December 2015 | Rebecca Rego Barry

Lincoln's Letter to First Love Goes to Auction

Coming to auction next week is a two-page letter written in December 1836 by a young Abraham Lincoln to Mary S. Owens, the woman some call his first fiancée. It is estimated to sell for $500,000-700,000.

Soth-Lincoln.jpgRumors have long circulated that Lincoln's marriage to Mary Todd was unhappy at best, and none of his courtship correspondence to her survives. Nor do letters to Ann Rutledge, another inamorata suggested by Lincoln's biographers. His feelings for Mary Owens, however, are well documented, if not always clear. He met her in New Salem, Illinois, in 1833 when she was visiting her sister. Three years later, during another visit, their relationship was rekindled (strongly encouraged by Owens' sister). Like Lincoln, Owens was a Kentucky native and, by all accounts, quite the intellectual. Soon there was talk of marriage (some historians believe it was all a misunderstanding), and when Lincoln left for the opening session of the new state legislature, he wrote to Owens:

"I have been sick ever since my arrival here, or I should have written sooner. It is but little difference, however, as I have very little even yet to write. And more, the longer I can avoid the mortification of looking in the Post Office for your letter and not finding it, the better. You see I am mad about that old letter yet. I dont like very well to risk you again. I'll try you once more any how."
Then, after discussing politics (in detail), Lincoln concluded:

"Write back as soon as you get this, and if possible say something that will please me for really I have not [been] pleased since I left you. This letter is so dry and [stupid] that I am ashamed to send it, but with my present feelings I can not do any better."
It is not only the earliest of Lincoln's three known letters to Owens, but the only one remaining in private hands, according to Sotheby's. It has remained in the family since Owens died in 1877. The second letter was sold at auction to collector Malcolm Forbes in 1987 and then, in 2002, it was auctioned once again for $779,500 to the Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History at the New-York Historical Society. The third was given to the Library of Congress.

Image via Sotheby's.