Alfred Russel Wallace conceived his theory of evolution by natural selection whilst suffering from fever in the village of Dodinga on the Indonesian island of Halmahera (known to Wallace as Gilolo) in February 1858. Once he had recovered sufficiently he wrote a detailed essay explaining his idea, which he posted to Charles Darwin together with a covering letter, probably in early March, from the neighbouring island of Ternate. To cut a long story short: when Darwin received the essay in June 1858 he was horrified as he realised that Wallace had independently conceived 'his' theory. He implored his close friend the geologist Charles Lyell for help. Lyell sprung into action and he, botanist Joseph Hooker and Darwin then discussed the issue by letter (not face-to-face) and decided to publish Wallace's essay prefixed by some of Darwin's writings on the subject (which hadn't been written with publication in mind) in order to demonstrate that Darwin had had the same idea 20 years before Wallace. This 'joint' paper was read at a meeting of the Linnean Society of London on the 1st July 1858, and then published in August of that year. For a detailed account of the curious events which led to its publication see my article Alfred Russel Wallace and natural selection: the real story.
What many people don't realise is that Wallace's original essay and its covering letter mysteriously disappeared long ago. No one knows what Wallace actually wrote in the letter, and the disappearance of it and the envelope it was posted in gave rise to a conspiracy theory which has been the subject of a number of books and research papers (see e.g. https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/full/10.1111/j.1095-8312.2011.01858.x). Leaving such intrigue aside, what do we know about the fate of the essay, the letter, and the envelope? Well, we know nothing about the fate of the envelope, and all we know about the original essay is that Darwin sent it to Lyell in his 'anguished' letter of 18 June 1858 asking for it to be returned. There is no record of what then happened; it could have been sent to the Linnean Society for typesetting and then lost; Lyell could have kept it and sent a transcript to the Linnean Society, then returned the original to Darwin, who subsequently lost or destroyed it etc etc. One thing we do know is that the original was never returned to Wallace (see what Wallace wrote on the envelope pictured below).
What Wallace's letter might have looked like - a Photoshop mock-up produced from real Wallace letters by George Beccaloni.
So what became of the letter? All we know is that in a letter of 25 June 1858 Darwin wrote to Lyell "Wallace says nothing about publication, & I enclose his letter." So he sent it to Lyell, who may or may not have kept it. In about 1908 Hooker asked Lyell's nephew to search for any documents relating to this affair among his late uncle's papers. In a speech given by Hooker at the Linnean Society to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the reading of the Darwin-Wallace papers in 1908 he said "There are no letters from Lyell relating to it [i.e. the 'affair'], not even answers to Mr. Darwin's of the 18th, 25th, and 26th June; and Sir Leonard Lyell has at my request very kindly but vainly searched his Uncle's correspondence for any relating to this subject beyond the two above mentioned. There are none of my letters to either Lyell or Darwin, nor other evidence of their having existed beyond the latter's acknowledgment of the receipt of some of them; and, most surprising of all, Mr. Wallace's letter and its enclosure have disappeared." Lyell actually kept four of Darwin's letters relating to the affair, the two which I have given links to above, plus two others (see HERE and HERE), but none of the other letters he received from Darwin or those from Hooker exist. Curiously, none of the letters sent by Lyell to Hooker are known, although Hooker preserved many (all?) of the ones which Darwin sent to him about the matter. As for Darwin, he didn't keep a single letter relating to this affair - or they were later lost or destroyed.
Darwin seems to have replied to Wallace's 'Ternate letter' on 13 July 1858, almost two weeks after his and Wallace's articles had been read at the Linnean Society (see HERE). He enclosed a letter from Hooker which we have Wallace's reply to as Darwin forwarded it to Hooker who preserved it. Curiously, although Wallace kept all of the letters he received from Darwin whilst he was in the Malay Archipelago, the key letter from Darwin of 13 July (plus the enclosed letter from Hooker) is the only one which seems to be missing. Even more curiously, Wallace sent all the letters he had received from Darwin whilst in the 'Malay Archipelago' to Sydney Carlyle Cockerell in 1909 for an exhibition at Cambridge to celebrate the 100th anniversary of Darwin's birth, yet although 8 letters were indeed enclosed in the envelope (an image of which is below), only 7 were ones from the Malay Archipelago, and the key one from Darwin dated 13 July 1858 was missing! It has never been found, and neither Wallace nor Cockerell commented on its absence from the envelope..
The letter 'substituted' for the 13 July one was a letter from Darwin dated 7 March 1867, long after Wallace had returned to England. We know the contents of the envelope as the letters were published HERE not long after Wallace sent them.
Another odd thing, is a comment Darwin made in the letter he sent to Lyell on 25 June 1858. He wrote "I sh[oul]d not have sent off your letter without further reflexion, for I am at present quite upset, but write now to get subject for time out of mind. But I confess it never did occur to me, as it ought, that Wallace could have made any use of your letter." This suggests that Darwin posted a letter from Lyell to Wallace (probably with a letter of his own as well) not long after he received Wallace's letter and essay. If so no mention of it was ever made by Wallace or anyone else.
Here is a summary of the letters sent to the four people involved in this "trumpery affair", as Darwin called it:
WALLACE: Of the 8 letters he received from Darwin in the 'Malay Archipelago' three relate to this affair and the key one which would have been dated 13 July 1858 is missing, as is the letter from Hooker which was sent with it. Curiously, all the other 5 letters he received from Darwin whilst he was in the 'Malay Archipelago' which were not related to this affair, survive.
DARWIN: None of the letters sent to him by Wallace, Lyell or Hooker exist. Oddly one entire letter and fragments of two others which Wallace sent to him from the 'Malay Archipelago' which were unrelated to the affair were preserved.
LYELL: Four of the letters Darwin sent to him exist, but several are clearly missing, as are all of the ones which Hooker sent to him.
HOOKER: Most (all?) of the letters Darwin sent to him exist (there are 5), as does the one letter Wallace sent to him. The several letters Lyell must have sent to Hooker are all missing.
Wallace scholar Barbara Beddall once wrote that that it was as if "somebody cleaned up the file." (Her suspect was Francis Darwin.) Perhaps she was right, but we may never know.
A huge archive of the geologist Charles Lyell’s papers is currently being sold by the executors of the late Charles, 3rd Baron Lyell’s estate (the son of Lyell's nephew), who died in 2017. Lyell's important notebooks are being delayed from being exported from the UK, in the hope that a UK buyer can be found: https://www.gov.uk/government/news/notebooks-of-charles-darwins-mentor-at-risk-of-export and the University of Edinburgh Library is trying to raise the funds to purchase them. Worryingly it seems that some of the other manuscript items, including "autograph books" of letters received by Charles Lyell, are being sold through auction and dealers e.g. http://www.sothebys.com/en/auctions/ecatalogue/2018/english-literature-sale-l18404/lot.367.html and https://www.abebooks.com/servlet/SearchResults?sortby=1&an=sir+charles Let's hope that if Wallace's Ternate letter is among these that someone will recognise it for what it is! It is actually pretty unlikely that it is in the archive since Lyell's nephew and apparently others after him have searched for it. However, one never knows..