Friday, January 24, 2014


Years ago a kidnapping/hostage situation arose when a bank robbery went wrong. An armed confrontation outside the bank led to a high speed chase, which ended when an officer used his patrol vehicle to knock the kidnapper’s car off the road. When the kidnap vehicle came to rest, officers scrambled to the wrecked car and subdued the kidnapper before he could harm his hostage. It was an event which would cause the adrenalin to flow. I happened to be in the radio control room at the time the kidnapping occurred and got to listen to the police radio transmissions from the beginning of the chase until the arrest. I must confess that my heart was pounding by the time the chase was over.

Despite video surveillance footage from the bank and the testimony of the victim and a dozen or more officers, the defendant entered a plea of not guilty and went to trial. Being a young, inexperienced rookie, I did not try the case, but I did get to sit in on it. As the prosecutor prepared for the trial, he spoke to four or five officers, each of whom steadfastly maintained that, alone and unaided, he took the kidnapper into custody. This presented a problem for the presentation of the evidence because most jurors realize that five officers could not each single-handedly arrest one man. As I recall, the prosecutor solved his problem by getting the officers together, explaining the problem to them, and telling them he was going to leave the room and let them figure which one of them actually made the arrest. At the end of their private conference none of them were happy but they had all agreed on one officer as the person who made the arrest. Problem solved.

This is a common problem with memory. We are each the hero of our own life story, and we tend to remember ourselves as being more important to a particular event than we actually were. I ran into this problem researching the Almanac Trial. Lincoln is usually remembered as trying the case alone and unaided. That is how the earliest published version of the trial told the story, and that is how most histories remember the trial. Actually, he was not alone in the trial of the case. Armstrong had three lawyers defending him. Other than allowing his campaign biographies to say that he was sole counsel, Lincoln never really talked or wrote about the trial. His co-counsel did. William Walker carried on an extensive correspondence with various people about the trial. In his recollection, he acted as lead counsel and Lincoln simply assisted him. According to Walker, Lincoln merely took notes, made suggestions, and made the final argument. Most of the others who attended the trial remember Lincoln doing much more than Walker seemed willing to admit. At least Walker was willing to admit that Lincoln was involved in the defense of the case. He never mentioned Armstrong’s third lawyer, Caleb Dilworth. Dilworth wrote less about the trial than Walker, and he was willing to give Lincoln more credit. If, however, his correspondence were our only evidence of the trial, the only thing that we would know about Walker’s involvement would come from a remark at the end of Dilworth’s letter that “I believe also William Walker of Havana was in the defense.”

When I was researching the original sources for the trial, the first papers I read were William Walker’s letters. I came away from my reading of those letters thinking that Lincoln did almost nothing in defense of Armstrong. Further reading of the letters and reminiscences of others at the trial changed my mind, and I now believe that he was the de facto leader of the defense team.

The problem I just described is but one of the man problems that researchers and investigators confront when dealing with the reminiscences of participants in an event. It is something that we must be careful to guard against.

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