Thursday, January 1, 2009

In February 1861, we are told, President-elect Abraham Lincoln stopped off in New York City on his way to Washington and attended a new Verdi opera, “Un Ballo in Maschera,”at the Metropolitan Opera House. He showed up wearing black gloves rather than the white gloves decreed by fashion and looking rather like an undertaker.

Two weeks later, as he prepared to deliver his inaugural address to a nation on the brink of war, Lincoln, about to speak from the steps of the Capitol, could find no place for his famous stovepipe hat. Seeing his embarrassment, Sen. Stephen A. Douglas, Lincoln’s defeated campaign opponent, took the hat and held it while the new president spoke. The gesture seemed symbolic of the support for Lincoln among Northern Democrats.

The source for both the opera house and inauguration stories is a mysterious diary maintained over the winter of 1860-61 by a prominent Washingtonian who chose to identify himself only as “a Public Man.” When the journal first appeared in four issues of the prestigious North American Review in 1879, it caused an immediate sensation.

The diarist told of three conversations with Lincoln and discussions with other prominent figures, including Secretary of State William H. Seward. He had, in the words of one historian, “an ear for a good story, an eye for the significant gesture, and an apparently indelible memory.”

Had the diarist concerned himself only with vignettes such as that about Lincoln’s gloves, his narrative might have aroused only limited curiosity among historians. However, taken into the diary is an important inside source for one of the most critical periods in American history. Consider, for instance, the third of the diarist’s supposed meetings with Lincoln:

“March 7th - Early this morning I received a message from the President, making an appointment for this afternoon. I called for —- at his hotel, and we drove to the White House. I could not help observing the disorderly appearance of the place, and the slovenly way in which service was done. We were kept waiting but a few moments, however, and found Mr. Lincoln quite alone. He received us very kindly, but I was struck and pained by the haggard, worn look of his face, which scarcely left it during the whole time of our visit.”

This excerpt demonstrates one of Public Man’s more tantalizing proclivities: Not satisfied with his own anonymity, he deletes the names of some, but not all, of his contacts. Who was his companion for this call on Lincoln? We are not told, and there are no hints.

Analysis of the original diary might well shed light on its authorship, but the manuscript has disappeared. When weighing its authenticity, absent a manuscript, critics have fallen into one of two camps. Some have dismissed the diary as a hoax — too literate, too general and too clever by half for a genuine diary. For the most part, however, such detractors have found it difficult to make their case. There are few apparent errors; as one writer has observed, if the diary is fake, it is “one of the best jobs of the kind ever put over.”

Other critics contend that the diary has been edited and perhaps embellished. Indeed, the North American Review described the published diary as extracted from a longer journal. However, Allen Thorndike Rice, editor of the review, turned down numerous queries regarding authorship of the diary.

The process by which historians have attempted to identify the Public Man was, until recently, fairly standard. Assuming the diary is essentially genuine, historians examined possible authors in terms of internal evidence. Was he tall enough to have elicited a remark about his height from Lincoln? Was he in New York and Washington on the same days as the diarist?

Over the years, a professor of history at Dartmouth College, Frank Maloy Anderson, led the attempt to identify the elusive Public Man. Mr. Anderson’s search ranged through many an old hotel register and newspaper file, and in 1948, he published a book, “The Mystery of ‘A Public Man.’” Given that the diary included some discrepancies, Mr. Anderson concluded it was essentially a hoax, one perhaps with a genuine diary at its core. He thought the culprit might have been one Sam Ward, called “King of the Lobby” in those days, when lobbying was an amateur sport.

One candidate who, Mr. Anderson thought, “unquestionably met many of the requirements” was an ebullient Pennsylvania editor, John W. Forney. Forney was a “war Democrat” whose support for Lincoln would lead to his appointment as secretary of the Senate. Mr. Anderson dropped Forney as his man when Forney could not be placed in New York City at the time of Lincoln’s visit.

I personally came to favor Forney as the diarist. In his writings, Forney expressed admiration for diaries and diarists. He, like the Public Man, was an outspoken admirer of Douglas. He liked to substitute dashes for names, as did the diarist. Also, Forney’s best-known book, published in 1873, was titled “Anecdotes of Public Men.”

Still, there was no smoking gun.

More recently, two scholars from the College of New Jersey, David Holmes and Daniel Crofts, applied the computer-based craft of stylometry to the Public Man and his diary. After comparing his journal with contemporary diaries, they concluded that the most likely candidate was one William H. Hurlbert, an editorial writer for the New York Times.

Yet doubts remain. The Public Man may have been Ward, Forney or Hurlbert — or none of the above.

Historian and biographer John M. Taylor lives in McLean.

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