Thursday, January 7, 2016

Lost & Found

Martha Johnson Patterson, devoted daughter
of President Andrew Johnson

Around 1900, President Andrew Johnson’s daughter entrusted a trunk full of her father’s papers to her dear friend, a spiritualist and writer who lived in Brooklyn.

The friend, Laura Holloway Langford, said that she planned to write a biography of the late president. Author of Ladies of the White House (1870), the first anthology of stories about American First Ladies, Langford had become close to the beleaguered Johnson family soon after Lincoln’s assassination. She may even have moved into the White House.

The president’s daughter, Martha Johnson Patterson, died in 1901. By that time, Langford claimed, she had expressed the trunk back to the Johnson family in Greeneville, Tennessee. But Martha’s son insisted most of the papers never were returned.

His claim would seem to have validity. In 1903, Laura Langford wrote to John Hay, who had served as Lincoln’s private secretary, and asked him to verify Lincoln’s handwriting on several letters which were in her possession. She told Hay that the letters “were given to me by the daughter of President Johnson.” Evidently Hay authenticated Lincoln’s signature. 

Here it's necessary to share more information about Laura Langford – a woman of many passions including suffrage, temperance, phrenology, Theosophy, Wagner, vegetarianism, industrial arts, Shakerism, and the cooperative movement. Due to hefty sales of her First Ladies book, regular work as a writer for The Brooklyn Eagle, and marriage to Col. Edward C. Langford (an investor in the Brighton Beach Company), she had not worried about money for a long time.

Telegram from Laura Holloway to Martha Patterson
following the 1875 death of President Andrew Johnson

(Library of Congress image)

But Col. Langford went bankrupt in the 1890s and died in 1902, leaving Laura to struggle financially for the rest of her life. Around this time, Laura began negotiating to purchase a farm in Canaan, N.Y., which belonged to a branch of the Shaker community of New Lebanon, N.Y. Subsequently she moved from Brooklyn to this farm with some scheme in mind.

Laura Carter Holloway Langford, close friend
of the Johnson family and possibly a thief

And in 1907, she sold the valuable papers which were in the trunk that she never sent back to Greeneville, including five letters from Abraham Lincoln to Andrew Johnson, to a New York collector named George S. Hellman.

In the midst of the Panic of 1907, Hellman offered the five letters to J.P. Morgan, whom he regularly advised on the purchase of art and manuscripts. “The letters were indeed superb,” Hellman recounted in a memoir. “When Morgan heard the price – less than four figures for the entire collection – he said: ‘Yes, that’s very reasonable.’”

The rest of the papers that Laura sold to Hellman remained in the collector’s possession. In the winter of 1913, Hellman wrote to Herbert Putnam, the Librarian of Congress, asking if the library would like to acquire some of them. Putnam declined for lack of funds.

After the end of World War I, Hellman put the 33 items up at auction. The description in the catalogue read:

This collection, given by Andrew Johnson’s daughter, Martha Patterson, to her life-long and most intimate friend, Mrs. L.C. Langford . . . is in many ways the most remarkable collection ever offered for public sale relating to a President of the United States.

Henry E. Huntington, California railroad magnate and landowner, purchased the lot. The papers now reside in the Huntington Library in Los Angeles.

Laura Holloway Langford lived until 1930, dying with few possessions at her farm in Canaan.

The Ladies of the White House
2nd edition, 1881

*There is a wonderful book about Laura Holloway Langford and spiritualism, which offers much more biographical detail than I have given here: Yearning for the New Age: Laura Holloway-Langford and Late Victorian Spirituality by Diane Sasson (2012).

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