Daily Archives: May 27, 2009

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.”


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)


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