Rare Book Monthly

Articles - February - 2011 Issue

Lincoln Forgery Revealed

Lincforgeddate

The "5" in 1865 was written in 1998, and obviously not by Lincoln.

A forgery on a Lincoln document came to light last month twelve years after the document's "discovery" in 1998. The forgery does not alter history in any major way, nor will it change our view of a man many consider America's greatest president. What it does throw light on is an amateur historian's apparent attempt to build a reputation for himself at the expense of historical accuracy, with countless people being fooled by the details if not the substance. Many may see this incident as a tempest in a teapot, but for those who believe in the sanctity of historical accuracy and truth, this incident is a painful reminder of how easily history can be distorted when people willfully deceive to advance their own interests.

 

The document was a pardon Lincoln signed for an army deserter, one Patrick Murphy of California. He had been convicted in a court-martial and sentenced to be shot. It was also apparent that Murphy suffered from mental illness, and the mentally ill were generally discharged from service rather than shot. President Lincoln agreed with this procedure, so on Private Murphy's appeal he wrote, "This man is pardoned and hereby ordered to be discharged from the service." He then added his customary "A Lincoln" signature. There was nothing very unusual here, and the forgery was small, a simple change in one number, a "4" partly erased with a "5" superimposed on top.

 

That changed digit appeared in the date. What had originally been dated April 14, 1864, was changed to read April 14, 1865. That change seems insignificant until you remember what happened on that day, April 14, 1865. That was the day Lincoln was assassinated as he watched a play in Ford's Theater. This would make it one of the last, if not the last order Lincoln ever signed. A change in one digit converted this from a routine, ordinary document, to one of historical significance. Indeed, after its "discovery," the document became part of several Lincoln exhibitions, a final piece to one of the greatest careers in American history.

 

Why would someone have made this forgery? Certainly it would have greatly increased the value of this otherwise ordinary document, but no one stood to make a financial gain. The document belonged then and now to the National Archives, which has no intention of ever selling it. The answer is that it brought great recognition to its finder, an amateur historian from Virginia named Thomas Lowry. Lowry spent time pouring over Lincoln documents at the National Archives, but his amateur status left him in obscurity in Lincoln circles. However, with the "discovery" of what might have been the last order Lincoln ever signed, he became a celebrity in the field, even if the rest of us who don't study Lincolniana in such detail never heard of him. He became a big fish in a small pond, recognized for his finding something of importance in his research. He then went on to author a couple of books about Lincoln.

 

After several years on exhibition, one of the archivists for the National Archives, Trevor Plante, noticed something odd about the date. The number "5" seemed to be in a slightly darker ink than the "186." There also appeared to be shades of something else underneath the "5." That led to some more digging and the determination that Murphy had not been pardoned on the day Lincoln was assassinated, but exactly one year prior to that date. That in turn led to an interview with Mr. Lowry and a confession on January 12, 2011, that he had taken a fountain pen into the archives and altered the date. Mr. Lowry has since recanted his confession, saying he was pressured into it, and that someone else had made the change. The National Archives are not buying into this story. Mr. Lowry is safe from prosecution as the Statute of Limitations on the crime has expired. However, the 78-year-old accused forger has been permanently banned from all facilities of the National Archives.

 

Some people considered this pardon on the last day of his life a sign of Lincoln's humanity. Actually, the date would only have mattered if Lincoln had known this would be the last day of his life, which obviously he did not. Nonetheless, as anyone with only a passing familiarity with the man already knows, he had a deep streak of compassion and humanity. He was a fierce leader in the Civil War, a man so dedicated to preserving the Union that he was willing to do whatever was necessary to prevent its dissolution, though he knew it would result in great human sacrifice. Still, his presidency is filled with pardons such as this. He had no desire to punish, and fully understood the pressures of army life. He was quick to forgive transgressions, while being unbendingly determined to preserve the Union. Regardless of the date, this pardon is a display of the great leader's compassion. He died way too soon.

 

Rare Book Monthly

  • <b>19th Century Shop:</b> Charles Darwin on sexuality and the transmission of hereditary characteristics: Autograph Letter Signed to Lawson Tait. Down, 17 January [1877].
    <b>19th Century Shop:</b> MILTON, JOHN. <i>Paradise Lost. A Poem written in ten books.</i> London: 1667. A very rare example with the contemporary binding untouched and with a 1667 title page.
    <b>19th Century Shop:</b> Hamilton secures the ratification of the Constitution: <i>The Debates and Proceedings of the Convention of the State of New-York, assembled at Poughkeespsie, on the 17th June, 1788.</i>
    <b>19th Century Shop:</b> The social contract “Man is born free, and everywhere he is in chains”: ROUSSEAU, JEAN-JACQUES. <i>Principes du Droit Politique [Du Contract Social]</i>. Amsterdam: Michel Rey, 1762
    <b>19th Century Shop:</b> “The first English textbook on geometrical land-measurement and surveying”: BENESE, RICHARD. <i>This Boke Sheweth the Maner of Measurynge All Maner of Lande…</i>
  • <b>Swann Auction Galleries Mar 8:<br>Early Printed, Medical, Scientific & Travel Books</b>
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries Mar 8:</b> Caius Julius Hyginus, <i>Poeticon Astronomicon,</i> first illustrated edition, Venice, 1482. $15,000 to $20,000.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries Mar 8:</b> Giovanni Botero, <i>Le Relationi Universali... divise in Sette Parti</i>, Venice, 1618. $3,000 to $5,000.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries Mar 8:</b> <i>L'Escole des Filles</i>, likely third edition of the first work of pornographic fiction in French, 1676. $8,000 to $12,000.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries Mar 8:<br>Early Printed, Medical, Scientific & Travel Books</b>
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries Mar 8:</b> Illuminated Book of Hours in Latin on vellum, Flanders, early 16th century. $6,000 to $9,000.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries Mar 8:</b> Johannes Regiomontanus, <i>Calendarium,</i> Venice, 1485. $8,000 to $12,000.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries Mar 8:</b> Pedro de Medina, <i>Libro d[e] gra[n]dezas y cosas memorables de España,</i> Alcalá de Henares, 1566. $3,000 to $5,000.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries Mar 8:<br>Early Printed, Medical, Scientific & Travel Books</b>
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries Mar 8:</b><br>Luis de Lucena, <i>Arte de Ajedres,</i> Salamanca, circa 1496-97. $10,000 to $15,000.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries Mar 8:</b> Andrés Serrano, <i>Los Siete Principes de los Ángeles, válidos de Rey del Cielo,</i> Spain, 1707. $800 to $1,200.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries Mar 8:</b> Johannes de Sacrobosco, <i>Sphaera mundi,</i> first illustrated edition, Venice, 1478. $15,000 to $20,000.
  • <b>Bonhams, Feb. 11:</b> A Rare 3-rotor German Enigma I Enciphering Machine. $70,000 to $90,000
    <b>Bonhams, Feb. 11:</b> Important collection of correspondence between Werner Heisenberg and Bruno Rossi. $40,000 to $60,000
    <b>Bonhams, Feb. 11:</b> Walt Whitman Autograph manuscript containing his thoughts on death. $20,000 to $30,000
    <b>Bonhams, Feb. 11:</b> David Roberts. <i>Holy Land</i>. Six volumes. 1842-1849. First edition. $15,000 to $25,000
    <b>Bonhams, Feb. 11:</b> Extensive collection of Ray Bradbury's primary works, most signed or inscribed. $15,000 to $20,000
    <b>Bonhams, Feb. 11:</b> Peter Force. Declaration of Independence. $12,000 to $18,000
    <b>Bonhams, Feb. 11:</b> Steinbeck. <i>Grapes of Wrath</i>. A fine copy of the first edition. $10,000 to $15,000
    <b>Bonhams, Feb. 11:</b> Lewis & Clark. <i>Travels to the Source of the Missouri River</i>... First English edition, extra-illustrated. 1814. $10,000 to 15,000
    <b>Bonhams, Feb. 11:</b> Manuscript document signed by Nuno de Guzman relating to Hernan Cortes, 1528. $8,000 to $12,000
    <b>Bonhams, Feb. 11:</b> “Nos los inquisidores..." The first book in English printed West of the Mississippi. [1787]. $5,000 to $8,000.

Article Search

Archived Articles

Ask Questions