By Brad Dison
One day, 11-year-old Grace Bedell’s father showed her a photograph of a man. Grace was instantly appalled by what she saw. She described his appearance as having a “high forehead over those sadly pathetic eyes, [an] angular lower face, with deep-cut lines about the mouth.” She had never met the man but was determined to help him improve his looks. Her suggestion was to cover his face with whiskers because, as she said in the letter, “you would look a great deal better for your face is so thin.” As to soften the blow of her criticism, Grace made a single compliment to the picture in her letter. She wrote, “I think that rail fence around your picture makes it look very pretty.” She asked that if the man had no time to reply to her letter, to have his daughter reply in his stead. She ended the letter with a firm request that he “answer this letter right off. Good bye. Grace Bedell.”
Four days later, the thin-faced man read Grace’s letter containing criticisms which would have been a blow to any man’s ego regardless of the age of the criticizer. He quickly penned the following response to young Grace:
“My dear little Miss.
Your very agreeable letter of the 15th. is received. I regret the necessity of saying I have no daughters. I have three sons — one seventeen, one nine, and one seven, years of age. They, with their mother, constitute my whole family. As to the whiskers, having never worn any, do you not think people would call it a piece of silly affection if I were to begin it now?”
He finished the letter with warm affection, “Your very sincere well-wisher,” and signed his name.
Most people would have quickly discounted the letter and would not have given it a second thought. However, over the next few days, the man pondered over Grace’s letter. The debate of whether or not to grow a beard plagued his mind. Finally, after much consideration, he decided to take Grace’s advice and grew a full beard.
Four months later, the now-bearded man stopped at Westfield, New York, to deliver a speech. At the end of his speech, the man said, “Last Fall I received a letter from this place—and a very pretty letter it was, too. It was written by a young girl whose name, if I remember rightly, was Bedell. Among many other things in that letter was a recommendation that I should let my whiskers grow, and it would improve my appearance. It was partly from that suggestion that I have done so. If that young lady is in this crowd I would very much like to see her.” He noticed that people in the crowd turned their gaze to a specific location. Grace was present but, due to the size of the crowd, had not seen or heard the man’s speech. The crowd cleared a path and pushed Grace forward. The man stepped down from the platform, shook Grace’s hand and gave her a kiss. He touched his beard and said, “You see, I let these whiskers grow for you, Grace.” They talked only briefly before the man shook her hand again, stepped into his car, and was whisked away. Grace never saw the man again.
Grace’s letter was, in part, responsible for the iconic look of a man most of us cannot picture without whiskers, though he wore them for only the last four years of his life. His bearded portrait graces the $5 bill. The man whose image so appalled young Grace that she was driven to write a letter of criticism was… Abraham Lincoln.
- Fremont Journal, February 22, 1861.
- The Evansville Journal (Evansville, Indiana), November 4, 1878, p.1.
- The Advice of a Little Girl Lincoln – Exhibition Confirms a Family Myth, Library of Congress. loc.gov/loc/lcib/0903/detail/letter02.html.
- The Advice of a Little Girl Lincoln – Exhibition Confirms a Family Myth, Library of Congress. loc.gov/loc/lcib/0903/detail/letter03.html
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