By Walter Oleksy
If you know African American history at all, you’ve heard of Harriet Tubman, Soujourner Truth, Phyllis Wheatley, and Rosa Parks. But there was another black woman who deserves her place in African American history, yet you probably never heard of her.
Her name was Mariah Vance, and she was housekeeper, cook, and confidant to Abraham and Mary Todd Lincoln in their Springfield, Illinois home during the ten years (1850-1860) in which Abe rose from country lawyer to President of the United States. Mrs. Vance, her husband Henry, and their children were a black family that virtually lived in tandem with the Lincolns who would become the white First Family of the United States, yet a cabal of Lincoln scholars first denied her existence, then that she knew or worked for the Lincolns. When documents proved them wrong, they then refused to believe what she recalled of her years of service to the Lincolns and discouraged publication of her knowledge of the Lincolns. I persevered until her memoirs were finally published.
This blog attempts to right the wrong done to Mariah Vance and Black History by bringing to your attention the book I co-edited called LINCOLN’S UNKNOWN PRIVATE LIFE, AN ORAL HISTORY BY HIS BLACK HOUSEKEEPER MARIAH VANCE (1850-1860), published 1995 by Hastings House which, both before and after publication, fell victim to some very influential men who control what they want you to know about Abraham Lincoln and his wife.
I am a former Chicago Tribune feature writer and editor, freelancing since then with more than 30 books published. A list of my books is at www.amazon.com under Walter G. Oleksy. They do not include my Lincoln book because they list it under the name of my co-editor, Lloyd Ostendorf who was a noted artist of Lincoln portraits who learned of and encouraged the publication of Mariah Vance’s memoirs of living with the Lincolns.
Following is a very favorable review of the book, then my report on what happened before and after its publication that continues to deny Mariah Vance her important place in American history because some Lincoln scholars do not believe her knowledge of the Lincolns. But they should not have the power to control what we know about the Lincolns. Each and every one of us should be allowed to decide for ourselves what to believe.
“MOST IMPORTANT BOOK ON THE LINCOLNS IN A CENTURY”
By William D. Pederson
Professor of Political Science
Louisiana State University
(A review of LINCOLN’S UNKNOWN PRIVATE LIFE
which appeared in the Louisiana Lincolnator, Spring 1996)
As irony would have it, two of the most important books about Abraham Lincoln ever published have appeared on bookshelves within the past six months, but light-years separate their origins. One is the product of scholarly research; the other, firsthand reminiscences.
David Donald’s Lincoln (Simon & Schuster, 1995) has attracted widespread national attention as expected since it is written by a pre-eminent historian noted for his long and productive career. Donald’s book has eclipsed Lincoln’s Unknown Private Life, An Oral History by His Black Housekeeper Mariah Vance 1850-1860 (Hastings House, 1995). Little attention has been paid to this oral history edited by Lloyd Ostendorf and Walter Oleksy. But every library needs both.
Because Lincoln is recognized as one of the major biographies about our sixteenth President, my comments are limited to the latter book. I consider it to be one of the most important contributions on Lincoln.
For the ten years before the Lincolns left Illinois to move into the White House, Mariah Vance was their laundress, maid, and housekeeper in Springfield. During her long and difficult life (1819-1904), she was noted for telling stories about her experiences with the Lincolns. Fortunately for posterity, these recollections were preserved by a young white woman named Adah Sutton (1884-1976) who took the trouble to record the Vance stories in shorthand between 1900 and 1904. Before Sutton’s death she transcribed the stories and they now -- after a long, twisted trail -- have been published. It’s the best firsthand look at the Lincoln marriage. Readers now are afforded the opportunity to judge Abraham and Mary’s relationship, and much else about the Lincolns, for themselves.
Several aspects of this oral history merit special attention. Superb insights into the character of Mary, Abraham, and Robert, their oldest son, are offered. The Lincolns clearly did not have an Ozzie and Harriet marriage. In fact, there were recurrent episodes of friction between them that might lead some to believe that their relationship was a daily civil war between spouses. Yet, that goes too far. It’s apparent that both politics and their children brought the couple together. Ample evidence is presented to conclude that the Lincolns spoiled all four of their sons, although Mariah Vance obviously favored Robert.
Vance’s account gives further credence to Abraham’s romance with Ann Rutledge, his first love. Abraham credited Ann for directing him into law and Mary for pushing him into national politics.
Mary’s reaction of jealousy and fear that Abraham did not love her were fueled by memories of Ann.
An unvarnished but human image of Mary Lincoln emerges. Because she had a strong reliance on paregoric, a mixture of opium and alcohol [also called laudanum], her moods worsened into regular temper tantrums that unleashed abuse on both her husband and Vance. Her [Mary Lincoln’s] of being alone was exacerbated by her husband’s habit of “riding the circuit” for weeks at a time. She occasionally tried to combat her loneliness -- and perhaps punish her absentee husband -- by holding lavish parties that exceeded their family budget and irritated him.
Just as it provides a new view of the Lincoln marriage, the oral history also suggests that the relationship between Abraham and his father was not as strained as often thought. For example, Abraham credited both of his parents for bringing him up right. Mary named their youngest son after her father-in-law, and Abraham arranged for a formal photograph of his father, even buying him a suit for the occasion.
Apart from suggesting Mary’s addiction to her elixir, the most controversial assertion that Vance makes is that Abraham was secretly baptized. Because Vance eventually founded the Zionist Baptist Church in Springfield, many scholars will doubt the reliability of this story. Nonetheless, Abraham is portrayed as religious, albeit in an unconventional way.
Sometimes I think God should have always been spelled “Good.” God as an individual mind seems narrowing, and hampers the power we should feel is omnipotent.
Good is all inclusive. All things, if good, are relative, hinge, help each other, and work together for good of those who love good. Thus to love good is to work out our destiny with the help of all good. Regardless of our own plans and often highest desires, our destiny is gauged by our own thoughts and actions often come to pass far better than we ever hoped for. Love -- Good -- leads the way, if we cooperate.
His commitment to “goodness,” to Mary when they reconciled after he broke their original engagement, and to blacks, is reflected in how he treats others -- especially blacks -- on a daily basis. While never an Abolitionist until the war pushed him into that camp during his presidency, he never believed in slavery. He respected his employee’s work, courage, and family. He showed genuine concern for the Vance’s that included arranging for Dr. William Wallace (the namesake of Lincoln’s son Willie) to treat one of their [Mariah Vance and her husband] babies who was sick. In numerous ways, Vance’s stories demonstrate Lincoln’s consistent behavior patterns. Such non-public acts contradict latter-day revisionists who claim that Lincoln was a “racist.”
The personal ties between the white, “well-off” Lincolns and the black, poor Vances, who both married in 1842, further illustrate this caring portrait of the Lincolns. Specific examples include the final time that Vance and her son, Bill, saw Abraham, and the continuing relationship between Vance and Robert Lincoln, who as a grown man visited her, sent her monthly checks from 1896 until her death, and bought her family a cemetery plot.
For readers who prefer firsthand accounts of historical figures, this oral history from the mid 19th century provides an unsurpassed and honest account of a personage who is viewed by a household intimate simply as a person.
HELPING TWO OLD LADIES
TO SAFELY CROSS THE STREET
By Walter Oleksy
In 1995, Hastings House published my book, LINCOLN’S UNKNOWN PRIVATE LIFE, AN ORAL HISTORY BY HIS BLACK HOUSEKEEPER MARIAH VANCE, 1850 - 1860, co-edited by the late Lloyd Ostendorf, a leading Lincoln artist and scholar. Mrs. Vance told her recollections of the home lives of Abraham and Mary Lincoln in Springfield, Ill., during the ten years before he became President of the United States. They are the very personal and revealing memoirs of a black family living virtually in tandem with a white family during the ten years preceding the Civil War.
Following this introduction is my report of the unfair opposition to the book by a group of Lincoln scholars known as “The Lincoln high priesthood." First they tried to keep Mariah Vance's recollections of the Lincolns from being published, because they objected to parts of her memoirs so they rejected them all. They then publicly discredited, libeled, and slandered my co-editor and me, accusing us of inventing or adding fiction to the memoirs. Most of the doubters are members of the Abraham Lincoln Association in Springfield who control what they want to be published about Abe and Mary Todd Lincoln. They endorse each other’s books on Lincoln, as well as their wives’ books on Mary Lincoln, but do their best to keep “outsiders’” books on them from being published.
The book was published 13 years ago and I have spent most of that time since trying to defend its integrity. Mr. Ostendorf died about three years ago after spending most of his last years also fruitlessly trying to defend the book and Mariah Vance’s historic memoirs.
It was my fervent hope that in bringing the Vance recollections of the Lincolns faithfully and honestly to publication that I would be helping two noble old ladies across the street against heavy prejudicial traffic -- one of them white, Adah Sutton, who recorded Mariah Vance's recollections, and the other black, Mrs. Vance herself. The following report on what happened both before and after publication of LINCOLN'S UNKNOWN PRIVATE LIFE may well be my final effort to get them safely across the street to their rightful places in American and Lincoln history, and to defend my integrity as a journalist.
WHO OWNS ABRAHAM LINCOLN?
By Walter Oleksy
“It’s the most important book on Abraham Lincoln in a century.”
“The book will be considered the Lincoln Dead Sea Scrolls.”
“It reads like a Prairie ‘Upstairs, Downstairs.’”
That’s what some of America’s leading Abraham Lincoln scholars said about a book of memoirs by a black lady who was laundress, housekeeper, and cook in the home of Abraham and Mary Todd Lincoln in Springfield for the ten years before he became President.
Historians had long wondered what the personal lives of the Lincolns were like in Springfield during the years that contributed to forming Abe’s views on a wide range of subjects before he became President, as well as the intimate home lives of the Lincolns. Robert Lincoln, the eldest and only son to survive the Lincolns, never revealed what went on in the family’s home there. Scholars lamented that there was no other witness in the Lincoln home, to tell us what Abe’s and Mary’s early years together were like.
But there was another witness: Mariah Vance, a black woman who was housekeeper in the Lincolns’ Springfield home almost daily from 1850 when Abe was just a country lawyer to 1860 when he was elected President and shortly after moved to Washington. Although virtually unknown by modern Lincoln historians, Mrs. Vance, wife of a runaway slave and mother of 12 children, is mentioned briefly in biographies of the Lincolns including Carl Sandburg’s Abraham Lincoln: The Prairie Years.
Over the years, Mariah told stories of what she saw and heard in the Lincoln home, but no one wrote them down until 1900 when she began doing the laundry for a young white girl, Adah Sutton, in Danville, Illinois. Miss Sutton wrote down Mariah’s recollections in note form until Mrs. Vance’s death in 1904 at the age of 86. Years later, Lloyd Ostendorf, of Dayton, Ohio, perhaps the world’s leading artist of Lincoln and collector of his images, encouraged Miss Sutton to write her extensive notes into a book manuscript. She completed this task in 1962, but the manuscript remained unpublished at her death in 1976 at the age of 92.
You may have read newspaper headlines 14 years ago, in the spring of 1993, that a publisher offered a million-dollar advance for a book that contained all of Mariah Vance’s memoirs of the Lincolns. International attention greeted the news in 1994 that the book was to be published.
But the publisher was not William Morrow, it was a much smaller independent publisher, Hastings House, nor did my co-editor Lloyd Ostendorf or I get anywhere near a million dollars. In fact, we got no advance and never received any royalties because the book was discredited by a small but very influential group of so-called Lincoln scholars known as “the Lincoln high priesthood.” This damaged the book’s credibility to the extent that a reviewer urged library purchasing agents not to buy it and put it on their shelves.
So it’s no wonder you may not have read Mariah Vance’s memoirs of the Lincolns, although some fair-minded Lincoln scholars outside of the Lincoln high priesthood cabal who did read it called it “The Lincoln Dead Sea Scrolls,” “A Prairie ‘Upstairs, Downstairs,’” and “The most important book on Lincoln in a century.”
You may have wondered whatever became of the booknd how it finally got published, because Ostendorf and I persevered despite incredible obstacles from those who control what you are to read, who deny you the right to decide for yourself what to believe.
This is what happened to Lincoln’s Unknown Private Life:
After William Morrow publishers offered a $1 million advance in March, 1993 to publish the Mariah Vance memoirs, its publicity department sent press releases to the media saying it was going to publish a sensational book that would for the first time reveal the private home lives of the Lincolns in Springfield. At best, they were accounts of a typical dysfunctional American family, circa 1850s.
At worst the memoirs told of Abe struggling to live with a very emotionally disturbed wife. In between, they revealed many humorous eye-witness accounts of the antics of the Lincoln boys and often heartwarming stories of both Abe’s and Mary’s fondness for Mariah Vance and her family, giving readers new insights to Abe’s sympathy and empathy for Blacks both free and slave. The book was a rare history of two families living in virtual tandem for ten years preceding the Civil War; one poor and Black, one White that later became First Family of the United States.
The publication news made headlines in newspapers all over the world. The New Yorker magazine opened its “Talk of the Town” section with a full page about Morrow’s million-dollar offer to publish the book. The article included a damaging quote from John Y. Simon, history professor at Southern Illinois University in Carbondale, Ill., and a member of the Abraham Lincoln Association in Springfield, Ill., who said that the story of Lincoln’s baptism is “the biggest bunch of baloney I’ve ever heard -- hogwash.”
At the same time, many members of the Abraham Lincoln Association began a campaign to discredit the book’s credibility and deny its publication. First they doubted Mariah Vance existed, until Ostendorf and I produced Sangamon County, Illinois census documentation proving it. Then they doubted Vance worked for the Lincolns, until Ostendorf and I produced extensive documentation including Vance’s newspaper obituary proving she worked in the Lincoln home for many years. Lastly, they doubted what she said she saw and overheard during ten years of working in the Lincoln home in Springfield.
Concerted Lincoln scholar opposition to the book’s publication began immediately when newspaper articles revealed that a clause in the Morrow contract said that before it would sign a contract with Ostendorf and me, it would have five Lincoln scholars read and judge the manuscript for “credibility.” This process took several months, and these were the results:
James C. Davies, retired professor of political science at the University of Oregon, Eugene, Ore., reported that he believed the manuscript to be credible an enthusiastically endorsed its publication. But he cautioned Morrow that “a high priesthood” of Lincoln scholars would not believe it and would strongly object to its publication.
James Shenton, professor of history at Columbia University, NYC, reported that the manuscript was very interesting -- “a Prairie Upstairs, Downstairs” in revealing the private lives of the Lincolns in Springfield. He said he had “problems” with some of the recollections of Mariah Vance, but that the manuscript had “formidable strength,” was “fascinating,” but he did not believe Vance’s allegation that Lincoln had himself baptized and said that most Lincoln scholars also would not believe it. They would object to that part of the oral history being published -- as if the worst thing Lincoln ever could have done was to become a Christian.
So Shenton’s report was that he found parts of the book not to be credible.
Cullom Davis, a professor at Sangamon State University, director of the Lincoln Legal Papers project in Springfield, who was then a member of the Abraham Lincoln Association and in 1995 became its president, reported that the manuscript “lacks credibility as a primary historical source,” because there is no known substantiating documentation to Mariah’s accounts of the Lincolns’ home life. But he admitted to no single flaw to discredit the manuscript. He said he found it to be “touching, plausible, interesting, and seemingly worthy of belief.” Despite his favorable comments, Davis summarized his report by saying that in his opinion, the manuscript was unreliable in regard to its credibility.
Douglas Wilson, professor of English, Knox College, Galesburg, Ill., and another Abraham Lincoln Association devotee, gave the manuscript a very negative assessment. He said he did not believe parts of it -- Lincoln’s baptism, the Lincoln-Rutledge love, and Mary Lincoln’s reliance on paregoric -- so he could not find the manuscript credible.
Richard Nelson Current, professor of history at the University of North Carolina, and a member of the Abraham Lincoln Association, reported that the manuscript was “fascinating reading” and called it “The greatest literary discovery since the Dead Sea Scrolls.” However, he said he did not believe some of it, mainly Mariah’s allegation that Lincoln had himself baptized. He said he was so strongly opposed to that part that he doubted the entire manuscript. He concluded his report by suggesting the manuscript be published as a “semi-fictional account,” then added a caution that reads like a threat: “If published as is, the book will certainly get plenty of attention -- not all of it favorable to William Morrow and Company.”
To summarize the five Lincoln scholars’ reports, only Davies found the manuscript to be entirely credible, while the others said they did not believe parts of it, so they could not recommend its publication. Besides the baptism parts, they did not believe Mariah Vance’s recollections that several years before he met Mary Todd, Lincoln loved Ann Rutledge, an innkeeper’s daughter in New Salem, Ill., and they were to become engaged. Nor did they believe Mariah that Mary Todd Lincoln drank paregoric, a relaxing mixture of alcohol and opium that Mariah said Mrs. Lincoln drank from a gallon jug.
Ostendorf and I agreed that any and all Lincoln scholars had every right to believe or doubt any or all of Mariah Vance’s memoirs. But they had no right to discourage their publication, thus denying all other readers their right to decide for themselves what was credible or not.
In a letter to me on June 6, 1993, Dr. Davies, who wrote Morrow that he found the memoirs entirely credible and enthusiastically encouraged their publication, said: “Benjamin Thomas, one of the most respected and authoritative Lincoln scholars before his death, said that until Mariah Vance’s memoirs, William Herndon was the primary source of knowledge of Lincoln’s private life, but now there are two. Mariah Vance’s authoritative recollections give life to the family circumstances in Springfield, where Lincoln became more completely molded for his presidency. Only partly because Mary Lincoln kept Herndon away from the house, Mariah Vance’s observations become the major primary source.
“The main sources of credibility are the reminiscences themselves. They present such meticulous detail and such insightful discussion of Mariah Vance’s relationships to the Lincolns and to her own family that it is hard not to accept her account. Her objectivity and deep compassionate understanding is repeatedly evident. Overall, I’m awestruck by this manuscript and whatever further I could do to move it toward publication, I’d be happy to do.”
But despite Davies’ strong endorsement of the manuscript, William Morrow chose to accept the views of the others who doubted parts of it, so they said they didn’t find everything Mariah Vance said she knew of the Lincolns to be credible.
The reports to Morrow made Ostendorf and me suspect that most of them, excluding Davies, and who were members or supporters of the high priesthood within the Abraham Lincoln Association, had talked to each other about the manuscript and may have conspired against it, to keep it from being published.
This was because Mariah Vance’s recollections ran contrary to their beliefs that Lincoln never would have had himself baptized a Christian, he never loved Ann Rutledge, and Mrs. Lincoln never drank paregoric (although other authors have written that she drank laudanum, which is
another name for paregoric.) Since the reports were written in 1993, some of the professors who doubted the Lincoln-Rutledge love, have changed their minds and said they believe it. It seems some Lincoln scholars write articles, books, and appear on panel discussions taking sides on Lincoln issues whether they believe the side they’re taking or not.
It is almost amusing that the Lincoln high priesthood who controls what we are to know of the Lincolns doubted the importance of Ann Rutledge in Lincoln’s early romantic life. When I was a boy in Chicago in the 1940s, the sleek silver train I often rode to visit my aunt and cousins in Springfield was named The Ann Rutledge. Would a major railroad name a train after a young woman who played no important role in Abe’s life? Also, other books on Lincoln quote his friends saying Abe cried for hours over Ann’s grave in a cold rainstorm.
During the months it took for the scholars to report to Morrow, articles appeared in which other Lincoln scholars said they doubted its credibility. Among those were Harold Holzer, chief communications officer at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, NYC, author of several Lincoln and Civil War books, and another member of the Abraham Lincoln Association. When I phoned him to ask how he got the manuscript to read it before publication, he admitted, “Oh, I haven’t read it.”
I asked Holzer how one of the nation’s leading Lincoln scholars could say he didn’t believe a manuscript without reading it. He stammered, but gave no reply.
After the book was published, Holzer was one of the judges on the Civil War Round Table of New York committee who voted against it for the prestigious Barondess award, although he should have disqualified himself as a judge since he had written that he didn’t believe the Mariah Vance Oral history even before it was published and had admitted he hadn’t read it.
Ostendorf’s and my literary agent, Molly Friedrich of the Aaron Priest Literary Agency, NYC, said that because of opposition from the Lincoln scholars who read the manuscript (ignoring Prof. Davies’ strong endorsement that he found the memoirs entirely credible), Morrow decided not to publish the manuscript and withdrew its contract.
Friedrich suggested that Ostendorf and I offer the manuscript as fiction, otherwise she doubted she could find a publisher for it. We said that would be unfair to the historically important material, but agreed to revise the introduction to offer the oral history as a “believe it or not” book, for readers to decide for themselves whether to believe part or all of it. We also wrote her and Morrow a lengthy rebuttal, defending allegations by the Lincoln scholars who doubted parts of it, but that did not satisfy her or the publisher. Friedrich insisted that because of the four scholars’ objections, the manuscript had to be offered as fiction, so Ostendorf and I relieved her of her services on the manuscript because she no longer supported the manuscript’s integrity.
Newspapers all over the world then reported that Mariah Vance’s recollections of the Lincolns would not be published because “Lincoln scholars doubted its believability” (as if all Lincoln scholars unanimously rejected its credibility, which was not the case at all). Some just doubted parts of it, because they differed from their long-held views on the Lincolns. Those views, of course, were obtained from other books they had read on the Lincolns. So the Lincoln high priesthood was simply selective about what they chose to believe or not, taking their positions from reading prior publications, much of which had no supportive documentation, as they required of the Mariah Vance memoirs.
A New York Times’ article was especially damaging because it said Morrow cancelled plans to publish Mariah Vance’s memoirs of the Lincolns because of doubts of their authenticity. Use of that word was erroneous and left a very harmful impression on the book publishing world that remains to this day.
To the paper’s credit, however, it later published my letter to the editor on Sept. 10, 1993 saying that Liza Dawson assured me that no one doubted the authenticity of the memoirs. It was just that some Lincoln scholars did not find parts of it credible, i.e. believable.
The book’s doubters then accused Adah Sutton of adding her own views to Mariah’s memoirs. But Miss Sutton was dead and could not defend herself. Ostendorf, who had met her many times and corresponded with her for several years, asserted continually that she had been an honest Christian woman who would not have made up any of Mariah Vance’s recollections, and that she took no literary liberties with her notes. Miss Sutton respected the historical importance of what Mrs. Vance recalled of her ten years working in the Lincolns’ home in Springfield.
In the Washington Post of August 24, 1993, staff writer David Streitfeld quoted Morrow’s editor, Liza Dawson, saying “We were uncomfortable, after all was said and done, about
its authenticity and its accuracy.” (A similar article with that quote ran in the International Herald Tribune on August 25, 1993), spreading Dawson’s doubts worldwide). Streitfeld concluded his article with my defense that Adah Sutton never made her living as a writer or editor. She owned a small antique shop in her home in Attica, Indiana. She would have
had to be the literary equivalent of Grandma Moses to make this up.
About ten literary agents who earlier had been eager to represent the manuscript all rejected it, saying it was “because of the damage Morrow did to its credibility.” Nor over the next year would any publisher agree to publish the manuscript. Some of the editors of book publishing houses wanted to publish the manuscript, but said their CEOs said no, giving no reason for rejecting it.
I also spent months seeking “champions” who might endorse the manuscript for publication, but over a year found none. He was able to get the University of Illinois Press in Champaign, Ill., interested in publishing Mariah Vance’s oral history, but Richard L. Wentworth, director and editor-in-chief of the Press, qualified his interest by saying he would first need to have several Lincoln scholars judge the manuscript for credibility. I said “We’ve already been mugged by that crowd,” and pulled the offer to publish the book.
Wentworth then wrote me on Sept. 22, 1994: “I can certainly understand your frustrations, believe me. The short of it is that university presses are very rarely able to publish works which don’t receive endorsements from major scholars in the subject area. A commercial publisher doesn’t have that problem, obviously, and can make a decision based on the publisher’s own judgment.”
Unfortunately for readers, that does not appear to be the case because the vast majority of commercial publishers rejected the opportunity to publish the Mariah Vance oral
history after William Morrow turned it down because some Lincoln scholars objected to its publication.
Wentworth concluded his rejection by saying “I’m sorry we couldn’t get the support we would need to make it possible for us to publish this.”
I also wrote to many African-American literary, media, institute and association and other leaders of the Black community to try to get their help in getting the Mariah Vance memoirs published, but got no response from any of them. These included no reply from Jesse Jackson; Coretta Scott King; the Chicago Defender Black newspaper; Clarence Page, the Chicago Tribune’s columnist on African-American affairs; and Myrlie Evers-Williams, then president of the National Association of the Advancement of Colored People.
After the book’s publication by Hastings House in the autumn of 1995, one of the most damaging reviews appeared in the December issue of the Library Journal. Ann Owens, of the Wabash Valley College, Mt. Carmel, Ill., an obscure reviewer whose academic or literary credentials are unknown, wrote that “Lincoln scholars disagree as to the authenticity and accuracy of this manuscript. Given questions about the book’s provenance, it is not a recommended purchase.”
Owens apparently had read and then quoted the New York Times’ article erroneously saying Lincoln scholars doubted the book’s authenticity, when none of them ever said that. Hastings House publisher Hy Steirman called the editor of the Library Journal saying that in his over thirty years as a book publisher, he had never read such a negative review discouraging libraries from buying a book. He asked the editor to publish his defense of the book‘s integrity, but she said it was not the Journal’s policy to do so.
The Chicago Tribune, for whom I had worked as a reporter and editor for seven years in the 1950s and 1960s and won awards five times for feature writing, did not review the book. The paper’s book editor, Larry Kart, did not reply to my phone calls and letter asking why.
The paper did, however, instead give a major and favorable review to a new biography, Lincoln, by David Herbert Donald, a strong supporter of the Abraham Lincoln Association. His book was published by Simon & Schuster at the same time in 1995 as the Mariah Vance oral history which the Tribune chose to ignore. In articles and on radio talk shows we were both on, Donald strongly objected to Mariah Vance’s memoirs having been published, saying he didn’t believe her recollections. When I asked why he didn’t believe them, Donald echoed the Lincoln high priesthood, saying he doubted the baptism, paregoric, and Ann Rutledge parts of them, so he rejected everything Mariah Vance said. Donald’s Lincoln book was later found to contain some very important factual errors, but it had not been denied publication.
Another of the most damaging and unfair reviews of the Mariah Vance book was by James O. Hall, a Lincoln scholar and another member of the Abraham Lincoln Association. He wrote a 25-page review of the book in the Winter 1998 issue of the Journal of the Abraham Lincoln Association, calling the Mariah Vance book a fraud and attacking its credibility in gossamer words and phrases such as “it seems to me,” “could have done” “possibly,” and “perhaps.” He made no effort to substantiate any of his criticisms.
Ostendorf and I asked the Journal of the Abraham Lincoln Association’s editor, Thomas Schwartz, to publish our rebuttal and defense of the book with detailed substantiation refuting every one of Hall’s charges, but Schwartz refused. Apparently, one side of a story was good enough for him and the association.
Shortly after that, the Springfield Journal-Register spread Hall’s accusation of fraud all over its front page. The paper’s Lincoln reporter Doug Pokorski drew upon Hall’s Journal of the Abraham Lincoln Association article to repeat the libel in its headline. My repeated efforts asking Pokorski and the paper’s managing editor, Barry Locher, to run Ostendorf’s and my defense against the charge of fraud, faxed to Pokorski, went to no avail. The paper never allowed us to defend ourselves against the headlined charge of fraud.
Ostendorf, before his death three years ago, wrote his lengthy defense of Hall’s allegation of fraud and gave it to the Springfield Journal-Register, but the paper never published it. Ostendorf said, in part: “In calling Mariah Vance’s oral history a ‘fraud,’ Hall is calling Miss Sutton a liar. Even her niece, Iris Sutton, living today in Attica, Ind., defends Adah Sutton as being a Christian woman of high integrity who would not have made up a word of Mariah Vance’s oral history. Hall injected his review with words ‘fabricated’ and ‘fabrications’ at least nine times. All this to discredit the character and honesty I witnessed in my late friend, Miss Adah Sutton.
“Hall fails to put forth a single shred of evidence that the recollections are not to be believed. His use of adjectives such as ‘nonsense, fictionalize, concocted, pure hearsay’ and others were used in a deliberate attempt to trash the book, but without any proof to support any of the defamatory words or charges against the book’s historical integrity.”
Ostendorf’s rebuttal went on to defend Hall’s criticism item by item, but the newspaper declined to print it, leaving its headline of “fraud” to stick in readers’ minds.
Similarly, a Chicago Tribune op-ed columnist, John McCarron, of Evanston, Ill., wrote in the paper in 1996 that I had plagiarized the Mariah Vance book. He also used the word to slander me while talking with Sidney Zwick, publisher of The Beacon, an alternative newspaper in Evanston.
I phoned McCarron to defend his charge against me, saying plagiarism is defined as stealing someone else’s writing. But I did not plagiarize anything; Ostendorf
and I rightfully attributed everything in the book to Mariah Vance, author of the memoirs, and Adah Sutton, who wrote them down. McCarron, like Harold Holzer and other critics of the book before him, then admitted he had not read it.
Dozens of others in the media whom I contacted in an attempt to get them to listen to my defense of the book failed to reply to my phone calls or letters. These included two longtime friends of mine, Chicago Tribune columnist Mike Royko, with whom I had worked earlier at the City News Bureau and often golfed with and had had breakfasts with; and Studs Terkel, America’s leading author of oral history books. Garry Wills, professor of history at Northwestern University in Evanston, Ill., and author of several Pulitzer Prize winning biographies and histories, also did not reply to my letters and faxes. I also repeatedly tried to contact Wendy Cole, Chicago feature and news writer for Time magazine, to ask her to interview me in defense of the book, but she never replied to my phone calls or letters.
Bill Kurtis, a leading Chicago television personality and owner of Kurtis Production television documentaries, expressed interest in doing a show about Mariah Vance’s recollections of the Lincolns, but never followed through on it. I surmised that Kurtis changed his mind after reading reviews doubting its authenticity or credibility.
Perhaps Kurtis had been influenced by some Chicago Lincoln scholars such as Ralph Newman, owner of the Abraham Lincoln Book Store, and Kenan Heise, both of whom doubted Mariah Vance’s memoirs. Heise told me that Mariah’s dialogue in the book didn’t sound like a Black woman of the 1800s. Of course, he had not lived in the 1800s to know how a Black woman talked. Adah Sutton had heard Mariah Vance talk over a period of four years and had written down her dialogue in its authentic “Black English” dialect.
One of the major supporters of the Mariah Vance oral history was John T. Trutter, a Lincoln scholar, past president of the Illinois State Historical Society, and former chairman of the Council for Illinois History. He wrote me: “My maternal ancestors were close neighbors of the Lincolns in Springfield, and my grandfather, Philip Mischler, was a playmate of young Tad Lincoln. The antics of the Lincoln children and the Lincoln marital conflicts have always been a part of our family’s oral history. But Mariah Vance has added a domestic’s intimacy that is rich in description and, I believe, credible.”
Francis O. Krupka, historical architect of Lincoln Home National Historical Site in Springfield, said “The Vance recollections include discussions of aspects of Lincolns’ private family life not found in other histories and biographies.” He said her knowledge that a barn, shed, and vegetable garden existed on the Lincoln property, and that the dining room had been remodeled to include a larger kitchen are facts that only someone in the Lincoln house could have known. He later found documented evidence to support those Vance recollections.
The late Dr. Wallace H. Best, founding director and chairman of the board of the International Lincoln Association in Idyllwild, Calif., said in 1993: “Mariah Vance is truly ‘the other witness’ (to the home lives of the Lincolns in Springfield) who has been so sorely needed. Vance adds much to our knowledge about the lifestyle of the Lincolns from day to day and year by year in Springfield. As a Lincoln biographer, she is immensely important as a new primary source” of the Lincoln family home life in Springfield.
Also, and perhaps most importantly on the positive side, William D. Pederson, professor of political science at Louisiana State University, Shreveport, La., and editor of The Louisiana Lincolnator, a quarterly publication about news of Abraham Lincoln, reviewed the Mariah Vance book in that publication. He said he considered it to be “The most important book on the Lincolns in a century,” since Lincoln’s law partner in Springfield, William Herndon, had his memoirs of Lincoln published.
In an exchange of letters with me about opposition to the book by other Lincoln scholars, especially those doubters belonging to the Abraham Lincoln Association, Pederson called them “a vicious bunch.”
Pederson and four other top Lincoln scholars resigned from the board of directors of the Abraham Lincoln Association and from the association itself after a “palace coup” in January 1995 when its longtime president, Frank J. Williams, a Lincoln scholar who was Chief Justice of the Rhode Island Supreme Court, was ousted and replaced in a leadership power play by Cullom Davis, Sangamon State University professor and director of the Lincoln Legal Papers. Davis was one of the “Lincoln high priesthood” of the Abraham Lincoln Association who discouraged William Morrow from publishing the Mariah Vance memoirs, saying he didn’t believe parts of it. Others who resigned were John Y. Simon, Harold Holzer, and Richard Current, who had warned Morrow it would suffer the wrath of Lincoln scholars if it published the Vance memoirs.
Four years ago, members of the Lincoln high priesthood said they can prove that Adah Sutton added to Mariah Vance’s oral history by including material she read in newspapers and books. But I was repeatedly denied requests to see that so-called proof. Nor have they had it made public, which makes me strongly doubt any such evidence exists.
As for the media relying on so-called authorities on subjects, when I was a reporter for the Chicago Tribune and covered stories requiring authentication from experts, other reporters and I consulted a file kept in the city room that contained names and phone numbers of various authorities, such as those on Abraham Lincoln. Reporters were to contact an authority in the file for a subject if that was considered necessary or would add to the story.
The problem with consulting so-called authorities is, they may be prejudiced in their views. These views may then not only appear in the first publication as gospel, but they are often perpetuated when they are included in future articles in that or other publications.
In the case of the Mariah Vance book, Ostendorf and I were never once interviewed to defend its integrity, and our efforts to have our defenses published were ignored by the media and others we contacted. The unfounded charges of fraud, plagiarism, and questionable authenticity continue to haunt our reputations and the book.
In cases where “experts” have strong opinions on possibly controversial subjects, or take issue with others’ viewpoints, a reporter and publication or other media person should be sure that a rebuttal or conflicting viewpoint is expressed and published, so both sides of a story are told. Unfortunately, the time-honored practice of fairness has often been ignored by today’s media.
There apparently is another reason some Lincoln scholars who are very influential with the media tried to keep the Mariah Vance memoirs from being published. She was a Black woman and, traditionally, Black input into Lincoln and American history has been rejected by many professors or ignored by the media.
An example is, after Lincoln was assassinated, Blacks who knew him were not interviewed for their first-hand knowledge of him. These included his Black barber in Springfield who must have been privy to a great deal of conversations Lincoln had with others in the tonsorial parlor over the years which would reflect on his views on many subjects.
Another example is the difficulty that Elizabeth Keckley, a Black woman who was Mary Lincoln’s dressmaker in the White House, had in getting her memoirs published. After her book, Behind the Scenes, Or Thirty Years a Slave, and Four Years in the White House, was finally published in 1868, scholars discredited her book saying they didn’t believe it.
According to Lincoln historian Mark E. Neely Jr., an Associated Press article in 1935 claimed Elizabeth Keckley never existed and her book actually was written by a White woman journalist. This attempt to discredit Mrs. Keckley and her knowledge of the Lincolns was corrected years later by John E. Washington in his book about Negroes who had
known Lincoln. Largely because of the devastating reviews of Keckley’s book by an earlier Lincoln high priesthood, she fell on hard times and died in the Home for Destitute Colored Women and Children in Washington in 1907.
To summarize the history of objection to Mariah Vance’s memoirs, it is apparent that many Lincoln scholars, mostly professors -- many of them members of the Abraham Lincoln Association -- who only endorse each other’s books on Lincoln for publication, and their wives’ books on Mary Lincoln, use their academic credentials and influence with literary agents, book editors and publishers, and reporters and others in the media to get their books published, and also to keep those not in their inner circle of colleagues from being published. This so-called “Lincoln high priesthood” also may work together to destroy an “outsider’s” book’s credibility after it has been published.
Also, book publishers rely too heavily, if not exclusively, on accepting for publication the work of those with academic degrees, especially advanced degrees, who are affiliated with a university, denying publication to those without degrees or academic credentials such as journalists or others who have vast knowledge of a subject but no PhD or university affiliation.
If this had been the case in years past, some of the greatest works on Abraham Lincoln and the Civil War, such as those by Carl Sandburg, Bruce Catton, Shelby Foote and others never would have been published because they were not professors, they were newspaper journalists. But today, a writer not in the good graces of those with PhD initials after their name who set themselves up as authorities on a subject can get on a high priesthood hit list that the media treats like a Bible.
Ostendorf’s and my main goal was to get Mariah Vance’s memoirs as told to and later written by Adah Sutton published so readers could decide for themselves what to believe.
It was like trying to help two old ladies across the street against very heavy traffic. We were all run down, by the Lincoln high priesthood, the power-grip of academia on publishing, and the media that too often no longer believes in covering both, if not all, sides of a story.
When I covered the Tony Accardo tax evasion trial in federal court in Chicago in 1960 as a reporter for the Chicago Tribune, I got more fair treatment from the Mafia than I did years later from the Lincoln high priesthood on the Lincoln book.
Why am I telling you all this 14 years after being mugged by “that vicious bunch,” and the Lincoln book is out of print? To finally get the whole story published and on the record.
And the “story” boils down to this simple question: Who owns Abraham Lincoln? A high priesthood of so-called scholars who control what you read and know about him, and who can prevent you from reading what they don’t agree with? Or you, the people, whose Constitutional freedom of speech and press guarantees are being denied?
Happy Birthday, Mr. Lincoln. My book about you and Mariah Vance was an adventure from which I didn’t make a dime and instead got mugged, libeled, and slandered. But as a writer I wouldn’t have missed it for all the rails you split.
Comments are welcomed on this blog, or you may e-mail me at firstname.lastname@example.org
Captions to the photos:
Portrait of Lincoln: A daguerreotype taken in 1846, four years before Mariah Vance began working in the Lincoln home in Springfield, Ill. Original photo in the Library of Congress.
Portrait of Mary Todd Lincoln: An 1846 photograph. Original photo in the Library of Congress.
Photograph of the Lincoln home with Willie and Tad.
Portrait of Mariah Vance drawn in 1956 by Lloyd Ostendorf based on description by Adah Sutton. Courtesy the Lloyd Ostendorf estate.
Mariah Vance (right) and daughter Julia Vance Patterson, age 16, in an 1864 tintype. Courtesy the Lloyd Ostendorf estate.