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Reflections: Proof that even ink blots can have historical value

This illustration shows President Abraham Lincoln (right) and aides John Nicolay (left) and John Hay (standing).
This illustration shows President Abraham Lincoln (right) and aides John Nicolay (left) and John Hay (standing).

February is the month we celebrate the birthdays of two great presidents: George Washington and Abraham Lincoln. In an apparent effort to appease sensitive souls, we’ve changed the observance of Washington’s birthday into a national Presidents’ Day holiday that now has us honoring even the really bad presidents such as Andrew Johnson and Warren G. Harding.

Here in Illinois, we have a special fondness for President Lincoln, the Springfield lawyer who refused to acquiesce to Southern blackmail over the slavery question, and who fought a bloody war to keep the Union strong and undivided.

Strangely enough, it seems one of my distant cousins, Gustave Matile, served for a few months as one of Lincoln’s private secretaries during the Civil War. How that happened is a bit of historical serendipity itself. And how he added an interesting chapter to the lore of Abraham Lincoln is another.

Gustave Eugene Matile was born Aug. 11, 1839, in the Canton of Neuchatel, Switzerland. Neuchatel is the homeland of the “modern” Matile family. Back in the mid-1300s, two Matile brothers, soldiers of fortune from Lombardy in northern Italy, immigrated to Neuchatel to work as mercenaries for the Austrian noble who controlled the area at that time. From these two soldiers descended all members of the modern Matile family.

George Agustus Matile, Gustave’s father, was a well-known Swiss academic. Among other luminaries, he was a friend of Louis Agassiz, a fellow native of the French-speaking portion of Switzerland who science historians have dubbed one of the founding fathers of the American scientific tradition (he’s also an ancestor of tennis legend Andre Agassi).

George Matile taught history at the University of Neuchatel, as well as in other European universities, before coming to the U.S. with his family in 1849, settling in New York State. He had two sons who made names for themselves, Gustave and Leon Albert. Leon was a Union Army veteran of the Civil War who also fought in the Plains Indian Wars and in the Spanish-American War, eventually retiring as a brigadier general.

George mostly worked for the U.S. government with the exception of one year during which he worked as an “antiquarian” for the museum at Princeton University in New Jersey. After Lincoln’s election, George served as an adviser to Secretary of State William H. Seward, whom he met while participating in New York Republican politics.

It’s likely George was able to get Gustave, who had just turned 21 when the Civil War began, a job as a clerk at the Interior Department. Then, as now in Washington, it was who, not what, you knew that counted when seeking a job. Gustave apparently read law during his government service, as well as carried out whatever duties he was assigned.

In 1863, the Lincoln administration was not only fully engaged in fighting the Civil War, but it was also trying to start Lincoln’s reelection campaign. Lincoln’s staff consisted, essentially, of only two men. John Nicolay and John Hay, two young men from Illinois who loyally served Lincoln throughout his presidency. But in 1863, with the press of campaigning, they needed some help. So they put out feelers for a dependable assistant, and Gustave’s name popped up.

Unofficially, Gustave was employed as Hay’s undersecretary. While Nicolay was away on campaign and other business, Matile and Hay carried out the staff work of the administration, work that now employs thousands of people. Because his transfer was unofficial and temporary, Matile’s name apparently does not appear on the White House employment roster. One of the only clues that he worked for Hay at all is a passing reference in an Oct. 10, 1864, note from Hay to Nicolay published in “Lincoln and the Civil War in the Diaries and Letters of John Hay,” compiled by Tyler Dennett and published in 1939. Wrote Hay: “Here are your mails for this morning. We are very busy. Mr. Matile is sick.”

And then there’s the Lincoln fingerprint.

In late August 1864, Samuel Newell Holmes, one of Matile’s New York friends wrote to him asking if he could get an autograph from the president. Agreeable with doing a friend a favor, Gustave went ahead and asked the president. The accommodating Lincoln dipped his pen in his inkwell and signed his familiar “A. Lincoln” autograph on a scrap of paper and gave it back to Matile. But when he signed, Lincoln’s pen apparently left a drop of ink on the scrap, and as he handed it back to Matile, Lincoln left his thumbprint in the ink on the paper.

When Matile sent the autograph back to Holmes, he included a short note explaining that the fingerprint inkblot was Lincoln’s: “The finger marks are also his. They will do as the olden times seals that were made by impressing the thumb on the wax.”

Holmes kept the autograph and passed it to his daughter when he died. It was sold upon her death and was acquired in 1949 by William A. Steiger, a Springfield, Illinois, Lincoln collector. In 1953, Steiger sent our family a letter seeking information on Gustave, but, since he was only a distant cousin of our branch of the family, we were of little help.

For his part, Gustave continued reading law and became a lawyer. He moved to Green Bay, Wisconsin, in 1865, where he practiced law. He also practiced law in Minneapolis and Duluth, Minnesota, before moving back to Green Bay, where he was appointed to the federal bench. There, he served as U.S. Court Commissioner for the Eastern District of Wisconsin. He was a member of the Wisconsin Bar and the Brown County Bar Association in Wisconsin, and also served a stint as the Swiss counsel at Green Bay. A cigar smoker, he died of cancer on June 17, 1908. The Green Bay Gazette, in Matile’s obituary, described him as “one of the best known lawyers who practiced during Green Bay’s early history.”

Today, the Lincoln autograph and fingerprint reside in the collections of the Illinois State Historical Society, proof positive that some mistakes, even ink blots, can have a historical value all their own.

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