EMBARGOED UNTIL SUNDAY
A firefighter from Tampa, Fla., has recently received confirmation that an 1858 Abraham Lincoln letter he bought at a yard sale for $8 is the real thing.
His discovery will be featured in a PBS “History Detectives” episode that was partly filmed in Springfield and that will air nationwide Aug. 27. The show’s fifth season begins Monday.
Joseph Skanks had been known by many around Tampa as the guy with the Abraham Lincoln letter. Maybe.
A few years ago, Skanks, a collector of old photos, swung by a modest estate sale near his home to pick up a stack the owners put aside for him.
His wife had been at the same sale earlier, trying to reserve a larger pile for him. But by the time Skanks arrived, it had been sold. The owners, however, had uncovered a few more photos by then. They had been hidden out of view with some books and other materials.
Skanks stopped by on his way home from a 24-hour shift that ended at 8 a.m. Tired, he didn’t bother to sift through the items.
“I gathered them all up and pushed them all together,” Skanks said. “They asked for $8.”
At home, Skanks began shuffling through his photos at the kitchen table as his wife and two daughters made breakfast. As he made his way through, he came upon an item that nearly stopped his heart.
“I was shocked at first,” Skanks, 43, said. “I couldn’t be that lucky.”
It appeared to be a short letter written by Abraham Lincoln on Aug. 2, 1858, to Henry Clay Whitney, a political ally of Lincoln’s and a fellow circuit court lawyer.
The short note simply reads:
“Yours of the 31st. is just received. I shall write to B.C. Cook at Ottawa and to Lovejoy himself on the subject you suggest.
“Pardon me for not writing a longer letter. I have a great many letters to write.
“I was at Monticello Thursday evening. Signs all very good. Your friend as ever A. Lincoln.”
The letter was written just a few weeks before the first of Lincoln’s famous debates with his then-U.S. Senate rival Stephen Douglas. The note shows he’s following Whitney’s advice to ward off a potential backlash in the fledgling Republican Party. Its more conservative members were considering throwing their support behind Douglas, a Democrat, to keep their distance from their party’s “radical” abolitionist faction, to which Owen Lovejoy belonged.
The letter portrays Lincoln as an important leader keeping his party together over issues of race at a time of national crisis.
Skanks’ letter is in the history books, but with an ominous, yet hopeful, footnote.
“The facsimile from Whitney ... like other facsimiles in the same source, is so poor as to suggest forgery, but there seems little reason to doubt that the original was once extant,” reads an annotation of the letter in the second volume of “The Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln.”
The local news played up Skanks’ discovery. So did his fire station buddies, who created what Skanks describes as a “spongy, sticky bust of Lincoln” they secured to his helmet.
But Skanks didn’t aggressively pursue authenticating the letter.
“I held onto it for a while,” he said. “One day I started talking about it and got interested in it again.”
He sent a copy to Springfield experts, who couldn’t tell for sure. Christy’s had a similar reaction. He also had learned two forgeries of the note existed.
“I assumed it was one of the forgeries,” Skanks said.
Eventually, a local news station put him in contact with a Florida antiques dealer, who thought it was real, but he wasn’t knowledgeable enough about Lincoln letters to be absolutely sure. The dealer helped connect Skanks to the History Detectives, who were looking for new investigations for their upcoming season.
By then, Skanks began to worry.
“Everybody was pretty excited about it, especially when they held it in their hands. They were as hopeful as I was,” Skanks said. “But the last thing I wanted was egg on my face. Especially with the guys I work with. They would never let it down.”
There were reasons all the experts had trouble inspecting Skanks’ letter. The writing was too shaky for Lincoln’s handwriting. It also was pasted on cardboard backing, making it more difficult to inspect.
In May, the History Detectives took the letter from Skanks and brought it to John Lupton, associate editor of the Springfield-based Papers of Abraham Lincoln. Lupton, who works in an office inside the Old State Capitol, walked over to the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and put the letter under an electron microscope.
Lupton also had doubts. He was one of the earlier experts who had viewed a scan of the letter Skanks had previously sent. It was the handwriting.
“Lincoln’s handwriting is very fluid,” Lupton said. “Most can’t replicate its fluidity perfectly.” Lupton also knows some tricks. Many forgers don’t know Lincoln crossed his ‘T’s backwards, from right to left, leaving a heavier streak on the right end of the cross.
With the letter under the microscope, Lupton could make out two distinct ink trails, with a thicker, blacker ink on top. But in a few places, a lighter trail underneath stood out clearly. And its style looked very familiar. Figuratively, the ‘T’s were crossed the right way.
It was obviously authentic, Lupton concluded.
“It looked exactly like what a Lincoln document should look like,” Lupton said.
Lupton hypothesized that Whitney, in preparation for a book he published of his own Lincoln letters, wrote over his originals and pressed them over blank paper to produce copies. That would explain the “poor facsimile” comment in the Collected Works.
Like good television drama, the “History Detectives” waited until the last minute to tell Skanks about Lupton’s verification. They flew him to Springfield and stationed him in the Vachel Lindsay home, as a double for Skanks’ real house.
“They wanted the emotion at the end of the story,” Skanks said. “Believe me, at the end of it, I was still unsure, even though I had talked with all these (experts).”
Skanks said when one of the episode’s detectives, appraiser Elyse Luray, sat down with him, he sensed bad news.
“My heart started sinking. She came across as negative at first,” Skanks recalled. “I’m picturing all these (television) interviews, my friends back home.”
He could hear the egg cracking.
Then, Luray confirmed that Skanks had a real Lincoln letter.
“And all of a sudden, she tells me I do possess the actual one. I had the same chilled feeling that I had in the kitchen. Except double. I don’t know what I look like on camera.”
Skanks said he intends to sell the letter, which he said has been valued at about $25,000.
“I don’t make a lot as a firefighter,” he said.
After the “History Detectives” filming, he stayed in Springfield for a day. He had dinner with his son, a coal miner who lives in southern Illinois. He also visited the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Museum.
In the museum, Skanks sat in front of an animated map that shows the development of the Civil War. Each second of the animation represents a week of the war, with a ticker keeping track of the mounting deaths.
“I was almost in tears,” Skanks said. “Literally, that museum had me empty-hearted. When I sat and watched the death ticker, my soul became very sickened. I literally wanted to cry. I pulled the letter out and looked at it. I thought about how much history is here and the things that were occurring at that point in time. What if one thing could have changed and those lives saved?”
Pete Sherman can be reached at 788-1539 or email@example.com.