Lincoln covered himself with glory in the defense of his first murder case. He didn't do so well in his second. The facts of the murder are set out in a news article from the Illinois State Register:
Murder.—A [ferr]yman named Neithamer, was murdered [illegible] (opposite Beardstown,) in Schuyler County on the 17th inst. It appears that some [illegible] crew of the steamboat Hero were at [illegible] when Neithamer entered with a segar in his mouth. One of the crew of the name of Frame, told Neithamer not to smoke in his face, when the latter replied, ‘he thought the country was free, and he would smoke where he pleased.’ Frame then lifted his hand to knock the segar from Neithamer’s mouth, when the latter also raised his for protection. Frame unobserved, drew a long butcher knife from his side, and drove it to the hilt in the breast of Neithamer, which killed him instantly. Frame was drunk.
I think the moral of this story is “don't blow cigar smoke in a drunk sailor's face.” William Fielding Fraim, sometimes known as Charlie Fraim, was promptly arrested and indicted for murder. Venue was changed to Carthage, Illinois, and Fraim was convicted as charged in a one-day trial. Lincoln tried to get the judgment arrested on grounds that the indictment was "informal," or improperly worded. That ploy had worked in Lincoln's first big criminal case, People v. Cordell, but his plea fell on deaf ears this time.
Three weeks after being found guilty of murder and sentenced to death, the sentence was carried out in a field just outside Carthage. In the first quarter of the twentieth century, Mrs. Eudocia Baldwin Marsh, an elderly citizen of Carthage, wrote and published an essay describing her recollection of the execution. She was seven years old when Fraim was hanged, and the event made a strong impression on her. Here is her account of the execution:
In 1854 a new brick courthouse was built in the center of the public square at Carthage. Soon after its completion a prisoner, Charlie Frame, charged with murder, was brought from an adjoining county on a change of venue to Carthage to stand his trial. This took place in May, and he was found guilty and sentenced to be hanged. as I remember, two or three months later. The jail was not yet built, so the condemned murderer was confined in the new courthouse, in the southwest jury room. This was almost directly opposite our log schoolhouse. Always at recess, and at the noon hour, when we were at play, Charlie sat at the window and watched us. We would go near, fascinated by the thought of the awful doom awaiting him. He frequently talked with us, always in a friendly, cheerful way. He was full of pranks and would sometimes tempt the boys to come under his window by throwing out nuts, candy or fruit. When they stooped to pick them up, he would throw out a cup of water. This practical joking always kept the girls too timid to try to get any of the dainties.
Charlie was fettered by a chain about his ankles, fastened to a large iron ball, which made a noise like thunder whenever he walked about the large, bare-floored room. He was never alone, for either the sheriff or his deputy was always in the room. They treated him with great kindness and leniency, however, for he was a pleasant and engaging boy, a red-headed Irishman, only twenty-one years old. He was full of the fun of his race, and continually teased his jailers and joked with them. It was under the influence of liquor that he had given way to anger and committed the crime for which he was required to forfeit his life.
On the day of the execution, long before sunrise, we heard the rumble of heavy farm wagons rolling into town from all directions. By sunrise the little town was thronged with men, women and children, afoot, on horseback and in wagons. Some came fifty miles, a few even a hundred, to witness the gruesome sight. School dismissed for the day. At our home the morning hours dragged slowly by. Everyone was too wrought up to work according to the usual ritual; Anne said she felt choked. In order, I suppose, to relieve the nervous excitement, the teacher, who was boarding at our house at the time,—Mr. French of the uncertain temper—proposed that we have some music. Lowell Mason's “Book of Sacred Music” was brought out, and we all joined in singing a number of hymns. Among others, we sang “Ariel”—“Oh, could I sing the matchless worth.” Our voices rose high and sweet, blending melodiously with the tones of the flute. The rhythm of the stately music, and the ecstatic nature of the words almost lifted me out of myself.
I'd soar to touch the heavenly strings
And vie with Gabriel while he sings
In notes almost divine.
Well, the delightful day will come
When my dear Lord will bring me home.
I wondered if, after they had taken poor Charlie Frame's life, he too would “soar” and call this a “delightful day.” It was quite sure my baby brother and Sister Alice were in that “home,” but I did not know whether poor Charlie's kindness to us children would make him good enough to be taken to be with them.
After dinner [we’d say “lunch” today], Father and my brothers saddled horses and made ready to go. I asked them to take me, but they all said, “Do you suppose we'd take a girl to a hanging? No, sir-ee; you stay at home with Mother like a good girl.” However, soon after they left, Mother, Anne and Mr. French decided to walk into town. To comfort me, they took me along. Mother and I went to call on a friend living on the north side of the square, and Anne and Mr. French went on a block or two farther to see some other friends.
While Mother and her friend talked I strolled out on the deserted street. Presently a man who frequently came to our house on business drove by. Seeing me alone, he stopped his horse and asked, “Sis, would you like to ride out and see the hanging?”
“Why, yes,” I hesitated. “Would you take me?”
“Of course,” he replied. “Jump in.”
Before I had time to think of what I was doing, he had taken me by the hand, lifted me to a seat by his side and was driving rapidly on the well-beaten way. The place of execution was less than a mile away, southeast of town, and we soon reached the edge of the crowd. From there, by slow degrees, he edged his light buggy through the press of people and the jam of vehicles, to the very heart of it all, to the piteous spectacle that had drawn together the vast throng. Fortunately for my peace of mind, we were only in time to see a perfectly still figure, whose face was covered by a black cap, and whose body was attired in a blue jacket and white trousers. For, at one time in his short life, poor Charlie had been a sailor. What a sight to take a seven-year-old girl to see! But in justice to my escort, I must say that he was an ex-sheriff and probably so inured to executions that he considered it no harm to gratify a child's curiosity.
We remained but a moment, then again forced a way through the throng. Driving rapidly back to town, my companion set me down where he had found me, and I went timidly into the house. My absence had not been noted; Mother and her friend were still talking. Neither Father nor my brothers had seen me, so no one knew of my escapade. But I was unhappy, weighed down by the remembrance of poor Charlie's limp body and ashamed that I had gone without Mother's consent. After a time the burden grew too heavy to bear, so I told Mother the whole story. Much to my surprise, she was less vexed with me than with the man who took me. She was so shocked and grieved that my childish eyes should have looked upon such a sight that I assured her over and over again that “I would never do it again”—a promise that has never proved difficult to keep.
Having, in the line of duty, attended the executions of three men whom I have prosecuted, I must say that I found the execution of William Fraim disturbing. The method employed was an improvement over executions in Henry VIII’s England, where commoners were drawn, quartered, disemboweled, decapitated, and their heads stuck on a pole. Modern executions are conducted in a far more professional manner. There’s not really a painless way to kill someone who doesn’t want to die, but modern executions are carried out so as to minimize the pain as much as possible. They are also reserved for only the most atrocious murders. When I was a prosecutor, I would never have considered seeking the death penalty against William Fraim.