CANTON — History researchers have linked two pieces of a document signed by President Abraham Lincoln 163 years ago.
Half of the torn paper with the 16th president's signature was found at St. Lawrence University's Owen D. Young Library, and the other portion has been located in the Illinois State Archives.
"It's very exciting for us to be a part of this history," SLU spokeswoman Macreena A. Doyle said.
In 1846, Abraham Lincoln, then an up-and-coming Illinois attorney, signed off on a document for an appeal case he was working on.
Sometime later, a person tore the document in half, most likely to take the assassinated president's signature as a keepsake, according to Daniel W. Stowell, director of The Papers of Abraham Lincoln, the group that put the pieces back together.
"We think of autograph seekers as a modern phenomenon, but shortly after Lincoln was elected president, people were writing, saying, 'I'd love to have your autograph,'" Mr. Stowell said. "Lincoln's third law partner was notorious for gathering souvenirs for people by sending legal documents of his."
Whoever tore the document left the top half in the case file, which has been stored in the Illinois archives since the 1930s. SLU has had its piece of the page for at least 30 years.
"These little treasures are one of the great delights of a library and I guess a reason for physical libraries to exist, because those things have to be cared for and have be taken care of in a certain way. St. Lawrence is very lucky to have the facility and the personnel to take care of things like this," Ms. Doyle said.
Now, the two halves of the page have been reunited digitally by experts with The Papers of Abraham Lincoln, which is a comprehensive research project supported by the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum in Springfield, Ill.
David J. Gerleman, an assistant editor with the project, visited SLU in November to speak to a history class and present a public lecture. He made a high-resolution scan of the college's Lincoln document at that time.
"This single slip of paper bearing Lincoln's signature was in a small collection of similar miscellaneous documents and items that came to St. Lawrence sometime in the unrecorded past. But archivists everywhere celebrate this reconstruction of our history — humble piece by piece," Mark C. McMurray, SLU's archivist and curator of special collections, said in a statement.
The Papers of Abraham Lincoln is working to scan and analyze every document ever written or signed by Honest Abe himself, as well as every piece of correspondence sent to him. The project has pieced together only about three or four other documents like this torn one over the past 15 years, Mr. Stowell said.
The latest deciphered document will add to the project's collection of papers from Lincoln's law practice, which consists of 96,000 documents so far, of which about 4,000 were written by Lincoln himself.
"We worked with the special collections staff to get the document scanned to our technical specifications, and there was enough information on that relatively small sliver to identify the kind of case it would have been," Mr. Stowell said. "We put the two back together, and the handwriting not only matched, the loop of the l actually crosses the split, so we were able to match it up digitally."
The page in question addresses an appeal to the Illinois Supreme Court concerning the 1846 Edgar County, Ill., v. Mayo case. Lincoln represented Jonathan Mayo, a circuit court clerk who had sued the county and won $7.93 as a fee for issuing two writs after people forfeited on recognizance bonds.
The county appealed the case to the state Supreme Court, and filed an assignment of errors, which can be seen in the top two-thirds of the document.
The newly pieced-together paper shows that when Lincoln signed off on the paper, he rejected the county's assertion that the lower court had made errors in its judgment, according to The Papers of Abraham Lincoln.
"In nullo est erratum" means "in nothing is there error." Following Lincoln's signature is the abbreviation "p.d.," meaning "pro defendente" or for the defendant.
"Lincoln lost the legal case in question, but our researchers from The Papers of Abraham Lincoln came up with a winner when they discovered that pieces of paper in two separate states were halves of the same document signed by our 16th president when he was an attorney," Illinois State Historian Thomas F. Schwartz said in a statement.
Just a few months after Lincoln represented Mayo in this case, he won a seat in Congress. The rest may be history, but it's still being documented, Mr. Stowell said.
"It is always exciting to add new documents in Lincoln's hand to the corpus, especially when they have been in separate pieces for such a long time," he said.
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