The Diary of a Public Man: A Case Study in Traditional and Non-Traditional Authorship Attribution

  1. 1. David I. Holmes

    The College of New Jersey

  2. 2. Daniel W. Crofts

    The College of New Jersey

Work text
This plain text was ingested for the purpose of full-text search, not to preserve original formatting or readability. For the most complete copy, refer to the original conference program.

In 1879 the
North American Review
in four separate monthly installments excerpts
from "The Diary of a Public Man" in which
the name of the diarist was withheld. It was,
or purported to be, a diary kept during the
"secession winter" of 1860-61. It appeared to
offer verbatim accounts of behind-the-scenes
discussions at the very highest levels during the
greatest crisis the US had ever faced. Interest in
this real or purported diary was considerable.
The diarist had access to a wide spectrum of key
officials, from the South as well as the North,
gave a number of striking anecdotes about
Abraham Lincoln, and provided an important
account of events at Washington during the
critical days just before the Civil War.
A detailed study of the Diary was conducted
by Frank Anderson in 1948 in his book
The Mystery of "A Public Man"
. Anderson
argues that the Diary is part genuine and
part fictitious with two of the three striking
Lincoln incidents appearing to be inventions,
along with other so-called "interviews" with
prominent figures. He believes that, as a core,
there is a genuine diary kept by Samuel Ward
(1814-1884) at Washington during that winter,
and that it is possible that the editor of
American Review
, Allen Thorndike Rice, may
have assisted in the process of embellishment.
William Hurlbert (1827-1895), he argues, may
also be involved, since the style of the Diary
has a good deal of Hurlbert's pungency. Others
have suggested that the diarist might be Henry
Adams (1838-1918), who enjoyed close access
to William Henry Seward who became Lincoln's
Secretary of State and was a central figure in the
Diary. Certainly the fact that, over a century after
its publication, the authorship has remained
undetermined is proof that the work of all those
who may have shared in its preparation and
publication was cleverly done.
1. Traditional Attribution
This paper argues that the diarist was not
Samuel Ward; it was, instead, William Hurlbert.
The preponderance of the evidence also suggests
that the Diary may well be a legitimate historical
The diarist was not simply an observer but
very much a participant-observer. One key
circumstance would have impeded Ward. At
the precise time the Diary was being penned,
he was busily engaged in writing a memoir of
his experiences in the California gold fields in
1851-52. His recollections were published in a
New York weekly, starting on January 22
and concluding abruptly on April 23
1861. A
great deal of internal evidence suggests that
the Diary and the Gold Rush memoir could
not have been written by the same person,
even allowing for their radically different subject
matter. Ward's sentences sometimes meander
in a Baroque manner, he often alliterates,
peppers his narrative with Spanish and French
expressions, and has a habit of encasing unusual
words or phrases within quotation marks. By
contrast the Diary is fast paced and immediate,
with a style running towards active verbs
accompanied by adverbs of a certain type.
In William Hurlbert, however, we find a
newspaper writer whose style had sweep and
dash. At the very moment when the biggest
story he had ever witnessed burst to attention,
he had no job, but nonetheless, had access to
a remarkably wide range of prominent people.
The Southern-born Hurlbert also had more
basis than Ward to have developed close ties
with leading Southerners. A comparison of the
Diary with things known to have been written
by Hurlbert yields some demonstrable parallels,
not least in the number of signature words
used in the Diary. Some specific features of
the Diary also point to Hurlbert rather than
Ward, for example twice the diarist mentions
Josiah Quincy (1772-1864), the retired President
of Harvard, who had been an important
influence in Hurlbert's young life. There are

circumstances, too, that suggest why Lincoln
might initially have encountered Hurlbert and
why he might have welcomed a repeat visit.
Concerning its legitimacy, in a number of
crucial particulars the Diary conveys an on-
the-spot immediacy that would have been
almost impossible to recreate even months
after the fact, let alone years; for example
the unfolding story of Lincoln's secret and
circuitous trip to Washington in late February
and the diarist's delayed realization that Seward
warned Lincoln to undertake it. The diarist
expresses repeated concerns about the potential
economic effects of secession, concerns which
were quickly subordinated once the war started.
The diarist also demonstrates an excellent ear
in his accounts of his interviews with others,
in particular their personal mannerisms. In all
its particulars, the Diary synchronizes perfectly
with the way events unfolded at that time.
2. Non-Traditional Attribution
For testing and validating the stylometric
techniques involved in this phase of the
study, preliminary textual samples were taken
from prominent diarists of that era, George
Templeton Strong, Gideon Welles, and Salmon
Chase. Analysis of the top 50 frequently
occurring function words using what is now
known as the "Burrows" approach involving
principal components analysis and cluster
analysis showed clear discrimination between
writers and internal consistency within writers.
Textual samples were then taken from three
candidate authors of the Diary, namely Samuel
Ward, Henry Adams and James Harvey, with
the "Burrows" approach once again indicating
remarkable internal consistency and clear
between–writer discrimination.
Four textual samples each of approximately
3,000 words, representing in total about 2/5
of the work, were taken at various places
throughout the Diary, being sufficiently spaced
to enable a valid check to be made on
internal consistency. The Diary samples showed
excellent internal consistency, suggesting single
authorship which would refute Anderson's "cut
and paste" theory. They appeared to be quite
distinct from the samples of the writings of
Adams, Harvey and Ward.
Focus then moved to the two main
contenders for authorship, Ward and Hurlbert.
Carefully controlling for genre in the selection
of the textual samples from Hurlbert
and Ward, subsequent multivariate analyses
on high-frequency function words showed
discrimination between these two writers, along
with internal consistency. For the attributional
stage of the research discriminant analysis
was employed. The samples from the Diary,
Hurlbert and Ward were divided into smaller
sizes in order that as many high-frequency
function words as possible could be used
without violating the assumptions underlying
the technique. All 12 Diary samples were placed
into the Hurlbert group.
Finally, the "Delta" technique, proposed by
Burrows and refined by Hoover, was employed
using the 100 most frequently occurring words
in the pooled corpus and on four potential
authors of the Diary: Ward, Adams, Harvey and
Hurlbert. The closest "match" to the Diary using
Delta and its variants was indeed Hurlbert.
3. Conclusion
The non-traditional stylometric analysis has
supplied objective evidence that supports
traditional scholarship regarding the problem
of the authorship of the Diary. The likelihood
that the entire document was written by one
person is very strong. William Hurlbert has been
pinpointed, to the exclusion of all others, as the
Diary's author. Much of the Diary could never
have been concocted after the fact; the chances
are that the entire document is authentic.
Anderson, F.M.
The Mystery of "A
Public Man"; A Historical Detective Story.
Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.
Burrows, J.F.
(1992). 'Not Unless You Ask
Nicely: The Interpretative Nexus Between
Analysis and Information'.
Literary and
Linguistic Computing.
: 91-109.
Burrows, J.F.
(2002). 'Delta: a Measure
of Stylistic Difference and a Guide to
Likely Authorship'.
Literary and Linguistic
: 267-287.

If this content appears in violation of your intellectual property rights, or you see errors or omissions, please reach out to Scott B. Weingart to discuss removing or amending the materials.

Conference Info


ADHO - 2010
"Cultural expression, old and new"

Hosted at King's College London

London, England, United Kingdom

July 7, 2010 - July 10, 2010

142 works by 295 authors indexed

XML available from (still needs to be added)

Conference website:

Series: ADHO (5)

Organizers: ADHO

  • Keywords: None
  • Language: English
  • Topics: None