Once in a while a title appears that only touches upon the
Lincoln story obliquely, but nonetheless offers an interesting
and entertaining story. Such is the case with William L. Butt's
Absolutely, Mister Suckles? Positively Mr. Field! New Light
on the Eugene "Pinny" Field II and Harry Dayton Sickles
Forgery Case. This publications will particularly appeal to
Lincoln book and autograph collectors.
Eugene "Pinny" Field II was the son of the eminent Chicago poet and columnist Eugene Field. Unlike his famous father, Pinny lacked the talent and ambition to make a name for himself in a legitimate field of endeavor. Rather, he sought to get by through exploiting his famous name. Failing that, he would live off the graces of various relativesthat is until he "wore out his welcome."
Another way Pinny Field sought to raise needed funds was to sell of portions of his father's library, including some of the elder Field's original manuscripts. To aid him in the venture was a shadowy figure in the world of book selling, Harry Dayton Sickles.
Sickles eschewed the standard methods of selling books in the early part of the 20th Century. He did not operate an open shop or mail order business, rather, he sold directly to clients, often working out of a hotel room or the trunk of his automobile.
After Pinny's short supply of genuine material from his father's library ran out, he and Sickles turned to some underhanded tricks to make common merchandise more desirable. They forged signatures of the elder Field and other famous individuals on mundane items to make them attractive to prospective buyers. Those who collect or deal in rare books and autographs have long held the assumption that Pinny Field was the "artist" who was adept at forging the signatures of his famous father and other notaries.
However, Butts demonstrates that it was in fact Harry Sickles who was the forger. It was he who added fake signatures of famous Americans in books, pamphlets, and associated ephemera. These forgeries, filtered through Pinny Field, offering the implication that the book or pamphlet originated in the famous library of Eugene Field, fooled more than one collector.
Perhaps the most famous batch of forgeries produced by Sickles and Field are those that have become known as the "Coachman Forgeries." In 1931, a national news story reported that one William P. Brown claimed that he had served as a coachman for Mary Lincoln for a time in the years following her husband's assassination. Sickles and Field developed a scheme whereby they could use Brown's moment of fame to lend a note of credibility to their forgeries. The two con artists gathered together a number of period books, pamphlets, and maps for Brown to sign. In all likelihood Brown was an innocent in the game, thinking that the booksellers merely wanted his autograph.
Sickles and Field then enlisted the aid of a local notary public, Frank E. Thatcher, to add an attestation to the effect that Brown had signed the various publications. The key phrase exploited from Thatcher's notation was "the signature is genuine." No doubt Thatcher intended to authenticate Brown's signature, but Sickles and Field conspired to alter the meaning or implication of the endorsement.
For after obtaining the signature of Brown and the certified statement was added to each item, a forged signature of Abraham Lincoln was added. Thus Sickles and Field transformed an innocuous piece of Americana into a relic that may be passed off as having once been owned or signed by Lincoln himself. The statement of William Brown, who claimed to have been a servant of Mary Lincoln, offered outstanding provenance. To top it all off, notary public Frank Thatcher seemingly offered his endorsement that the "signature" (i.e. Lincoln's) was genuine.
The forgeries fooled, and often continue to fool, many collectors. One famous antiquarian who was at first taken in by the Field/Sickles forgeries, but was later instrumental in exposing the fraud, was Judge James Bollinger. In fact it was from Bollinger's correspondence files, now on deposit at the University of Iowa, that author Butts was able to piece together much of the Sickles/Field story.
Butts does an excellent job weaving together a complicated tale from very little documentary evidence. He deftly contradicts and demolishes any number of conclusions drawn by the late Charles Hamilton, who wrote of the Field/Sickles forgeries in his book Great Forgers and Famous Fakes: The Manuscript Forgers of America and How They Duped he Experts (New York : Crown Publishers, 1980). Butts seems to delight in besting Hamilton's conclusions, as if doing so serves to further legitimize his own. Butts really need not have been so hard on Hamilton, as Butts' research is far superior to Hamilton's and stands just fine on its own.
Butts' book provides a great number of examples of Sickles' forgeries, and compares them to genuine specimens. In addition to Eugene Field and Abraham Lincoln, Sickles produced forged signatures of Bret Harte, Rudyard Kipling, Frederic Remington, Theodore Roosevelt, Robert Louis Stevenson and Mark Twain, examples of which are all illustrated. Another useful illustration for Lincoln collectors is a facsimile of a list of 118 Sickles forgeries. The list was circulated by attorney Raphael W. Marrow in April 1945, who initially thought the items to be genuine, and was attempting to sell them. It describes in detail the 118 items, all of which bear a forged Lincoln signature, and serves as a handy partial inventory of Field/Sickles/ forgeries.
Absolutely Mr. Sickle is an interesting study of a wellknown but often misunderstood case of Lincoln forgery. Not only is it entertaining, but is also a valuable guide for book and autograph collectors.