Tuesday, April 29, 2014


According to conventional wisdom, Abraham Lincoln was not a very good criminal defense attorney. They say he didn’t take many cases, and of those cases he “lost” a lot of murder cases. Most of his “losses” came when his client was convicted of the lesser offense of manslaughter. At that time the maximum penalty for manslaughter was eight years and the minimum penalty for murder was hanging. You decide whether he “lost” those cases where his clients escaped the gallows.

The reason Lincoln didn’t try more criminal cases is easy to determine. Most crimes are committed by those who are unable to afford a lawyer, that’s why we have a public defender system today. Lincoln practiced law to make a living, and he seldom took non-paying cases.

Based on my research, I think Lincoln was a very good criminal defense attorney, and he showed his talent early in his career. He had not been practicing law for a year when he became associated in a murder case against a politician by the name of Henry B. Truett. He was not lead counsel in the case (you wouldn’t expect a rookie to be lead counsel in a murder case), but he played a pivotal role in the defense of the case. Here’s how it happened.

If you think politics is rough in this day and age, you should have seen antebellum Illinois. Truett had just been appointed to public office and some of his enemies got together a petition to have him removed. Truett thought he knew who wrote the petition, and he wasn’t going to stand for it. When he found the offender sitting in the lobby of a hotel reading a newspaper, he left the lobby and got a handgun. He returned to the lobby, cursed the offender, and pulled his handgun. The victim picked up a chair to use as a shield and Truett shot him in the gut. The victim languished for several days before giving a dying declaration and then expiring. The only question in the public mind was “When is the hanging going to be?”

Lincoln’s senior partner and mentor, Stephen T. Logan, was lead counsel and did most of the heavy lifting, but when it came time to give the final argument, Logan asked Lincoln to deliver it. There are a lot of lawyers who swear by final argument as the most important part of the trial, and here was Logan turning that important phase of the trial over to a young lawyer who had never tried a murder case. I don’t agree that the final argument is most important part of the case, but as things stood in the Truett case, it was supremely important.

Logan would later say that Lincoln gave an excellent final argument. If you are inclined to look at the results before you judge the quality of a performance, you will have to give Lincoln an A+. The jury acquitted. The citizenry was mystified as to how a jury could possibly acquit. Truett lost his appointment, and ever after lived under a cloud of suspicion that he got away with murder.
Oh, by the way, Lincoln's opponent in his first murder case happened to be a lawyer by the name of Stephen A. Douglas.

Friday, April 25, 2014


When Lincoln was still a young lawyer he defended a man named Spencer Turner on a charge of murder in DeWitt County, Illinois. Oddly enough, Lincoln's co-counsel on that case was Stephen A. Douglas. Douglas insisted that he be paid in cash. According to legend, Turner gave Lincoln a worthless horse in payment for attorney's fees. What actually happened is a little less colorful. Lincoln took a promissory note for $200.00.

Turner was acquitted in a speedy trial. (He was indicted in April of 1840 and tried in May of 1840). When Lincoln came to collect on the promissory note, he ran into problems. Turner, who was 20 at the time of the trial, claimed that since he was a "child," he could not legally enter into a contract, therefore the promissory note was null and void and unenforceable. This did not sit well with Lincoln. He sued.

Lincoln filed a complaint against Turner in DeWitt County Circuit Court in 1841, and the suit dragged on for the next six years with numerous court hearings. Lincoln finally got a judgment against his former client in 1847 and had the sheriff levy execution on some land owned by Turner. All of which goes to show that if you were Abraham Lincoln's client, you didn't want to stiff him for his legal fees. He would be tenacious in his attempts to collect.

Thursday, April 24, 2014


The printing is done on Lincoln's Most Famous Case. I received my complimentary copies today, and the books will be in the hands of the bookstores on the 30th. It was well produced, and I am quite satisfied with it. In case you're interested in the substance of the book, here is an annotated table of contents.

Chapter 1: Murder at a Whiskey Camp -- States the facts of the murder of Preston Metzker in the light most favorable to the prosecution.

Chapter 2: Lincoln the Cross-Examiner -- Retells the mythic story of how Lincoln won the Almanac Trial with a brilliant cross-examination which utterly destroyed the witness.

Chapter 3: Lincoln the Orator -- Retells the mythic story of how Lincoln snatched victory from the jaws of defeat in the Almanac Trial by shredding the prosecution case with a masterful final argument.

Chapter 4: Lincoln the Trickster -- Retells the unflattering story of how Lincoln perverted justice in the Almanac Trial by use of a forged almanac.

Of course, the rest of the book is devoted to sorting out which, if any, of these three stories is true.

Chapter 5: The Hagiography of the Trial -- Traces the telling and retelling of the story of the Almanac Trial by biographers seeking to turn Lincoln into a cardboard saint.

Chapter 6: The Historiography of the Trial -- Traces the critical analysis of the story of the Almanac Trial by more critical biographers.

Chapter 7: Lincoln and the Clary's Grove Boys -- Tells the story of how Lincoln started on his pathway to the presidency by contesting a wrestling match.

Chapter 8: The Camp Meeting -- Describes the camp meeting outside which the murder occurred and gives a thumbnail sketch of the history of camp meetings during the nineteenth century.

Chapter 9: The Prosecution -- Traces the course of the prosecution from arrest up to the commencement of the trial.

Chapter 10: The Trial Begins -- Describes how Lincoln became involved in the trial and begins to reconstruct the story of the trial itself.

Chapter 11: The Famous Cross-Examination -- Examines the story of the brilliant cross-examination in detail and decides whether it actually happened.

Chapter 12: The Misplaced Moon -- Examines the story of the forged almanac and determines how Lincoln actually used the almanac.

Chapter 13: Winning the Almanac Trial -- Analyzes how the acquittal was actually obtained and examines additional accusations of unethical conduct against Lincoln.

Chapter 14: Was Armstrong Guilty? -- Decides whether Lincoln freed a murderer and whether it really makes any difference to his legacy as a trial lawyer.

Appendix A: The Statements of the Major Participants -- Reproduces the letters, statements, and interviews of the key players in the trial so that the reader may make up his or her own mind about the facts of the trial.

Appendix B: Selected Documents from the Armstrong Court File -- Transcribes the more important  documents from the Almanac Trial court file and illustrates the course of the prosecution.

Appendix C: The Oral History of the Armstrongs -- Examines the statements of members of the Armstrong family and shows how the family's oral history of the trial differs from the historical record.

Tuesday, April 15, 2014


In previous posts we’ve looked at Lincoln as a sailor, a wrestler, an inventor, and a strongman. In this post we’ll look at another aspect of his personality—poet. Anyone who ever spent much time putting words together has tried their hand at poetry, and Lincoln was no exception. In 1846 he wrote a poem which he titled “Bear Hunt.” The poem would never have been considered great literature, but by my lights it was pretty good. Unlike a lot of stuff that gets passed off as poetry, “Bear Hunt” rhymed and had a relatively consistent meter. The poem’s rhyme scheme and meter is helped if you mispronounce some of the words, but who knows, perhaps that was the way they pronounced those words in antebellum Illinois.

 Lincoln’s spelling of many words is nonstandard, but I think we can overlook that shortcoming. He was self-educated and spell check wouldn’t be available for another century and a half. Only one word should cause any real problems with interpretation—“fice.” The word has gone out of common usage since Lincoln wrote, but any of Lincoln’s contemporaries would have recognized a “fice” as a feisty mongrel dog.

 People who come from a rural background and who have done some hunting with dogs will be best able to appreciate the poem. I thoroughly enjoyed it. Perhaps you will too.

A wild-bear chace, didst never see?

Then hast thou lived in vain.

Thy richest bump of glorious glee,

Lies desert in thy brain.

When first my father settled here,

'Twas then the frontier line:

The panther's scream, filled night with fear

And bears preyed on the swine.

But wo[e] for Bruin's short lived fun,

When rose the squealing cry;

Now man and horse, with dog and gun,

For vengeance, at him fly.

A sound of danger strikes his ear;

He gives the breeze a snuff:

Away he bounds, with little fear,

And seeks the tangled rough.

On press his foes, and reach the ground,

Where's left his half munched meal;

The dogs, in circles, scent around,

And find his fresh made trail.

With instant cry, away they dash,

And men as fast pursue;

O'er logs they leap, through water splash,

And shout the brisk halloo.

Now to elude the eager pack,

Bear shuns the open ground;

Th[r]ough matted vines, he shapes his track

And runs it, round and round.

The tall fleet cur, with deep-mouthed voice,

Now speeds him, as the wind;

While half-grown pup, and short-legged fice,

Are yelping far behind.

And fresh recruits are dropping in

To join the merry corps:

With yelp and yell,---a mingled din---

The woods are in a roar.

And round, and round the chace now goes,

The world's alive with fun;

Nick Carter's horse, his rider throws,

And more, Hill drops his gun.

Now sorely pressed, bear glances back,

And lolls his tired tongue;

When as, to force him from his track,

An ambush on him sprung.

Across the glade he sweeps for flight,

And fully is in view.

The dogs, new-fired, by the sight,

Their cry, and speed, renew.

The foremost ones, now reach his rear,

He turns, they dash away;

And circling now, the wrathful bear,

They have him full at bay.

At top of speed, the horse-men come,

All screaming in a row.

``Whoop! Take him Tiger. Seize him Drum.''

Bang,---bang---the rifles go.

And furious now, the dogs he tears,

And crushes in his ire.

Wheels right and left, and upward rears,

With eyes of burning fire.

But leaden death is at his heart,

Vain all the strength he plies.

And, spouting blood from every part,

He reels, and sinks, and dies.

And now a dinsome clamor rose,

'Bout who should have his skin;

Who first draws blood, each hunter knows,

This prize must always win.

But who did this, and how to trace

What's true from what's a lie,

Like lawyers, in a murder case

They stoutly argufy.

Aforesaid fice, of blustering mood,

Behind, and quite forgot,

Just now emerging from the wood,

Arrives upon the spot.

With grinning teeth, and up-turned hair---

Brim full of spunk and wrath,

He growls, and seizes on dead bear,

And shakes for life and death.

And swells as if his skin would tear,

And growls and shakes again;

And swears, as plain as dog can swear,

That he has won the skin.

Conceited whelp! we laugh at thee---

Nor mind, that not a few

Of pompous, two-legged dogs there be,

Conceited quite as you.


Wednesday, April 9, 2014


One of the enduring legends of Lincoln’s Almanac Trial (beyond his use of the almanac) is the story of how Lincoln intentionally chose a jury of young men because he figured that young male jurors could empathize with his client, the young man who stood trial for murder stemming from a drunken brawl at a whiskey camp. In Lincoln’s Most Famous Case I argue that the age of the jurors was more a product of chance than of careful planning on Lincoln’s part.

I won’t recapitulate the reasoning which led me to this conclusion, but I would like to discuss one more factor I didn't know about when I wrote the book. A little over a year after he litigated the Almanac Trial, Lincoln took on one final murder case. In his last murder case Lincoln stepped in to defend the grandson of one of his fiercest political adversaries, Peter Cartwright, the only man to ever defeat him in a popular vote (Douglas lost the popular vote but was elected to the Senate by the Illinois legislature).
The case was People of Illinois versus Peachy Quinn Harrison. Harrison and another young man, in addition to being political enemies, were apparently rivals for the affection of a young lady. They almost came to blows at a Fourth of July picnic, and afterward exchanged threats and counter threats. Greek Crafton threatened to “whip” Harrison, and Harrison threatened to shoot or kill Crafton if Crafton laid a hand on him.
They came to blows in a drugstore one Sunday morning in August of 1859. Crafton apparently was the aggressor, with Harrison saying he did not want to fight. Crafton grabbed Harrison, and in the ensuing scuffle Crafton suffered a severe stab wound. Harrison fled the scene and it was several days before officers could get him arrested. In the interim Greek Crafton died of his wounds. The Sangamon County Grand Jury indicted Harrison for the murder of Crafton, and the trial commenced on August 31, 1859. They believed in speedy trials in those days.

Since both men came from prominent families, it was anticipated that jury selection would be difficult. Instead of the 24 potential jurors normally summoned for a week of jury duty, they summoned 100. Jury selection took a full day, and most of the panel was examined before they could settle on twelve jurors to hear the case.
Here’s my point. The Almanac Trial involved a brawl between two young men. The Harrison case involved a brawl between two young men. It would seem that the same type of juror would be wanted for both cases. The Almanac Trial jury had an average age of 28, and the Harrison jury an average age of 40. This fact adds weight to the other considerations which led me to believe that the age of the potential jurors was not a controlling consideration in Almanac Trial