Attributing the Bixby Letter using n-gram tracing


There is a long-standing debate around the authorship of the Bixby Letter, one of the most famous pieces of correspondence in American history. Despite being signed by President Abraham Lincoln, some historians have claimed that its true author was John Hay, Lincoln’s personal secretary. Analyses of the letter have been inconclusive in part because the text totals only 139 words and is thus far too short to be attributed using standard methods. To test whether Lincoln or Hay wrote this letter, we therefore introduce and apply a new technique for attributing short texts called n-gram tracing. After demonstrating that our method can distinguish between the known writings of Lincoln and Hay with a very high degree of accuracy, we use it to attribute the Bixby Letter, concluding that the text was authored by John Hay – rewriting this one episode in the history of the United States and offering a solution to one of the most persistent problems in authorship attribution.

Publication DOI:
Divisions: ?? 53981500Jl ??
College of Business and Social Sciences > Aston Institute for Forensic Linguistics
College of Business and Social Sciences > School of Social Sciences & Humanities
Additional Information: This is a pre-copyedited, author-produced PDF of an article accepted for publication in Digital Scholarship in the Humanities following peer review. The version of record Jack Grieve, Isobelle Clarke, Emily Chiang, Hannah Gideon, Annina Heini, Andrea Nini, Emily Waibel; Attributing the Bixby Letter using n-gram tracing, Digital Scholarship in the Humanities, fqy042, is available online at:
Uncontrolled Keywords: : American History, Authorship Attribution, Computational Social Science, Corpus Linguistics, Forensic Linguistics, John Hay, Abraham Lincoln, Stylistics, Stylometry
Publication ISSN: 2055-768X
Last Modified: 22 Apr 2024 07:20
Date Deposited: 20 Aug 2018 07:29
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Related URLs: https://academi ... /fqy042/5145759 (Publisher URL)
PURE Output Type: Article
Published Date: 2019-09-01
Published Online Date: 2018-10-26
Accepted Date: 2018-08-17
Authors: Grieve, Jack
Clarke, Isobelle
Chiang, Emily (ORCID Profile 0000-0002-0216-1719)
Giddeon, Hannah
Heini, Annina (ORCID Profile 0000-0002-6737-2170)
Nini, Andrea
Waibel, Emily



Version: Accepted Version

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