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Wednesday, Dec. 12, 2007 06:46 am

Oops!

Researchers uncover the truth about Honest Abe’s law office

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Jane Rhetta, Kathleen Thomas, Justin Blandford, and Floyd Mansberger helped uncover the truth about Lincoln.
PHOTO BY R.L. NAVE

Historians researching the life and times of Springfield merchant Seth Tinsley have uncovered new information about another famous Springfield resident. What they’ve discovered may come as a shock to thousands of people who’ve toured a downtown landmark. It turns out that the renovated Lincoln-Herndon Law Offices, at Sixth and Adams streets downtown, said to be where Abraham Lincoln practiced law from 1843 until the early 1850s, are in the wrong location, says site manager Justin Blandford. More than 36,000 schoolchildren, tourists, and history buffs visit the downtown attraction each year. The building is included in all Lincoln tourist-related literature, it’s been featured on a limited-edition Christmas ornament by the city of Springfield, and the law offices even merited a mention by U.S. Sen. Barack Obama when he made his presidential-announcement speech from the steps of the nearby Old State Capitol in February. Blandford’s team made the discovery while they pursued plans to re-create the Tinsley dry-goods store that was located in the building in anticipation of the 2009 bicentennial of Lincoln’s birth. The project calls for actors and guides in period costume, who will provide living-history tours on subjects ranging from the textiles industry to westward expansion and the temperance movement.
This room overlooking the Old State Capitol Plaza wasn’t Lincoln’s office after all.
PHOTO BY R.L. NAVE

But in researching the Tinsley business the preservationists got a history lesson of their own.
In 2006, Blandford assembled a research team, which included historians, an architect, and an archaeologist, to find out as much as they could about the building’s original owner, Tinsley, and his influence in Springfield’s mercantile community.
Kathleen Thomas, a historical researcher, began examining newspaper advertisements, looking closely at the kinds of items sold in his store, S.M. Tinsley & Co. Blandford explains: “It’s sort of like a Target ad today. When you pick up the Target ad, you never look at where Target is located, and you always look at what’s on sale. Once we were really trying to thoroughly investigate the [Tinsley] ads, we noticed some kind of alarming things.”
One newspaper notice announcing the grand opening of Tinsley’s shop in the Springfield Register newspaper on May 14, 1841, boasts, “the most extensive and desirable stock” of spring and summer goods “in the Western country.” Another, dated Oct. 20, 1843, advertises the arrival of “$30,000 worth of new goods.”
At least two Tinsley ads, although they don’t give an address, mention that the store — which also contained office space that Tinsley rented to the federal courts, the U.S. Postal Service, and several attorneys, most famously Lincoln and his partner William Herndon — is four stories tall. This raised more doubts, Blandford says. “If he’s advertising a four-story new store, how is it possible for him to rent that space to attorneys?” Blandford asks. “So some of Tinsley’s ads started to call into question the location of law offices in the building.”
From there, Thomas went back and started looking at Lincoln ads from around the time he first rented space in the building in 1843 to around 1853 when he moved out. But none of those notices indicates that his office is in the same building as Tinsley’s dry-goods store. If his office had been in the same building, historians say they believe Lincoln’s ads would have said so, based on what other lawyers did at the time. During the time Lincoln partnered with Stephen Logan, they placed an ad in the newspaper stating that their offices were on the third story over the post office, which was located at the southern end of the building, not the northern end. Other anecdotal evidence includes the reminiscences of William Herndon, who states that their office was “near the square,” not on it, which Blandford says would have been a key detail.
In other words, there’s no way Lincoln’s office was on the north end of the building. It was on the southern end, a few hundred feet away.
“I don’t like to think of like that way. We’re lucky to have the building at all,” Blandford says when asked who’s to blame for the geographical blunder. He credits three local families with saving the building, located at what is now Sixth and Adams Streets, from demolition in the 1960s. In the mid-1980s, the second and third floors were renovated on the basis of the best evidence available to historians at the time, much of which was folkloric, to determine where Lincoln’s office might have been. Now that researchers are armed with the new information, there is a chance that things can be made right in time for the Emancipator’s birthday party. Doing so won’t be cheap, however. The IHPA has requested $1 million of the state’s capital spending bill, which remains tied up in the Legislature, to purchase and restore Tinsley’s shop to what they believe it looked like in Lincoln’s time. Blandford characterizes the project as an investment, not an expense. “It’s all about putting people inside the Lincoln situation,” says IHPA spokesman Dave Blanchette. “They’re not spectators; they’re participants in history. You learn much more by experiencing than you do walking by and reading. It’s all about the Lincoln experience.”
Blandford says the Tinsley Project living-history interpretation would be an important connector with the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum and other historic sites that would encourage people to spend more time in the capital city or to visit more often. “We could do an exhibit that might need to be re-created in 15 years, or we could chart a new course. The research should never stop. It should grow and improve as we learn more about Lincoln and his lifetime,” Blandford says.

Contact R.L. Nave at rnave@Illinoistimes.com
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