Monday, June 15, 2015


Becoming a lawyer in antebellum America was much easier than it is today. In Illinois you could practice law without a license if you didn’t charge for your services. If you wanted to charge for your services, you had to get a certificate of good character from a lawyer, get a license issued from the Supreme Court, and then get yourself enrolled with the clerk of the Supreme Court as an attorney. Abraham Lincoln received a certificate of good character from Judge Stephen T. Logan on March 24, 1836. On September 9, 1836, two Justices of the Illinois Supreme Court issued his license to practice law. For some reason, possibly inability to pay the fee, Lincoln did not get enrolled as a lawyer in the records of the Clerk of the Supreme Court until March 1, 1837. On April 15, 1837, the Sangamo Journal printed an announcement that Lincoln had gone into partnership with John T. Stuart. Not long after Lincoln was admitted to practice the Supreme Court started requiring “bar examinations” before they would issue a license. Lincoln became a bar examiner, and he was reputed to be a very lenient examiner indeed. One young lawyer who was “examined” by Lincoln claimed that Lincoln asked him not a single question about his knowledge of the law.

One of Lincoln’s first criminal cases involved the defense of a man named David Cordell on a charge of assault to murder. Stuart, who was an experienced attorney, probably took the lead in the case with Lincoln’s assistance. The actual indictment against Cordell is over 100 years old, handwritten on faded paper, and almost illegible. A facsimile of it is set forth below:


After the indictment was written and signed by the state’s attorney, it was folded in quarters and the style of the case was written on the back. The foreman of the grand jury signed the back of the indictment attesting that the grand jury had found a true bill of indictment, and the names of the witnesses who testified before the grand jury were written below the foreman’s signature. Before it was folded, the back of the indictment looked like this:


They didn’t have file folders back in those days. They had cardboard sleeves called “shucks.” Folded papers were slid loose into the shucks.  When you pulled the papers out you identified them by the description written on the outside quarter of the back page. It was a good system if there were not a lot of papers to go into the court file. When I started with the public defender’s office back in the early 1970’s, they were still using shucks in the circuit where I practiced.
In Florida most prosecutions are done by information rather than indictment, but the format was exactly as I have described. The charge was typed on one side, the paper was folded in quarters, and the style of the case and witnesses were endorsed on the back quarter. When we indicted Ted Bundy, that’s the format we used for the indictment.
Anyhow, getting back to Lincoln’s first significant criminal case: Back before the Civil War, the rules for wording charges were much more stringent than they are today. If all your I’s weren’t dotted and all your T’s weren’t crossed, the indictment would get dismissed. I won’t get into the details, but there were a lot of problems with the Cordell indictment besides the fact that they spelled his name wrong. The indictment got dismissed, and the state’s attorney declined to refile. Cordell’s victim filed a civil suit which was a little more successful. He recovered $100 for his broken arm. Lincoln recovered $50 for defending Cordell.
If you read the indictment above, you might be wondering what a "scythe sneath" is. I certainly did, so I looked it up. The first thing I learned was that Cordell’s name wasn’t the only thing the state’s attorney had trouble spelling. The correct spelling is “scythe snath.” The second thing I learned was that a scythe snath is a scythe handle. If you don’t think you can live without a scythe snath, you can buy one on Amazon for about $54.
As you can see from the picture, a scythe snath can be a pretty mean weapon even without the scythe blade attached. When I was in high school I saw a news report about a pack of rabid wolves attacking a peasant village in one of the old Soviet republics. The reporter said that the villagers fought the wolves off with axes and scythes. Strict gun control laws can be a real problem when you’re attacked by a pack of rabid wolves.