Friday, May 29, 2015


Edgar Lee Masters gained immortality by writing a series of poems entitled Spoon River Anthology, but he gained infamy in his lifetime by writing a biography, Lincoln the Man, in which he criticized almost everything Lincoln said or did. His account of Lincoln’s performance in the Almanac Trial is no exception. Masters claimed Lincoln was a second rate hack of a lawyer who didn’t have enough legal skill to properly move for and obtain a change of venue. Since the defense moved for and obtained a change of venue in the Almanac Trial, somebody other than Lincoln must have filed the paperwork and argued the motion.

Masters was correct in saying that somebody other than Lincoln moved for and obtained the change of venue. The attorney who got the change of venue was Caleb Dillworth, a young and inexperienced attorney who charged small fees—small enough for the financially strapped Hannah Armstrong to be able to hire him to defend her son.  This was not because Lincoln couldn’t write a motion for change of venue, it was because Lincoln did not enter the case until after the venue was changed.

As a matter of fact, Lincoln got more changes of venue in his 23 year legal career than I had in my 32 year career. It seems that a change of venue was easier to come by in antebellum Illinois than it is today. Apparently all you had to do was have your client file an affidavit alleging that that sentiment of the people in the county was so against you that you feared you couldn’t get a fair trial. There are a few more hoops to jump through today.  Here is an affidavit for change of venue in Lincoln’s own handwriting:
In Lincoln's day lawyers often wrote their pleadings on whatever paper was available while they were sitting in court waiting on their cases to be called. This affidavit for change of venue was quite likely written in just such a fashion. It was filed in a murder case, People of Illinois v. John Bantzhouse, and judging from the near illegible signature Bantzhouse was either scared to death or illiterate. If he was frightened, he had no need to be. Lincoln no only won the motion for change of venue, he eventually got the case dismissed.

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