Rutledge, Ann (1813–1835)

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Rutledge, Ann (1813–1835)

Abraham Lincoln's legendary love. Born Ann Mayes Rutledge in Kentucky on January 7, 1813; died of typhoid in Illinois on August 25, 1835; daughter of James Rutledge (a mill-owner and tavernkeeper) and Mary Ann (Miller) Rutledge; never married; no children.

Described by her fiancé John McNamar as "a gentle Amiable Maiden without any of the airs of your city Belles but winsome and Comly withal a blond in complection with golden hair, cherry red Lips & a bonny Blue Eye," Ann Rutledge was the famed beloved of Abraham Lincoln. She was born in Kentucky in 1813, and as a child traveled with her family to Illinois, where her father James Rutledge, along with a man named John M. Cameron, set up a sawmill that soon became the locus of a town they named New Salem. James and Mary Ann Rutledge would have ten children in all, of whom Ann was the third-born. She reputedly was the only girl educated at the local school run by Mentor Graham, and a grammar book with her signature on the cover is now in the Library of Congress. As the town prospered, James Rutledge opened a tavern which also offered accommodations to travelers, and it was there that the future president boarded when he arrived in New Salem in 1831. Though Ann was engaged to John McNamar, a friend of Lincoln's, legend has it that her romance with Lincoln marked Lincoln's life forever.

In 1833, McNamar, a young merchant, traveled back to New York to take care of his parents. Before leaving, he bought a farm for Rutledge, and her family moved there with her to await his return. McNamar's absence lengthened with the complications of his father's death and his own long illness. During this time, although he was no longer boarding with her family, Lincoln allegedly fell in love with Ann Rutledge. She died of typhoid (or "milk fever" or "brain fever") in 1835, before McNamar's return. Lincoln's extreme grief over Rutledge's death (some reportedly feared for his sanity) gave rise, after his own death, to the widespread theory that she had been his one true love. In their book Mentor Graham: The Man Who Taught Lincoln (1944), Kunigunde Duncan and D.F. Nickols quote the ex-schoolmaster Graham as saying of Rutledge that she was "Beautiful and ingenious—amiable—kind—exceptionally good scholar in all the common branches including grammar. She was beloved of everybody and she loved everybody. Lincoln and she were engaged—Lincoln told me so—told me he felt like committing suicide after her death but I [told] him of God's higher purpose. He told me he thought so too—somehow—couldn't tell how."

The story of this lost love gained wide currency through William Herndon, Lincoln's onetime law partner, who soon after the president's assassination began researching his life with plans to write a biography. As most mid-to-late-20th-century accounts have it, Herndon, who had a high opinion of his intuitive powers, believed he could read other people's minds, and constructed the story on the basis of vague reminiscences given by those who had lived in New Salem 30 years before. He added his own imaginative inventions, such as a fictional wedding day disrupted by Lincoln's decision not to marry Rutledge, flavored them with his dislike of Lincoln's wife, Mary Todd Lincoln , suggesting that their marriage was hollow and portraying Mary Todd as a harridan (a characterization perpetuated by many Lincoln biographers), and spun the whole story for the first time during a public lecture in November 1866. Grief over the president's assassination was still raw, and the romance of the tale could not help but attract believers, although Mary Todd Lincoln stoutly refused to countenance it as anything but untrue. Herndon's Lincoln, published by Herndon and a co-writer in 1889, reiterated the story of Lincoln's supposed tragic love, and this was included in most of the plethora of books about the president subsequently written. The young Ann Rutledge, beloved of one of the most revered Americans and cut down in her prime, became a figure of American romance. Herndon refused to offer his evidence for inspection, however, and it was not until 1942, after his research materials had been acquired by the Library of Congress, that historians were able to assess the evidence for the love story. What little they found led them to conclude that it was, in fact, only a story.

In more recent years, however, some historians have begun to declare that there was an actual romance, and perhaps an implied engagement, between Rutledge and Lincoln during the years that McNamar was away from New Salem. More recent interpretations of the relationship between Rutledge and Lincoln can be found in John Evangelist Walsh's The Shadows Rise: Abraham Lincoln and the Ann Rutledge Legend (1993) as well as two of historian Douglas L. Wilson's books on Lincoln, Lincoln Before Washington: New Perspectives on the Illinois Years (1997) and Honor's Voice: The Transformation of Abraham Lincoln (1998), all published by the University of Illinois Press. In 1890, Ann Rutledge's remains were moved from the Concord burying ground outside New Salem, which Lincoln had often visited after her death, and transferred to the cemetery in the nearby town of Petersburg, Illinois. Her tombstone there, erected in 1921, bears the epitaph composed for her by Edgar Lee Masters in his Spoon River Anthology, which includes the words:

I am Ann Rutledge who sleep beneath these weeds,
Beloved in life of Abraham Lincoln,
Wedded to him, not through union
But through separation. Bloom forever, O Republic,
From the dust of my bosom!


The Day [New London, CT]. February 22, 1998, p. H2.

Duncan, Kunigunde and D.F. Nickols. Mentor Graham: The Man Who Taught Lincoln. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 1944.

James, Edward T., ed. Notable American Women, 1607–1950. Cambridge, MA: The Belknap Press of Harvard University, 1971.

Wilson, Douglas L., and Rodney O. Davis, eds. Herndon's Informants: Letters, Interviews, and Statements About Abraham Lincoln. Urbana, IL: University of Illinois Press, 1997.

Andrea Bewick , freelance writer, Santa Rosa, California