The Elusive Ann Rutledge

The alluring uncertainty of Ann Rutledge.  Her ungraspability. She was elusive to the young Abe Lincoln too.  She shone as she ran with her blue eyes and long red hair through his dark little village and he loved her but she was engaged to another man. When she died he threw himself on her grave lest the rain beat on her where she lay. She was a fleeting wind through his life.    

Ungraspable as Ann was, my fascination with her over forty-some years of Lincoln study lured me increasingly beyond spirit to spirit made flesh.  I wanted to see Ann’s auburn hair flowing in that wind she came in and went back to.  To feel the soft warmth that Lincoln felt.  I wanted to see her move and hear her talk.  To set her in motion as the young Lincoln’s match in emotional hide-and-seek, and tell the story they might have lived.  Young and enthralled in romance.  That’s the Abe and Ann story I wanted to tell.   

Yes, there was plenty else going on as both of them lived their days in a little prairie village from April, 1831, to August, 1835.  But I wanted to see the rest of their doings  through their love story at a time in their lives—he was twenty-two when they met, and she eighteen—when if they loved their love was all-powerful. To give that story to readers: not a great man’s biography with ponderous implications, but a lyrical love story like an arrow to the heart.  

The more I wrote about Ann the more her complexity grew, as the best characters do, and the more she decided her paths instead of me, from motivations I learned as we went.  And as she fled before me, to paraphrase Sir Thomas Wyatt in the sixteenth century, fainting I followed, as Abe did.   Catch her from time to time as I might, I found that Ann never suffered from more knowing, but always became more – more complex, more flawed, more inspiring – and I more in love with her. 


The story starts in history.  Even if historians don’t always agree on the particulars.  

Ann Rutledge has been a part of just about every Lincoln biography since late 1866 when Lincoln’s law partner William Herndon, working on a life of the slain hero, proclaimed her importance after interviewing people who knew Lincoln in his early twenties in the tiny village of New Salem, Illinois.  Documents and personal testimony from that time leave no doubt that Ann existed, and that Lincoln knew her.  She and not he was the famous one when they met, he being a nobody who hiked into town in an ill-fitting checked blue shirt and home-made brown jeans, and she being the lively and admired daughter of the founder of the town who owned the tavern where Lincoln stayed.  Abe and Ann became friends; many of Herndon’s informants emphasized this.  The Library of Congress owns a copy of Kirkham’s Grammar that is believed to have been  Lincoln’s before he gave it to Ann.  He went around her house, some said, like a member of the family.  And more than one contemporary tells us that he was the last person she asked to see on her deathbed.  That Ann existed and the two were friends is not in dispute.  The question is whether the two were in love, and if so how they managed that while Ann was, as witnesses also tell us, engaged to another man.  

When told by its first 19th Century popularizers the story of Lincoln’s romance with Ann Rutledge was widely if not completely accepted as truth.  That’s why in 1916 Edgar Lee Masters could grow up thinking that the love affair was not only real but changed Lincoln and America.  Edwin Markham published a similar tribute in the 1920’s.  And this vision of the tale was still strong in 1926 when Carl Sandburg’s first Lincoln biography depicted the brawny young Abe whispering Ann’s name to the darkness in the glow of the coals lighting his study of Kirkham’s Grammar.

But a few years later 20th century historians measured the story by scholarly standards of proof and found it wanting.  Its death was pronounced in the 1940’s by historian James G. Randall, that time’s dean of Lincoln experts, whose judgment then ruled the field.  The love story was a myth, the critics said, a friendship rose-tinted to a romantic legend.

Or maybe not.  Fifty years after Randall’s verdict, new scholarship published in the 1990’s changed the picture again.  Going back to apply something like forensic measures of witness testimony to the original Herndon notes, biographers like Douglas L. Wilson concluded that “…the testimony relating to Lincoln’s love affair with Ann Rutledge was not induced or fabricated… and that it is not only basically consistent but fairly overwhelming.”  In his 1998 book Honor’s Voice, Wilson credits historian John Y. Simon for his important 1990 essay “Abraham Lincoln and Ann Rutledge,” and John Evangelist Walsh for his 1993 full-length investigation of the Ann Rutledge evidence, The Shadows Rise.  Simon’s conclusion, vividly confirmed by Walsh’s account: “Although the full story of Lincoln and Ann Rutledge will never be known, the reality of that story appears certain.”  The effect of these and supporting publications over the last twenty years has been to transform the young Lincoln’s love for Ann Rutledge while she was engaged to another man from a sensational fringe tale to the growing new consensus of the Lincoln community.   

A quick Google check is instructive.  When I searched for “Ann Rutledge” my first hit was Wikipedia saying the love affair is fiercely debated by historians, second was a journal article by a pop novelist skeptical of the romance, and third was the John Y. Simon scholarly essay that helped establish the new verdict that the love story is true.  It’s important to note that Simon, who died in 2008, was no wild-eyed romantic but a much-awarded senior academic historian who was, for instance, editor of the papers of Ulysses S. Grant.  Douglas L. Wilson, the other main advocate of the new consensus, won the prestigious Lincoln Prize for the book in which he espoused the theory, a clear signal that his judgment is taken seriously.  

So if the love affair was real, what could it have been like?  Well, what were Ann and Abe like?  

Instead of just giving you the scholarly distillation that the real Ann Rutledge—18 through 22 years old when she knew Lincoln—had brains, beauty, quickness, and a truly kind heart, let me show you what scholars saw in the sources.  

Ann’s fiancé John McNamar, alias John McNeil, recalled her this way: “She had blue eyes and auburn hair…. was fair and her form well-rounded…. Miss Ann was a gentle Amiable Maiden without any of the airs of your City Belles….”  Mentor Graham (yes, Abe and Ann’s teacher was really named “Mentor”) tells us that Ann stood about five feet four, and weighed about 125 pounds:  “…outlines beautiful… fair complexion with sandy or light auburn hair… a mouth that was well-made, beautiful, with good teeth, and eyes that were blue, large and expressive.”   She was “vigorous” and “ingenious.”  As her sometime teacher, he observed that she was an exceptionally good scholar in all the common branches including grammar.  And in general he said as others did, that “She was beloved of everybody and she loved everybody.”

Others add to what Mentor Graham tells us about Ann’s mind.  Lincoln’s good friend William Greene remembered Ann this way:  “This young lady was a woman of exquisite beauty, but her intellect was quick – sharp—deep & philosophical as well as brilliant. She had as gentle and kind a heart as an angel, full of love—kindness—sympathy.  McGrady Rutledge, Ann’s favorite cousin, said, “She was well educated for that early day, a good conversationalist….”  And Ann’s brother John tells us that Ann was a good singer as well as being a good talker: “I have heard mother say that Anne would frequently sing for Lincoln’s benefit.  She had a clear, ringing voice.” Does she sound like a woman fetching to a thoughtful country boy?

In these formative years in New Salem, the beardless raw-boned Lincoln was not an accomplished noble-minded statesman, nor even yet a wily frontier lawyer. Just off his daddy’s frontier farm when he met Ann, he had one change of ill-fitting clothes and was timid and homely and had never had a girl friend. Witnesses at the time described him as if his poverty and awkwardness were obvious even among a village of people low on money and civilization.  But if he was a nobody he was determined to become a somebody, and that meant getting out of manual labor and into something you do with your mind, and in cleaner clothes.  He started by doing odd jobs, then kept store, and did not know yet that he would take the path that now seems inevitable to us, from store-keeping to surveying to law and politics.  He’d thought about law but truly doubted that his education -- one year of country school – was enough for that.  Would the awkward Abe have been amazed that a “handsome” and “brilliant” young woman took a fancy to him?  Would her interest in him encourage his belief that he was born for more than splitting rails?  

Was he in love with her? 

Lincoln himself was asked this question directly by his New Salem friend Isaac Cogdale in a nostalgic talk they had when Lincoln was about to leave Springfield for Washington.  Lincoln said this: “It is true—true indeed. I have loved the name of Rutledge to this day…. I ran off the track (when she died).  It was my first…. I did honestly and truly love the girl, and think often, often of her now.”  Arminda Rogers (Rankin), through her son Henry, declared her recollection of tutoring Ann in Kirkham’s Grammar during the “latter part of 1834,” and of seeing Ann and Abe together and seeing their growing interest in each other and that there was “a new love coming into her life.” One of Ann’s sisters noticed it too: “If you saw them together you knew they were in love.”  

William Greene, a close friend of Lincoln’s, is direct about their plans as well as their love: “He in the years 1833 & 4 was in love with a young lady in New Salem by the name of Ann Rutledge.  She accepted the overtures of Lincoln and they were engaged to be married.”  Mentor Graham too claimed to have known the secret:  “Lincoln and she were engaged—Lincoln told me so—she intimated to me the same.”  And Ann’s little brother Robert Rutledge says he was in on the couple’s quiet wedding plans:  “Mr. Lincoln courted Ann, resulting in a second engagement…”  Robert said the two agreed to get married after Lincoln became a lawyer.   

When Ann died Abe’s deep feeling was clear for all to see.  Hardin Bale said that, “… Lincoln was locked up by his friends—Samuel Hill and others, to prevent derangement or suicide – so hard did he take her death.”  Bill Greene spoke too of Lincoln’s friends’ worries that he might harm himself.  “Mr. Lincoln’s friends…were compelled to keep watch and ward on Mr. Lincoln, he being from the shock somewhat temporarily deranged.  Elizabeth Abell said of Lincoln’s grief for Ann that she had never seen “a man mourn for a companion more than he did for her…. This was the time the community said he was crazy.” Ann’s sister Jean reported hearing that even when the worst of Lincoln’s mourning was over, “…he would go alone to her grave & sit there in silence for hours.”  


Do we know for sure that Abe and Ann were in love?  No, and as historian John Simon says, we probably never will.  Which is perfect for the storyteller, whose job is not to establish historical truth, but to animate the outline of historical developments with the warm doings and sayings of flesh-and-blood humans to explore and celebrate the human spirit.  They were two book-loving friends in a tiny village, the storyteller thinks. Abe came and went “like a member of the family” at the Rutledge house.  They wanted to get married.  And when he and Ann were together, what did they do?  

What do young people do when they’re in love?  Make eyes at each other, tease, hold hands, eat, talk, fight, make-up, work, play, eat, plan, hug, dream, fight, make-up, plan… make love? Over 50 percent of children born on the American frontier were conceived out of wedlock, some say including Lincoln’s mother. What did Abe and Ann do if they were human, and had human nature and senses of humor and hormones and hope and ambition when they were young and in love?  What did they share that made Abe suicidal when Ann died?  What did they feel and do that led the bearded President-Elect Lincoln to say 26 years after Ann’s death: “I did honestly and truly love the girl, and think often, often of her now”?  

Abe and Ann are legends now, but they were real people, and like most real people in another time – or even our own time -- unknowable.  Are they more like us than not?  Remember, we can read their story but we can only feel our own feelings.  I’ve tried to grasp Ann and what she might have shared with Abe Lincoln, not only in the fairy tale of the grand but in the fairy tale of the ordinary too.  Maybe the best I could do was to slow Ann up a while so that we can see and hear her as she moves on through our lives the way she did through Abe Lincoln’s life, part of a motion and a spirit, as she might say, that rolls through all things.  That’s my “ingenious” auburn-haired, bright-eyed Ann Rutledge.  Always present as she must have been for Abraham Lincoln, and always elusive.