Lincoln’s Yarns and Stories: The Case of Betsy Ann Dougherty

Many requests and petitions made to Mr. Lincoln when he was President were ludicrous and trifling, but he always entered into them with that humor-loving spirit that was such a relief from the grave duties of his great office.

Once a party of Southerners called on him in behalf of one Betsy Ann Dougherty. The spokesman, who was an ex-Governor, said:

“Mr. President, Betsy Ann Dougherty is a good woman. She lived in my county and did my washing for a long time. Her husband went off and joined the rebel army, and I wish you would give her a protection paper.” The solemnity of this appeal struck Mr. Lincoln as uncommonly ridiculous.

The two men looked at each other—the Governor desperately earnest, and the President masking his humor behind the gravest exterior. At last Mr. Lincoln asked, with inimitable gravity, “Was Betsy Ann a good washerwoman?” “Oh, yes, sir, she was, indeed.”

“Was your Betsy Ann an obliging woman?” “Yes, she was certainly very kind,” responded the Governor, soberly. “Could she do other things than wash?” continued Mr. Lincoln with the same portentous gravity.

“Oh, yes; she was very kind—very.”

“Where is Betsy Ann?”

“She is now in New York, and wants to come back to Missouri, but she is afraid of banishment.”

“Is anybody meddling with her?”

“No; but she is afraid to come back unless you will give her a protection paper.”

Thereupon Mr. Lincoln wrote on a visiting card the following:

“Let Betsy Ann Dougherty alone as long as she behaves herself.


He handed this card to her advocate, saying, “Give this to Betsy Ann.”

“But, Mr. President, couldn’t you write a few words to the officers that would insure her protection?”

“No,” said Mr. Lincoln, “officers have no time now to read letters. Tell Betsy Ann to put a string in this card and hang it around her neck. When the officers see this, they will keep their hands off your Betsy Ann.”