Virtual flowers at Ann’s grave–popular memory and the limits of scholarship

When I went to Springfield a few years ago, one of my priorities was to make the short drive up to Lincoln’s New Salem State Historic Site.  I hit a lot of Lincoln sites on that trip—the Presidential Library and Museum, his home, his law office, his tomb—but New Salem was pretty hard to beat.

Since I was going to be in the neighborhood, I wanted to see the burial place of Ann Rutledge, arguably New Salem’s most famous resident besides Lincoln himself.  She was the daughter of one of the town’s most prominent citizens and, according to some historians, Lincoln’s first love interest; her death in August 1835 supposedly threw him into a deep depression.

Of course, all this is controversial.  William Herndon, Lincoln’s last law partner and one of his early biographers, first promoted the story of Abe’s doomed romance with Ann, which he pieced together from interviews with people who knew them.  He went so far as to argue that Lincoln never really loved anyone else, which predictably went over badly with the woman he actually did marry.

The story took on a life of its own, becoming a staple of many popular reconstructions of Lincoln’s early life.  Things changed in the mid-twentieth century, due to the work of James G. Randall, author of Lincoln the President.  Both Randall and his wife Mary (biographer of Lincoln’s wife) became vocal critics of the Ann Rutledge legend, arguing that the story was just sentimental nonsense whipped up out of Herndon’s dislike for Mary Todd Lincoln.  Since then, scholars like Douglas Wilson and John Walsh have given Herndon’s evidence some fresh attention, although there are still skeptics.

Having read quite a few secondary studies as well as the testimony collected by Herndon, I’m pretty convinced that Lincoln and Ann were close, and perhaps even had some kind of tentative agreement to marry, as Herndon related.  I also don’t doubt that Ann’s death was a serious emotional crisis for Lincoln.  But I think the idea that he never loved anyone besides her is totally unwarranted.  His willingness to wed Mary Owens shortly after Ann’s death, and his affectionate (if difficult) marriage to Mary Todd, indicate that he was capable of moving on.  I think Herndon was guilty of overstatement and exaggeration, but not outright fabrication.

Whatever turn scholarship takes, out there in the realm of popular memory a lot of people seem to have made up their own minds.  They’re not just sure that Lincoln and Ann fell in love; they’re equally sure that they were destined to be together.

I figured this out during my Springfield trip.  I didn’t know how to get to Ann’s grave, so I headed down to the computer in my hotel’s lobby to print out some directions.  I actually ended up finding two burial sites instead of one.  When Ann died, she was first laid to rest at a cemetery in Concord, several miles from New Salem.  Today a monument marks the spot, but Ann isn’t there.  Her remains were moved to the nearby town of Petersburg in 1890, and she now lies in the same cemetery as poet Edgar Lee Masters, who coincidentally wrote the epitaph on her current tombstone.  (You can read the inscription, see some photos, and read more information about the Ann Rutledge legend here.)

While browsing online for directions, I found that both burial sites, the original one and the current one, are featured on a site called Find a Grave.  It’s a database for information on the burials of the famous and the non-famous, where you can see pictures, read bios, and even leave virtual “flowers” and a note of remembrance.  When I stumbled across Ann’s two graves, I started browsing through the comments people had left behind.  They were interesting reading. 

As of this writing, there are 145 notes at Ann’s current burial site, and they indicate that Herndon’s notion of “Lincoln’s one true love” remains alive and well, at least for many people.  “Your love for Abraham Lincoln’ was so real,” reads one.  “We thank you for giving him that part of yourself. Restful sleep.”

“ABE WAS SO LUCKY TO HAVE YOU AS HIS GIRLFRIEND AND YOU WERE AN ANGEL TO LOVE HIM. I SINCERELY BELIEVE THAT BOTH OF YOU ARE REUNITED IN GOD’S PARADISE AND ARE ETERNALLY HAPPY,” reads another. 

An anonymous visitor was one of several who left this poem: “Of all sad words of tongue and pen, The saddest is these–it might have Been.”

Perhaps most interesting is this remark: “For the one Abe should have married; his one true love.”  (That whirring sound you hear is Mary Todd Lincoln spinning in her grave.)

Comments left at Ann’s original grave are similar.  “Happy birthday to the love of Abraham Lincoln’s life.”  “The Flower of Remeberance for a young woman beloved of a great man, a young woman who died too young.”  “You would have been proud of how Abraham turned out–our most famous and beloved president!”

What fascinates me about this is that it’s an exercise in democratic history.  Anybody and everybody can leave a virtual flower and a note.  Find a Grave doesn’t require citations, primary sources, or an institutional affiliation.  It’s pure, unfiltered popular historical memory.  And they reveal that a lot of people are perfectly willing to adopt the whole Ann Rutledge legend in its entirety, in the form Herndon told it back in the late 1800′s.  For these people, Lincoln and Ann didn’t just have a relationship.  They believe she was the one love of his life, that they were meant to be together forever, and that in fact they now are.

What this suggests to me is that historical scholarship’s impact on what people actually believe is often limited.  Historians and researchers can weigh evidence, make qualifications, and reach theri careful conclusions.  Most people, meanwhile, will believe whatever seems right to them.  What evidently seems right to many is the idea of a tragic hero who’s finally reunited with the young woman he should have had all along, whether historians agree or not.

(Ann Rutledge grave photo from Find a Grave)

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6 Comments

Filed under Abraham Lincoln, History and Memory, History on the Web

6 responses to “Virtual flowers at Ann’s grave–popular memory and the limits of scholarship

  1. eljoe1235

    I read a Lincoln bio recently– Lincoln’s Melancholy by Joshua Wolf Shenk– which talked about the Rutledge thing in great depth. I seem to recall that his eventual conclusion was that while William Herndon was not entirely believable, than neither were James and Mary Randall. He seemed to take a view of this whole thing about like yours, perhaps a bit more inclined to think it was a serious thing.

    Shenk mostly concentrated on the fact that virtually every historian has his/her own personal slant, and will argue for that slant to the exclusion of other evidence that makes sense. Which is, of course, crossing the line between taking a historical stance and trying to re-author history.

    Basically, if Mary Todd Lincoln hadn’t been a crazy old shrew, the Ann Rutledge thing probably would’ve been totally forgotten. Apparently, she (MTL) pissed off Herndon one time too many, and the rest, well, straddles the border of myth and history.

  2. mlynchhistory

    I think Shenk’s book was good–much better than most of the attempts to explain Lincoln by diagnosing him with something.

    What amazes me about Herndon’s research is how much of our understanding of Lincoln’s earlier years relies on it. I’d always read accounts of Lincoln’s boyhood and young adulthood without really wondering where all those stories came from. When I finally read the published edition of Herndon’s interview notes, I thought to myself, “Holy cow–practically EVERYTHING I’ve ever read about Lincoln’s life up through age thirty came from here!”

    –ML

  3. eljoe1235

    It is certainly a bit disconcerting. I am reminded of my fascination with Lincoln’s “birthplace” in Hodgenville. It’s gone from “THIS IS THE BIRTHPLACE” to “This MIGHT be the birthplace”, to “This probably wasn’t the birthplace, but it COULD be” to “This is a house made of wood, and we think Lincoln’s birthplace was probably made of wood too.”

    It is an unfortunate truth that for people of a certain social classification, there were little to no records of anything. It was true of Shakespeare, it was true of Lincoln, it was true as recently as in the case of Delta blues guitar legend Robert Johnson.

  4. mlynchhistory

    On the upside, the cabin at Hodgenville might at least contain a few pieces of the birthplace.

    –ML

  5. Nice Insight.

    I am fascinated with history and the characters that actually bring history to life as well.

    I hope to read more of your insightful postings.

  6. Angelique

    I have no problem believing that Ann and Abe were fond of one another and MIGHT have gotten married if Fate hadn’t decreed otherwise. I reject as completely BOGUS the idea that he didn’t love the woman he eventually married…Mary Todd, even though “Molly” didn’t make it easy for him. LOVE IS ETERNAL is what he inscribed on the wedding band he gave her. Enough said. Sorry, Ann Rutledge fans!

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