lincoln, did it not occur to Steers that John Hay was capable of doing the same under the proper conditions? Apparently not, as this would have weakened his argument.

All in all, the book is well-written and concise. The author has a pleasant writing style punctuated with humor and irony. As stated, it is not all-inclusive, which may lead to follow-up volumes. It should appeal to both the general public and Lincoln buffs.