Lincolns letter took a long mysterious path to Tacoma
Published: August 24, 2013
A copy of letter from Abraham Lincoln written to a nephew in Oregon in 1860, then photo-copied - literally - onto two glass negatives around World War I in Tacoma. Not seen since then, those negatives were re-discovered this year by the Tacoma Historical Society, which was going through dozens of donated boxes of negatives.
When 31-year-old John Talbot Hanks moved to Douglas County, Ore., from the East in 1859, his parents begged him to come home. So Hanks wrote a letter seeking advice from his uncle.
It took two months for that letter to reach Springfield, Ill.
A few days after it did, Hanks’ uncle wrote a wise, compassionate response that calmed the nephew, who went on to live the last 55 years of his life in Oregon.
Abraham Lincoln’s counsel had that kind of impact.
If mail in those days was torturously slow, the path a copy of that letter — signed, “Your Uncle, A. Lincoln” — followed to the Tacoma Historical Society was so filled with twists, it may never be completely unraveled.
No one is certain how the copy reached Tacoma in the first place, though there are theories. What is known is that it disappeared after it got here.
And went unaccounted for nearly 100 years.
Hanks died in 1915, but members of his large family migrated to Spanaway and Walla Walla, and it’s almost certain one of them had Lincoln’s original letter. They, in turn, wanted a copy of the deteriorating two-page correspondence.
“In those days, there were no Xerox machines. If they needed something copied, they’d have a photo taken of it,” said Ron Karabaich, a longtime Tacoma photographer.
Karabaich figures into the recent history of the Lincoln letter, just as another photographer figured into its early history.
A Frenchman born in Paris, Paul Richards came to Tacoma in 1897 at age 25. Sometime around World War I, he opened Richards Studio, a photography business that lasted decades.
Soon after it opened, the studio photographed Lincoln’s letter to Hanks and kept the two glass negatives.
Over the years, the studio donated hundreds of thousands of negatives to the Tacoma Public Library and various historical societies. But the Lincoln letter was never among those gifts.
What happened to it? Somehow, it wound up among dozens of boxes of aging negatives in the basement of a Prospect Hill home owned by the Richards family. In the 1990s, that house was left to Ann Richards Stanton.
“She didn’t live in it, but we got to know each other,” Karabaich said. “She knew I was a photographer, and I always wondered what might be stashed away up in the attic there.”
Turned out the stash was in the basement.
“In 1997, pipes burst and the basement was flooding and she called me and asked me to go over and rescue what I could,” said Karabaich, who has run Old Town Photo for more than 30 years. “I went over there, and it was like walking into a time machine.”
Boxes held negatives, on glass and nitrate film, depicting everything from World War I regiments to local baseball teams, from men with their automobiles to women with their children.
And all of it wet.
“It was a smelly old mess, and for years I had it in my front room, trying to organize it in some fashion,” Karabaich said.
He went through box after box, sorting and storing in new boxes — and never saw that letter from Lincoln.
“I was looking at photos, not letters,” he said.
Over the years, he talked to Stanton, who said she wanted the negatives to stay in Tacoma. She corresponded with the Tacoma Historical Society, seeking a tax deduction for donating them.
“I have a file a quarter-inch thick of correspondence,” said society vice president Dale Wirsing. “It was a tangled tale.”
Stanton died in 2010, and Karabaich delivered dozens of boxes to the historical society.
Last May, board member Rusty Johnson began scanning the negatives into digital files. Another board member, Deb Freedman, started going through the CDs Johnson put together.
“I came across this letter and saw the signature at the bottom — A. Lincoln,” Freedman said. “That was a cool moment.”
The letter was legitimate; a copy of it printed in the fourth volume of “The Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln.”
What will the historical society do with the copy it has?
“We don’t know,” Freedman said, laughing. “We just found it!”
How much of a treasure is the letter? Consider the diplomacy — and yes, honesty — with which Lincoln advises his nephew on whether to stay in Oregon or return to his family:
“If your Father and Mother desire you to come home, it is a delicate matter for me to advise you not to do it. Still, as you ask my advice, it is that if you are doing well, you better stick to it. If you have a good start there, and should give it up, you might not get it again, here, or elsewhere. It can not be other than their first wish that you shall do well.”
And then, there is this: Hanks opposed the Oregon congressional campaign of David Logan, who once worked in Lincoln’s law office. Rather than chastise his nephew, Lincoln wrote:
“You did what you thought was right; and when a man does what he thinks is right, he does the best he can.”
Clearly, a letter worth having. And now, Tacoma does — and knows about it.