Wednesday, July 13, 2016


When I was writing AbrahamLincoln’s Most Famous Case: The Almanac Trial I was struck by the fact that Lincoln had tried a lot of interesting murder cases. I decided to write a book about Lincoln’s last murder case, People v. Peachy Quinn Harrison, because (1) it contrasted quite nicely with the Almanac Trial, and (2) a transcript of the trial has survived to this day and is available in pdf online at the Law Practice of Abraham Lincoln website. With the Almanac Trial, the only evidence was the reminiscences of the participants; with the Harrison trial we had a transcript and numerous newspaper reports. The defendant in the Almanac Trial came from a family that was poor as church mice; the defendant in the Harrison case came from a rich and powerful family. The victim in the Almanac Trial was a poor dirt farmer; the victim in the Harrison case was the son of a rich and powerful politician. Both cases had about an equal number of witnesses, and both cases had about the same degree of complexity; but the Almanac Trial was tried in an afternoon and the Harrison trial took a week. Did Lincoln try harder when there was money to be made defending a case?

I soon realized that the Harrison case wasn’t going to make a very thick book, so I decided to expand the book to cover all of Lincoln’s homicide trials, both murder and manslaughter. Devoting a chapter to each trial, and taking the trials in chronological order, I tell the story of the killing, introduce the lawyers, and describe how they contested the cases. Trying a case back then was somewhat more primitive than today, but reading those cases brought back memories of my early days as a public defender in the Third Circuit of Florida. Believe it or not, the 1970’s Third Judicial Circuit was very much like Illinois’ 1850’s Eighth Judicial Circuit. The main difference was that I rode an un-airconditioned Dodge Dart around the Third Circuit and Lincoln rode a horse around the Eighth. Well, there may have been more differences than that, but the atmosphere of the two circuits was very similar. We tried cases just as fast and furious as they did back before the Civil War, and we did it with about the same amount of discovery. But I’m digressing.

We know very little about some of Lincoln’s cases, so I have three summary chapters to talk about the less-well-documented cases. And I look at some interesting non-murder cases, too, like the time Lincoln defended an organized crime boss. I couldn’t help but be struck with what a good trial lawyer Lincoln was. The conventional wisdom says Lincoln was first and foremost a politician, but looking at his cases tells a different story. Something else that struck me was how good some of the lawyers he opposed were. There was Leonard Swett, who was probably the best criminal defense attorney in Illinois; and T. Lyle Dickey, who could talk a judge into freeing a convicted killer; and Stephen T. Logan, who taught four future U.S. Senators, three future governors, and one future president how to practice law. 

And an amazing number of Lincoln’s colleagues at the bar went on to distinguish themselves as general officers in the Civil War. There was Major General John A. McClernand, who served as Grant’s second in command at Vicksburg; and Major General John M. Palmer, who distinguished himself at Stones River and Chickamauga; and Brigadier General William Orme, who contracted tuberculosis at Vicksburg. My favorite has to be Brevet Brigadier General Caleb Dilworth, who became a brigade commander because all the officers above him were killed in action. Dilworth distinguished himself at Kennesaw Mountain, Chickamauga, and the Siege of Atlanta. Then there was the tragic figure of Edward D. Baker, a sitting U.S. Senator who declined an appointment as Major General to serve as a Colonel, and was killed in action at the Battle of Ball’s Bluff. Lincoln cried when he heard of Baker’s death.

Just as the Third Circuit of the 1970’s had its share of colorful lawyers, Lincoln’s Eighth Circuit had some colorful lawyers, too. There was Ward Hill Lamon, who liked to engage in wrestling matches during court recesses; and Usher F. Linder, who didn’t care what the judge said, he was going to smoke in court come Hell or high water; and Josiah Lamborn, who thought that a prosecutor was an Avenger of Blood rather than a minister of justice, who once browbeat a man into confessing to a murder that never happened; and David Longnecker, who stabbed a client to death in an argument over a $40.00 legal fee. Discretion prevents me from naming or describing any of the colorful characters of the Third Circuit.

So I wrote Lincoln for the Defense: The Criminal Law Practice of Our Sixteenth President, and I had more fun writing it than any previous book I've written. Only the publisher didn't like the title. And they had some ideas for changing some other things about the book. So the thesis of Lincoln for the Defense met the antithesis of the Southern Illinois University Press, and the synthesis was Prairie Defender: The Murder Trials of Abraham Lincoln. I had to tighten the book up some, remove a number of irrelevant digressions, and give the book an actual structure rather than just having a collection of good stories about interesting cases Lincoln tried. And I have to admit that Prairie Defender is better than Lincoln for the Defense

Prairie Defender comes out in July of next year, but SIU is already taking pre-publication orders for it.