Behind a Discovery: The First Case of the Lincoln-Herndon Law Partnership

How We at Raab Investigate Objects Whose Stories Have Otherwise Been Lost to History


Earlier this year, we acquired a collection that included a document in the hand of Abraham Lincoln. The document had been in the same family for nearly a century. It had no specific date, only a veiled reference to the date 1846. It at first appeared to be all in the hand of Lincoln and was signed “Lincoln & Herndon,” as Lincoln signed his documents while in private practice with his law partner William Herndon. 

So what was this piece?


Examine the Handwriting

What had appeared to be entirely in Lincoln’s hand was in fact not. Curiously, Lincoln started the piece, wrote four words, then Herndon wrote the next portion. Lincoln finalized it, completing the second half and signing it on behalf of both. 

Read the Text for Clues

The letter references another case and seems to center around the Beebee family (also spelled Beebe), which had cases filed in court involving Lincoln. Focusing on the referenced 1846, only one case seemed to work, Hope v. Beebe. We had a working timeline, early 1846, and a theory: that this was a motion filed in connection with that case. 

Lincoln Herndon manuscript detail

We also learned that this was the first case of the Lincoln-Herndon firm. This we learned from a separate Illinois library publication tracking Lincoln’s life day by day, every day, which went back to his time as a young lawyer. It lists this case as appearing first in 1845 and as the first-ever case of the fledgling firm. 

Consult the Papers of Abraham Lincoln 

This Papers of Abraham Lincoln project aims to compile and publish all the letters and documents of Lincoln. They maintain a subset of this work, published on a site titled “The Law Papers of Abraham Lincoln.” When I contacted the editor, he not only wrote back confirming our supposition, but sent me the other motions filed by Lincoln in this case, including the final version of the same piece we had. They had no record of this unpublished draft existing however, and this was a new addition to their work. 

Review Sale Records

We know this manuscript had been in one family for a very long time, nearly a century, long enough that it had been escaped efforts to catalog and publish it. The family, now in the South, had come from the North: New York City. This letter shows up in public records as having been sold in 1929 by legendary autograph dealer Thomas Madigan, who operated around the time of the original Lincoln acquisition out of New York City, the home to the family at the time. It seems clear that the ancestor of the current owner had acquired this from Madigan in 1929 and that it had last sold at that time. 

Lincoln Historical Documents & Autographs 

To learn more about Lincoln signed letters, documents, and photographs, visit our dedicated Lincoln page. We have also published a collector’s guide to Abraham Lincoln

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