The day my distant cousin talked Abraham Lincoln out of his autograph and fingerprint

Matiles aren’t really known for their pursuit of fame and really haven’t done much over the centuries since the late 1300s to seek it. That was the year two Matile brothers with military training from Lombardy in what’s today northern Italy, Jean and Jacques, signed on as mercenaries in the service of Jean d’Arberg de Vlangin in the Swiss canton of Neuchâtel. The two had enough experience to be hired as as military officers or governors of du Locle and La-Sagne in the canton.

Suggesting that my penchant for never moving farther than several hundred feet from my childhood home may be genetic, Matiles still live in that area today.

The Matiles’ ancestral home at the Castle of Valangin. It’s not elaborate as castles go, but we find it comfortable and cozy.

As a reward for the brothers’ services, the Matile family was given the hereditary title of Burghers of Valangin. Valangin–the name of both a castle and town–is located about three kilometers north of the city of Neuchâtel. The castle of Valangin was the military seat of government during Neuchâtel’s Prussian ownership. It was built in the Middle Ages as the main defensive works on the main route into the Val-de-Ruz, a fertile valley.

Matiles became local governmental officials, farmers, and, yes, Swiss watchmakers. In 1867, for reasons no one in the family ever recorded, my great-grandfather, Henri Francois Matile decided to immigrate to the United States with his wife and children. They first settled in Erie, Pennsylvania where my grandfather, William Matile, was born. Shortly afterwards, the family, strangely enough, moved west to the area near the eastern Kansas hamlet of Wellsville. Granted, land was cheap in the Kansas of the 1870s, but a spot more different from the Val-de-Ruz valley of Neuchâtel could hardly be found. There, Henri Francois farmed outside of town and made and repaired watches in his Wellsville shop. I still have a few of his watchmaking tools.

My grandfather married and settled on a farm just south of Emporia, Kansas and there my father lived until about 1919 when the combination of the post-World War I farm depression and the increasingly severe dust storms persuaded him to head east to Illinois to find work. Which he found, along with my mother and a new farming community to call home—and where I still live today.

Here in Illinois, we have a special fondness for President Abraham Lincoln, the Springfield lawyer and 16th President of the United States who refused to acquiesce to Southern blackmail over the slavery question, and who fought a bloody war to keep the Union strong and undivided.

And 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 Gustave 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, as I noted above, is the homeland of the “modern” Matile family.

George Agustus Matile, Gustave’s father, was a well-known Swiss academic. Among other luminaries, he was a good 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 Agassiz).

George Matile taught history at the University of Neuchatel as well as in other European universities before immigrating to the U.S. with his family in 1849. That branch of the family settled in New York State. He had two sons who made names for themselves, Gustave and Leon Albert. Gustave, we’ll get to in a minute. Leon Albert enlisted in the Union Army, served as a private during the Civil War and subsequently served during 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 advisor to Secretary of State William H. Seward, who he met while participating in New York Republican politics.

It’s likely George, with his connection to Seward, was able to get Gustave, who had just turned 21when 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 carrying out whatever duties he was assigned at the Interior Department.

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. Today’s giant Presidential staff did not exist at the time, and, in fact, Lincoln’s staff consisted, essentially, of just two men. John Nicolay and John Hay. The two young men from Illinois loyally served Lincoln throughout his Presidency. But in 1863, with the press of campaigning, they needed some help with the day-to-day business of the office of the President. So they apparently put out feelers for a dependable temporary assistant, and Gustave’s name popped up.

Unofficially, Gustave was seconded from Interior to be employed as Hay’s undersecretary. While Nicolay was away on campaign and other business, Matile and Hay carried on the Administration’s staff work, the kind of work that now employs hundreds 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 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, of course, there’s the Lincoln fingerprint.

A copy of the note Gustave sent along with Lincoln’s autograph and fingerprint to Samuel Holmes in 1864. Journal of the Illinois State Historical Society.

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 the scrap 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 and from the New York branch of the family to boot of which none of the Kansas Matiles even knew about, my parents were of no help.

Clipping from the Green Bay Press-Gazette, Green Bay, Wisconsin, Jan. 28, 1957 illustrating the Lincoln fingerprint obtained by Gustave Matile.

For his part, Gustave continued reading law after the war 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.”

As a side note, when Gustave died, he left some of his possessions to the Green Bay public library. One of those possessions was an autographed photograph of Lincoln and his son, Tad. Only two original prints of the image are known to exist. The photograph was sold to a community group in 2006 as part of a collection of other historic materials, including a painting by the famous artist Howard Pyle, from the library for $1.2 million. The collection is on permanent loan to the Brown County, Wisconsin historical society where portions of it are occasionally placed on exhibit.

Today, while periodic questions arise about them, the Lincoln autograph and fingerprint firmly 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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