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Lincoln’s Famous Letter of Condolence to a Grieving Mother Was Likely Penned by His Secretary

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Brown University Library, Wikipedia/Public Domain

Despite his lack of formal schooling, Abraham Lincoln was a famously eloquent writer. One of his most renowned compositions is the so-called “Bixby letter,” a short yet poignant missive the president sent a widow in Boston who was believed to have lost five sons during the Civil War. But as Newsweek reports, new research published in the journal Digital Scholarship in the Humanities [PDF] suggests that Lincoln’s private secretary and assistant, John Hay, actually composed the dispatch.

The letter to Lydia Bixby was written in November 1864 at the request of William Shouler, the adjutant general of Massachusetts, and state governor John Albion Andrew. “I feel how weak and fruitless must be any word of mine which should attempt to beguile you from the grief of a loss so overwhelming,” it read. “But I cannot refrain from tendering you the consolation that may be found in the thanks of the Republic they died to save.”

Unknown to Lincoln, Bixby had actually only lost two sons in battle; the others had deserted the army, were honorably discharged, or died a prisoner of war. Nevertheless, word of the compassionate presidential gesture spread when the Boston Evening Transcript reprinted a copy of the 139-word letter for all to read.

Nobody quite knows what happened to Bixby’s original letter—some say she was a Confederate sympathizer and immediately burnt it—but for years, scholars debated whether Hay was its true author.

During Hay’s lifetime, the former secretary-turned-statesman had reportedly told several people in confidence that he—not Lincoln—had written the renowned composition, TIME reports. The rumor spread after Hay's death, but some experts interpreted the admission to mean that Hay had transcribed the letter, or had copied it from a draft.

To answer the question once and for all, a team of forensic linguists in England used a text analysis technique called n-gram tracing, which identifies the frequency of linguistic sequences in a short piece of writing to determine its true author. They tested 500 texts by Hay and 500 by Lincoln before analyzing the Bixby letter, the researchers explained in a statement quoted by Newsweek.

“Nearly 90 percent of the time, the method identified Hay as the author of the letter, with the analysis being inconclusive in the rest of the cases,” the linguists concluded.

According to Atlas Obscura, the team plans to present its findings at the International Corpus Linguistics Conference, which will take place at England’s University of Birmingham from Monday, July 24 to Friday, July 28.

[h/t Newsweek]

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This Just In
Amazon Is Rolling Out ‘Instant Pickup Stations’ In Several U.S. Cities
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othree, Flickr // CC BY 2.0

Much of what you’ll find on Amazon.com can be purchased at a brick-and-mortar book shop, department store, or convenience store in your neighborhood or nearby. Part of what makes the retail site so appealing is that it gives you the option to shop online without leaving your bedroom. Now, more than two decades after its inception, Amazon has come full-circle. As Mashable reports, the tech giant is testing “Instant Pickup” stations for shoppers who can’t wait for shipping.

The new program evolved out of Amazon’s existing delivery system. The company already has lockers around the country that customers can set as their shipping address. Now Amazon Lockers near college campuses in Berkeley, California; College Park, Maryland; Columbus, Ohio; Boston, and Los Angeles are being outfitted with digital kiosks that allow visitors to pick up goods moments after they’re ordered.

To make a purchase through Instant Pickup, Prime members can browse through the products available at their closest station through the Amazon app. Inventory varies, but it typically includes most of the essentials you’d find at a convenience store like snacks, drinks, and school supplies. Tech supplies like cables and headphones are also often in stock.

After you select the item you wish to buy, a barcode will pop up in the app. Holding the barcode beneath the onsite scanner will open a locker with your purchase inside. While the transaction does require you to leave the house, it maintains one key trait of online shopping: zero human interaction. Amazon's Director of Student Programs Ripley MacDonald told Mashable that that aspect is intentional. He said, "The original concept had a desk instead of these lockers, and the feedback they [the students] gave us was 'I don't want to talk to people, I want to do it on my phone.'"

This isn’t Amazon’s first venture outside the digital sphere. In the past few years the brand has opened eight physical bookstores and plans to open five more.

Amazon shoppers who prefer the instant gratification of in-person purchases without the chit-chat at the cash register can keep an eye out for more Instant Pickup station popping up around the country. Lincoln Park, Chicago will be the experiment’s next location, followed by more throughout the year.

[h/t Mashable]

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This Just In
London's Big Ben to Cease Chiming Until 2021
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Starting in late August, one of London’s largest—and noisiest—national symbols will go silent: As BBC News reports, Big Ben (which has rung on the hour for 157 years) will cease chiming until 2021. The measure is intended to protect workers completing restoration work on both the clock and its surrounding structure.

Big Ben will still chime on New Year’s Eve, Remembrance Sunday (a UK holiday that honors veterans), and other special occasions, but its last hourly bong will sound on Monday, August 21. Meanwhile, scaffolding has already been erected around the clock tower, and repairs have begun.

The clock tower last received extensive conservation work in the early 1980s. Officials say that the clock’s hands, pendulum, and inner workings all have problems “which need to be dealt with immediately to ensure that the clock can continue to work properly,” according to Parliament’s official website.

“Surveys are still being carried out to identify the extent of the works required to the tower itself, but we have already identified areas of concern, including cracks in masonry, leaks, erosion, and severe rusting of metalwork,” officials added. “There is a risk that if not addressed as a matter of urgency, the clock may fail or [structural] problems may become acute.”

Big Ben’s clock will be dismantled piece by piece, so its four dials can be cleaned and fixed. Its faces will be temporarily covered, but an electric motor will continue to drive the clock hands so it can keep telling time. Architects also plan to modernize the clock tower by making it more energy-efficient, and adding an elevator, toilet, and kitchen.

"This essential program of works will safeguard the clock on a long-term basis, as well as protecting and preserving its home—the Elizabeth Tower," the clock's keeper Steve Jaggs told the BBC.

For the uninitiated, the name “Big Ben” is often used to describe the tower, the clock, and the bell, but it originally described the largest of the clock’s five bells, which stands more than 7 feet tall and weighs more than 14 tons. As for the clock’s surrounding tower, it was dubbed Elizabeth Tower in 2012, to celebrate Queen Elizabeth II’s 60-year reign.

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