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That Mariah Vance Book* Has No Place in My Library
An essay by Charles A. Chapin

Illinois State Historical Society materials coming to my hands when I joined the Advisory Board included a list of books for sale to members. I was astounded to see the Mariah Vance book listed for sale, and said the Society ought not to stock it, advertise it, or sell it. I had thought the credibility of this book had been laid to rest with Professor James O. Hall's review of it in the Journal of the Abraham Lincoln Association, (Winter issue, 1998). The wounded editors, Lloyd Ostendorf and Walter Olesky had replied, in separate statements, in the Louisiana Lincolnator, (Winter issue, 1998).

Professor Hall directed his criticism to historical and technical inaccuracies, a number of highly improbable events recounted, and the number of hands through which the text had passed before publication, leaving the reader to doubt that the account was really just what Vance told.

I have another perspective on this, but before we get to that, let me show you the time-lines involved:

1819 Mariah Bartlett was born.


Mariah, now Mariah Vance, was employed by the Lincolns.


Mariah Vance, now 81 to 84 years of age, living in Danville, Illinois, did laundry for Adah Sutton, and told her stories of the Lincolns. Adah jotted these down in shorthand on scraps of paper to remember to tell her parents, who lived in Attica, Indiana.

Adah met Lloyd Ostendorf, and told him of the notes. He urged her to write them all out.


Adah (then 72 years of age) began transcribing the notes and did extensive library research to be able to put conversations of Abraham and Mary Lincoln in appropriate language, rather than as Mariah recounted these words.


Adah Sutton died without having found a publisher for her manuscript.
1977 Lloyd Ostendorf acquired the rights to the manuscript from Iris Sutton, wife of Adah's nephew. Ostendorf sent the manuscript to David Balsiger in California to edit and prepare it for publication.
1988 Adah's edited manuscript, bearing the title, Mistah and de Missy, was submitted to Alfred A. Knopf, Inc. Knopf referred it to James O. Hall, and possibly others, for comments. Thereafter Knopf rejected it.

1989 The manuscript was in the hands of the National Park Service at Springfield, Illinois. Gentry Davis, then Superintendent of the newly rebuilt Lincoln Home, invited me to his office to see a portion of this manuscript. He told me the background as to Vance, Sutton, and Ostendorf, and stated the manuscript was being typed up in the office above us. The staff member doing the typing brought the manuscript down to Mr. Davis' desk. (It was in a fairly large 3-ring notebook.) Davis opened it so that I could read about 2 pages telling the story of the Lincoln boys having been caught smoking clay pipes, and complaining to their mother in about these words: "Your guests are allowed to smoke and spit, why can't we?" (Mr. Davis and I were having intermittent discussions over the impropriety of the spittoons the National Park Service had placed in Mary Lincoln's sitting room, and he felt this account justified it. That is another story, and has now happily been resolved by the Park Service removing the spittoons.)
1993 Ostendorf had placed the manuscript with Walter Olesky for further editing and submitted it to William Morrow & Company for publication in exchange for $1 million, if Morrow accepted it. The manuscript now had a new title, Mistah Abe. Morrow sent copies of the manuscript to a number of selected advisors, along with one sheet of handwriting stated to be a photocopy of the first page of Adah Sutton's handwritten manuscript, so reviewers could see what kind of editing Olesky had done.

This offer, and especially Morrow's election in August not to publish, was widely reported and commented on in such places as the New York Times, The New Yorker magazine, the State Journal-Register, and the Illinois Bar News, among others.

1995 Next Ostendorf and Olesky put the manuscript, with further editing and a new title, in the hands of Hy Steirman for publication by his firm, Hastings House. Lincoln's Unknown Private Life came out in a unique dual edition; the first part was in print, the second part was stated to be a

* Lincoln's Unknown Private Life, an oral history by his black housekeeper, Mariah Vance, 1950-60. Lloyd Ostendorf, Walter Olesky, editors, Hastings House Publisher 1995.


Just below is a picture of the 1st five lines of the photocopy of Adah Sutton's handwritten manuscript as sent out in 1993 by William Morrow & Company

Just above is a picture of the 1st five lines of the "facsimile of Adah Sutton's manuscript" as published in 1995 by Hastings House.

The only piece of Adah Sutton's handwriting we had seen heretofore was the one page sent out by Morrow in 1993. I had had the opportunity to analyze it in comparison to the printed text, and found:

1. There were 499 words on that page. Olesky had changed 125 of them (25 percent). Most of the changes were to eliminate colloquialisms, such as: "dat's" changed to "that's"; "sottin" changed to "setting"; and "larn" changed to "learn".

2. One could not see the sense in changing "shin" to "chin" and "shinbone" to "chinbone", but those were changes.

More startling were three reverse changes, that is, changing from English to a form of dialect. Twice the handwritten "Mr." is changed to "Mistah", and twice the handwritten "Lincoln" is changed to "Lincolumn". Finally, the handwritten "God" is changed to "Gawd". These three elements of dialect appear in all the rest of the printed text, but obviously are not derived from Mariah Vance as reported by Adah Sutton.

Now let's take a look at the book in its final form. As mentioned, the front part (Volume 1) was in print and the second part (Volume 2) was in handwriting, said to be a facsimile of Adah Sutton's manuscript.

This was considered an important point. Each of the principals in this affair gave assurances as to this authenticity of this facsimile.

Hy Steirman led off with his "Publisher's Letter", at pages 12-13:

"The authenticity of the hook is not in question. The experts who applaud it or question it, in fact, never studied the original manuscript; they read a typewritten copy or an interpretation of it. For historical integrity, Hastings House is producing a unique hook of two separate volumes:

1) A facsimile edition of Adah Sutton's complete handwritten manuscript, just as Mariah Vance told it to her. (underlining mine)

2) For easier reading, a printed version of Adah Sutton's manuscript of the words of Mariah Vance, prepared with editorial comments by co-editor Walter Olesky, a former award-winning feature writer with the Chicago Tribune and author of over forty books."

Lloyd Ostendorf, in his "Forward" (sic) gave this assurance to the reader at page 21:

"After decades of determination, Mariah Vance's stories of the Lincolns are at long last being published. Our thanks go to Hy Steirman, publisher of Hastings House, who not only read and accepted the manuscript as authentic, but made the decision that eluded all the other 'publishers: to publish the two Volumes under one cover; the transliterated book for easier reading and the reproduction of Adah Sutton's original manuscript in her own handwriting to verify authenticity, "(underlining mine)

Then Walter Olesky, in the "Introduction" made this simple and categorical statement at page 49:

"The copy of the original handwritten manuscript reproduced in this book is exactly as Adah Sutton transcribed it from her shorthand, notes." (underlining mine)

Those 260 pages of the "facsimile edition" are all in handwriting manifestly different from the sample first page of Adah Sutton's handwritten manuscript submitted to William Morrow & Company back in 1993, and circulated to its several advisors. (I had made a photocopy of it at that time and put it in my "spittoon' file".)

When these first pages were compared, I found 40 places where words, phrase or spellings were changed between the 1993 version and the 1995 version. It may also be noted that line lengths are different. There are a number of "write-over" corrections in this "original manuscript" which were not in the 1993 original. [See the accompanying photos of the first four lines of each version. These are placed parallel to each other for easy comparison.]

As Adah Sutton had died in 1976, she was not available to rewrite her text, and someone else had to be found to write it all out. Once one realizes that fact, the value of the "facsimile edition" as proof of authenticity, and proof of non-tampering with the story, vanishes.

One need not agonize over whether to believe the startling stories set out or not. It is simply NOT HISTORY! Not only did the new writer pen the entire text but he or she also re-wrote Adah Sutton's Preface, a much longer one than was submitted to Knopfback in 1978 (Professor Hall sent me a copy). This new one included an explanation that Mariah couldn't say "Lincoln" and always said "Lincolumn", a device we know was invented by Walter Olesky long after Adah Sutton died in 1976. Based on this evidence, that Preface bearing Adah Sutton's signature and date of April 12, 1960, is, in my opinion, unquestionably a forgery. Let me repeat my title: that Mariah Vance book has no place in my library, and shouldn't be in yours!


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