Home / Fiction / Classic Fiction / The Lincoln Cult

The Lincoln Cult

Published: February 12, 2018

From the February 15, 1957 issue of The Saturday Evening Post

Abe Lincoln, a Union soldier, and a cake.

No other man ever won such a firm place in our hearts as Honest Abe, whose every act has been subjected to microscopic scrutiny. And the years witness an ever-widening expansion of The Lincoln Cult.

Every year when the twelfth of February comes around, Dr. R. Gerald McMurtry, of Fort Wayne, Indiana, gets a special birthday cake which his wife, Florence, knows exactly how to bake for him. It’s rather rich cake, containing whites of six eggs and a cup of chopped blanched almonds, with half a cup of candied pineapple and fine-chopped cherries poured into the icing. This isn’t for Doctor McMurtry’s birthday, however. It’s for Abraham Lincoln’s. The recipe was handed down in the family of Mary Todd Lincoln. Mrs. McMurtry learned it from her husband, a cheery, mild-mannered man with a Kentucky drawl who, as it happens, is one of the world’s leading professional Lincoln scholars.

“Lincoln had a great sweet tooth,” says McMurtry, who has honorary doctoral degrees from Centre College and Iowa Wesleyan. “For instance, in 1841 he wrote a letter to Mary Speed, of Louisville, Kentucky, telling how he remembered ‘delicious dishes of peaches and cream’ he used to get at her house. Otherwise, Lincoln was a spare eater. By the way, some authorities credit him with popularizing bacon fried crisp. He’s supposed to have taught soldiers around Washington, D.C., how to prepare bacon that way.”

Doctor McMurtry will gladly tell you anything you may wish to know about Abraham Lincoln and the Civil War period. If he doesn’t know right off, he can look it up handily in one of the largest collections of organized information ever gathered about any historical character, the Lincoln National Life Foundation library and museum at Fort Wayne. The foundation has more than 9000 books and pamphlets exclusively about Lincoln, including 300 in foreign languages. As director of the foundation, Doctor McMurtry answers several hundred letters a month from all over the world. He settles arguments on such subjects as Lincoln’s political views, his appearance, whether he ever visited a certain town or said this or that. Or, frequently, whether Abraham Lincoln was legitimate.

“He was, definitely,” Doctor McMurtry reports, patiently citing Kentucky documents and dates. Thomas Lincoln, Abe’s father, was married to Nancy Hanks on June 12, 1806, by the Reverend Jesse Head, a Methodist minister. Head’s return of this marriage can be seen today at the courthouse in Springfield, Kentucky. Lincoln was born in 1809.

Answering questions is only part of Doctor McMurtry’s job. He is constantly on the look-out for new material for the Fort Wayne collection. He travels here and there, lecturing before civic groups, schools and clubs. He edits Lincoln Lore, a monthly bulletin which goes out free on request to more than 6000 historians, collectors and nonprofessional Lincoln admirers, including Herbert Hoover, Cardinal Spellman and Jim Farley. A typical issue tells about Lincoln’s diverse occupations. He was a farmer, railsplitter, flatboatman, soldier, store clerk, postmaster, surveyor, lawyer, newspaper publisher, politician, and even inventor, having patented a device to help river boats navigate in shallow water.

Doctor McMurtry serves a vast and growing Lincoln cult which is, in itself, a national and international phenomenon. More and more people, it seems, are ravenous for information about every phase of Lincoln’s life, background and career. Every week in the year on an average, Doctor McMurtry says, at least one book or pamphlet is published about our sixteenth President. There are approximately 12,000 Lincoln publications available now. These range from learned biographies and popularizations such as Carl Sandburg’s famous works to peculiar titles like Lincoln Never Smoked a Cigarette or Lincoln and the Pig.

Besides reading about Lincoln and his times, the Lincoln cultists get together as often as they can to talk about him; they have discussion groups in all the major United States cities. London, England, has its active Civil War Round Table. The London group, McMurtry says, is particularly interested in the Confederate viewpoint. Doctor McMurtry’s remarkable public probably ranks as the world’s most active tourist clan too.

More than 2,000,000 people a year visit the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C., and some 200,000 go to the Ford Theater museum in the Capital. Elizabeth E. Hamer, of the Library of Congress, says most visitors to the library—about 750,000 annually—see the Lincoln exhibit there. It includes the first draft and reading copy of the Gettysburg Address, the Second Inaugural Address, and a page from Lincoln’s school note book. Mrs. Hamer is fond of a bit of doggerel scrawled in his notebook by the backwoods youth:

Abraham Lincoln, his hand and pen

He will be good, but God knows when.

The Library of Congress has President Lincoln’s personal papers, donated by his son, Robert Todd Lincoln, who died in 1926. Robert made a provision that the papers could not be opened until twenty-one years after his death. The opening, in 1947, was an exciting occasion for a select group of historians invited. Doctor McMurtry was among them, and he’ll never forget this curious Washington party.

“They almost rushed the guards for that first look,” he says. “The papers cleared up many problems, but there are more than eighteen thousand items in the collection. It will take another fifty years to evaluate them fully.”

Some 300,000 people a year go to view the birthplace log cabin at Abraham Lincoln National Historical Park, Hodgenville, Kentucky. One day last fall, Ernest L. Wright, Jr., superintendent, got to wondering where they came from. “We checked in forty-six states, the District of Columbia and thirty-one foreign countries,” he reports. At Springfield, Illinois, more than 500,000 visitors annually go through the sedate Lincoln home on Eighth Street, a big two-story frame structure with shuttered windows. Lincoln bought the house and lot for $1500 in 1844 from the Episcopal rector who had married him and Mary Todd.

“Most of our visitors are surprised that Mr. Lincoln had as nice a home as this,” says Mrs. J. H. Bradish, the custodian. “They just naturally think he jumped direct from the log cabin in Kentucky to the White House.” Women visitors are touched at the sight of little Tad Lincoln’s rocking horse, and tired businessmen smile appreciatively at the long horsehair sofa in the parlor. Lincoln, who stood six feet four, had the sofa specially made for himself.

Another 500,000 visitors annually sign their names at the Lincoln tomb, at Oak Ridge Cemetery, Springfield. Many of them continue their pilgrimage to the restored Lincoln village of New Salem, also in Illinois. All kinds of people come, from all walks of life.

Nearly every true Lincoln fan eventually becomes a collector—whether it be books, pictures, campaign ribbons or merely Lincoln pennies. Doctor McMurtry is a victim of this urge. His house on shady Rudisill Boulevard, Fort Wayne, is full of Lincolniana. His prize piece is one he found himself down in Kentucky, an old corner cupboard made of cherry and poplar which, he believes, was made by Thomas Lincoln. McMurtry got it from an elderly farm woman.

“The Lincoln family were en route to Indiana in a wagon,” Doctor McMurtry says. “As the story goes, they were fording a swollen stream and this cupboard fell in. Tom Lincoln decided to go on without it.”

Certain tricks of craftsmanship on other known Thomas Lincoln furniture, like Tom’s habit of nailing on decorative panels rather than carving them into the main piece, and his distinctive star-and-streamer fancywork design, indicate to Doctor McMurtry that his cupboard is the real thing.

In a safe, the museum has hairs from Abraham Lincoln’s head and a piece of the towel used to dress the President’s fatal wound. The hairs were removed by one William Slade, Lincoln’s messenger, shortly after the President died. Back in the foundation’s cluttered vaults are gavels made from wood allegedly taken from the birthplace farm and a piece of brick from Ford’s Theater. The bric-a-brac which keeps coming in is often a problem.

Admirers of Honest Abe have an unfortunate habit of “impounding” things to save them for posterity. McMurtry has turned down chips and slivers taken from the White House.

Some time ago a Wisconsin lady wrote Doctor McMurtry offering a slightly moth-eaten tail feather from an eagle named “Old Abe” carried by the 8th Wisconsin Regiment in the Civil War.

“We didn’t buy it at the time, but we do have a feather from that eagle now,” Doctor McMurtry said.

People are always bringing in old letters, pictures, and so forth, wanting to know if they are genuine. A few of them are. Most of them, unfortunately, are not—and it makes these folks pretty sore when McMurtry has to break the sad news to them.

“I hate to hurt their feelings, but it’s my duty,” he says.

One item causes Doctor McMurtry and his Fort Wayne colleagues considerable embarrassment. For many years the foundation has published, as a courtesy, reprints of the Gettysburg Address in Lincoln’s handwriting on fine paper resembling sheepskin and marked as facsimiles. Somebody finds an old one in the attic and brings it in for appraisal. Actually, five autograph copies of the Gettysburg Address are known to be in existence, including Lincoln’s first draft, the reading text, and revised copies he gave out after the speech was made. Oscar B. Cintas, former Cuban ambassador to the United States, paid $54,000 for an authentic copy. The Illinois State Historical Library at Springfield has a copy Lincoln wrote out for Edward Everett. This, along with Everett’s own speech at Gettysburg, was purchased for $60,000. Part of the money was provided by school children of Illinois. In 1952 Doctor McMurtry attended the biggest sale of Lincolniana ever held, that from the estate of Oliver R. Barrett, Chicago lawyer, at the Parke-Bemet Galleries on Madison Avenue, New York. Proceeds were more than $200,000.

If, while rummaging through an old trunk, you should happen to find the original of Lincoln’s famous letter of November 21, 1864, to Mrs. Bixby, the Boston mother of five sons “who have died gloriously on the field of battle,” you might have something even more valuable than the Gettysburg Address, McMurtry says. The original Bixby letter has never been located. As a matter of fact, there are quite a few authentic pieces of Lincoln’s handwriting around. Their value, according to Doctor McMurtry, depends on their historical significance.

“For a plain autograph cut-out, and there are lots of these, collectors pay around twenty-five dollars,”he says. “An ordinary Lincoln letter brings around five hundred dollars. But I’d pay all I could raise for a letter in which President Lincoln might have said, ‘We are going to Ford’s Theater tonight.’”

The Fort Wayne museum and other collectors are even willing to pay for Lincoln forgeries—that is, if they’re good ones. Among the more popular known forged items are pictures and “old papers” attested by one William P. Brown. He was Mrs. Lincoln’s Negro coachman, and McMurtry believes he probably did receive a few genuine keepsakes from the President’s widow.

Incidentally, both Doctor McMurtry and his long-time associate, Dr. Louis A. Warren, director emeritus of the foundation, have little patience with the opinion widely held nowadays that Mary Todd Lincoln was a shrewish First Lady who gave her husband a terrible time.

“Mary Todd Lincoln was probably the most helpful influence in President Lincoln’s career,” Doctor McMurtry says. “It’s true, she did have a temper and would get mad at Abe now and then, but what wife wouldn’t? Abe wasn’t an ideal husband himself; he was too busy with his law practice and with affairs of state. It is also true that Mrs. Lincoln became emotionally ill and eventually had to be hospitalized. Most of this trouble came after the death of their son, Willie, and after Lincoln’s assassination; it’s understandable. But the main facts about Mary Todd Lincoln as we now understand them are that she was a good wife and a good mother. Lincoln loved her.”

Perhaps the most important part of Doctor McMurtry’s contribution is this work of clearing up misconceptions and myths that have, somehow, grown up around Abraham Lincoln.

“A lot of it is really folklore, and some of this is quite appealing,” Doctor McMurtry said. “For instance, there’s a story still current among Southern Illinois farmers that the brown thrushes didn’t sing for a year after Abraham Lincoln was killed. A very common one is the story about Lincoln having said, in answer to complaints that General Grant was drinking too much, that he wished he could get some of the same brand of whisky for his other generals. That’s in character, all right, but it’s folklore—the same statement was attributed to George III.”

There is still a raging controversy among Lincoln experts over the legitimacy of Nancy Hanks. Warren, a noted documentarian, says these charges are unfounded. McMurtry says he isn’t sure—“It’s a thing I’m not very interested in.” One Lincoln legend Doctor McMurtry hates to demolish for romantics who dote on it is that young Abraham Lincoln was hopelessly in love with fair haired Ann Rutledge and never quite got over losing her.

“Lincoln was acquainted with Ann Rutledge in the village of New Salem before he went to Springfield to practice law,” McMurtry says. “He liked her, and felt badly about it when she died. But there is no reliable evidence that he ever wanted to marry Ann.”

Doctor McMurtry’s services to the Lincoln public, for which he takes no pay beyond his salary, are made possible by the Lincoln National Life Insurance Company, whose founder, the late Arthur F. Hall, was an ardent Hoosier devotee of the Emancipator. A prized museum item is a letter written in 1905 to Mr. Hall by Robert Todd Lincoln. The letter authorizes “use of a portrait of my father upon the letterhead of such a life insurance company named after him,” and Robert enclosed a favorite Brady photograph of his father. They still have it at Fort Wayne, along with 130 other original photographs of Lincoln.

The historical foundation was organized in 1928, with Doctor Warren as its first director. He had been Gerald McMurtry’s Sunday-school teacher down in Elizabethtown, Kentucky, and brought him to Fort Wayne as his assistant in 1931. After five years at Fort Wayne, McMurtry went to Lincoln Memorial University at Harrogate, Tennessee, where he headed the Department of Lincolniana, edited the quarterly Lincoln Herald, and built up an outstanding museum. Last year, unusually youthful-looking at fifty and still full of lively curiosity about Lincoln, McMurtry took over as director when his elder mentor, Warren, retired to write and lecture.

Doctor McMurtry was out of the Lincoln business for one year in 1936, when he decided to try selling insurance with his family’s agency at Elizabethtown.

“I couldn’t get much done,” he recalls. “People knew I was a Lincoln student. Somebody would call me on the telephone and ask me to come over. I’d think I was going to make a sale, but when I’d get there, the customer would say he found an old Civil War newspaper up in his attic, or something of the sort, and that would be what he wanted to see me about. I couldn’t do any business— everybody wanted to talk history!”

McMurtry, the insurance man, was saved from this dilemma by an elderly retired doctor who owned a lot of real estate in Elizabethtown. The doctor, who was lonely, offered Gerald all his insurance contracts, if he’d just drop around now and then for a good confabulation about Lincoln.

“That one sale was the biggest in the history of our agency up to that time,” McMurtry declares. Soon he got the L.M.U. offer, however, and couldn’t resist the chance to get back to full-time Lincoln work. “Even now,” he says, “I look around me sometimes and think how lucky I am. They pay me for having fun!”

Not that it’s any sinecure, however. Doctor McMurtry’s working day starts at eight o’clock, dictating letters. Now and then, an urgent long-distance call comes in from New York, perhaps a magazine editor or TV script writer wanting to know something about Mary Todd Lincoln or Nancy Hanks. Then there’ll be people to take through the museum. While he’s doing all this, McMurtry has to keep up on his research for Lincoln Lore, and he may have to come back at night to prepare for a lecture in Chicago, Denver or New Orleans. He is called on frequently to make talks down South.

“One time down there a lady got up and said she had no use for Mr. Lincoln, just hated him,” Doctor McMurtry recalled, smiling. “I told her I hated Julius Caesar too. I don’t, of course. Why hate a historical character?” Actually, both he and Doctor Warren say they find Southern audiences uniformly courteous and, like people everywhere, sincerely eager for information about the martyr President.

“Abraham Lincoln seems to take hold of people as no other historical character does,” Doctor McMurtry says. “He is someone they can tie themselves to. He possessed a true nobility of character, yet he was like the rest of us in so many human ways. We feel that we really know him. Yet Abraham Lincoln remains a paradox; try as you will, you cannot master all the elements of his character. That is what makes him so fascinating to me and, I think, to others who study his life.”

If you want to make a hobby of Lincoln studies, Doctor McMurtry advises you to begin by reading several standard biographies. Then, he says, you should specialize on one phase of Lincoln’s activities—Lincoln as a lawyer, for example. Or Lincoln as a military strategist, perhaps.

“You simply can’t master the whole thing in one lifetime,” McMurtry says. “But you’d be surprised at how interesting these specialties can become.” Every public library has its Lincoln shelves. Among larger centers for Lincoln information besides Fort Wayne and the Library of Congress are the Illinois State Historical Library at Springfield; the Huntington Library at San Marino, California; Brown University’s library at Providence, Rhode Island; Lincoln Memorial University in Tennessee; Indiana, Illinois and other state universities. Lectures on Lincoln are given at the Chicago Historical Library and museum in Lincoln Park.

Doctor McMurtry classifies the Lincoln following—his customers—as either highly sophisticated collectors and bibliophiles, of whom there are several thou sand, or just plain folks, millions of them. He knows a preacher in Illinois, for instance, who went without an overcoat one winter to buy an expensive Lincoln book. High and low, whoever they are, they all love Lincoln.

There may be a few exceptions, though, Doctor McMurtry admits. One of these is right there in his home at Fort Wayne. Her name is Jan, three years old, blond. Not long ago Mrs. McMurtry had to go downtown during the evening and Doctor McMurtry was elected to stay home and baby-sit with Jan.

“She was a bit restless, so I started reading baby books to her,” he said. “After a while, Jan got tired of that, so I tried telling her stories about Santa Claus, and finally, Abraham Lincoln. About that time, my wife came home.

“My daughter Jan said, ‘Mamma, I don’t like daddy, I don’t like Santa Claus and I don’t like Abraham Lincoln!”

Doctor McMurtry is confident Jan will become a fan, though, when she gets to know a little more about Abe. Everyone else does.

You might also like ...