“Death in the Envelope” sounds like a great BBC special, doesn’t it? If you thought it was just fictional fiancées involved in envelope-related debacles, think again! There are a number of incidents—murder mysteries included—involving the humble envelope, and not just Sherlock Holmes or Harriet Vane. We’re talking real history. We’re starting a new series of blog posts that track down some of these stories. So grab a glass of wine, some tea and biscuits, and snuggle up for Famous Envelope Mysteries, Part 1!
Famous Envelope Mysteries, Part 1!
Mystery #1: Abraham Lincoln’s “Bixby Letter”
The number one rule of being a famous criminal: if you really don’t want to be caught, don’t ever send mail. And if you’re a doer of good deeds, when a good deed requires a remarkably high touch, choose carefully when you outsource. Letters have such a powerful, personal quality, and have a unique ability to reflect their source. They’re no good when they seem like a fake.
This personal quality means that on the dark side, there is something intimidating and even sinister about a letter in an envelope. Criminals who have used them understand that power, and have done dastardly deeds right under the nose of the Postmaster General.
The bright side is personal touch used to communicate effectively, reach out, and touch people emotionally. People who are masters at this also typically tend to be masters of a certain personal style. Abraham Lincoln was one of those people.
What is the Bixby letter?
In a famous letter signed “A. Lincoln,” the author consoles a Mrs. Lydia Bixby for losing all five sons to the Civil War. The brief document is noted for its tenderness, empathy, and eloquence. Most experts now believe it was written by Lincoln’s secretary, and that Mrs. Bixby’s sons did not all die in the war.
When an admin drops the mic
In a famous letter signed “A. Lincoln” to a Boston woman named Lydia Bixby, the author consoles her for her loss and thanks her for her willingness to send five sons to war, all of whom died in battle. Known as the “Bixby letter,” the document was noted for its tenderness and empathy, and to convey much in a very few words. It is a beautifully-written letter.
But—and here, all admins take note—it has now been almost decisively determined that this letter was not, in fact, written by the president himself, but by his secretary.
Unveiling this mystery is not to throw shade on Mr. Lincoln, one of the most fabulous human beings to guide our nation, but to show the genius work the writer of this letter did to handle Lincoln’s most delicate correspondence while emulating his voice and style.
Following the clues
Because of the tactile and extremely personal nature of letters and envelopes, they always leave a repository of “personal touch,” a signature trail, if you will—along with, of course, things like ink, fingerprints, and other microscopic hangers-on. In a murder case, these can often lead authorities to the killer. (Though sometimes, as in the case of Jack the Ripper, way too late.) But when trying to connect a letter or series of letters to a particular person, one of the most powerful kinds of evidence is what amounts to a person’s “brand,” their handwriting, style, and signature way of putting things.
Lincoln’s secretary, John Hay, had quite a correspondent—as most people were in those days—and had a signature style, too. It’s only been recently that scientists and researchers have been able to launch a large-scale comparison of Hay’s writing over and against Lincoln’s.
The comparison has required new computer programs and a technique known as N-gram tracing. N-gram tracing looks for and identifies linguistic patterns in blocks of text. The method compared words and ways of phrasing used by Lincoln with those used by Hays and compared those uncovered writing styles to the Bixby letter. (The same method was used to discover that J.K. Rowling was writing under the pen name Robert Galbraith.) What it uncovered is that most of the phrases and stylistic motifs used in the Bixby letter are not Lincoln’s, but Hay’s.
When a nerdy argument matters
Was this mystery mostly an argument among history nerds? Yes. But it does have significance. Because for years the Bixby letter was held up as an example, par excellence, of the beautiful, elegant, and eloquent communication style of a great leader. It has been seen as inspirational, and was even quoted in the movie Saving Private Ryan. It was a kind of national monument to war service and the dignity of the presidential office.
It turns out, actually, that Hays was a leader. That certainly doesn’t make the great Mr. Lincoln any less great because he had help with his mailbox. Hays ended up writing a biography of President Lincoln and served as ambassador to the UK. That is nothing to sniff at!
As to the historical accuracy of the letter’s contents, that’s been examined more closely, too. Mrs. Bixby’s five “sons who died gloriously on the field of battle” likely did not all meet the same fate. New evidence shows that two died in battle, at least two survived the war, and one probably deserted.
Mrs. Lydia Bixby was still bereaved, and her sons’ service is not to be disparaged. This family definitely deserved a personal letter from the Presidential office. But this mailbox mystery goes to show that reality is almost always more complicated, even when the less complex, less examined reality is inspiring.
So is it true that the hard facts just spoil the magic? Not necessarily! That’s always the question with historical mysteries, or people we admire—the moment when “Uh-oh, things just got real!” But new realities, if they disillusion, are also new information that help us understand the truth—even about great people and great deeds.
And maybe they help us, with all our flaws, feel a little closer to the “greatness,” too.
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