Wednesday, July 30, 2014


It is said that Lincoln was never happier than when he was riding from one county to another on the Eighth Judicial Circuit of Illinois, trying whatever cases were brought to him and exasperating his colleagues with the small fees he charged. Lincoln loved a good joke and was quick to entertain his fellow lawyers with stories and practical jokes.

Ward Hill Lamon, whom Lincoln often associated to try cases on the circuit, was sometimes the brunt of the joke. Lamon went on to serve as a U.S. Marshal and as Lincoln's bodyguard during his presidency. Lamon was a huge, powerful man who knew how to handle himself in a scuffle, and had he not been off duty on the evening of Lincoln's assassination, things might have turned out quite differently. Lamon "wrote" a biography of his friend Lincoln, but he had the misfortune to hire a ghostwriter who was no fan of the slain president. Lamon's Life of Abraham Lincoln was a failure, and he was roundly criticized for the unkind things the ghostwriter said about Lincoln. In an effort to atone for his ghostwriter's skewering of Lincoln, Lamon wrote several more pieces of literature about Lincoln. Even after his death, his daughter published a book of Lamon's reminiscences about Lincoln.

In Recollections of Abraham Lincoln, 1847-1865 Lamon recalls a joke that Lincoln played on him while he (Lamon) was trying a case to a jury. We ought to be able to place great stock in the story because it came from Lamon himself and it tells of a rather embarrassing incident. We will let Lamon tell the story in his own words:

Mr. Lincoln was from the beginning of his circuit-riding the light and life of the court. The most trivial circumstance furnished a back-ground for his wit. The following incident, which illustrates his love of a joke, occurred in the early days of our acquaintance. I, being at the time on the infant side of twenty-one, took particular pleasure in athletic sports. One day when we were attending the circuit court which met at Bloomington, Illinois, I was wrestling near the court house with someone who had challenged me to a trial, and in the scuffle made a large rent in the rear of my trousers. Before I had time to make any change, I was called into court to take up a case. The evidence was finished. I, being the Prosecuting Attorney at the time, got up to address the jury. Having on a somewhat short coat, my misfortune was rather apparent. One of the lawyers, for a joke, started a subscription paper which was passed from one member of the bar to another as they sat by a long table fronting the bench, to buy a pair of pantaloons for Lamon, — "he being," the paper said, "a poor but worthy young man." Several put down their names with some ludicrous subscription, and finally the paper was laid by some one in front of Mr. Lincoln, he being engaged in writing at the time. He quietly glanced over the paper, and, immediately taking up his pen, wrote after his name, "I can contribute nothing to the end in view."

It seems that Lamon was a good enough story teller to have been able to dispense with a ghostwriter for his Life of Lincoln. We can be sure he came to regret not having written the book himself.

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