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Wednesday, Dec. 26, 2007 03:25 pm

Adultery, Murder, and Lincoln

Pivotal Springfield case helped advance future president’s career

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The Case of Abraham Lincoln: A Story of Adultery, Murder and the making of a Great President By Julie M. Fenster, Palgrave Macmillan, 2007, 256 pages, $24.95
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The Case of Abraham Lincoln: A Story of Adultery, Murder and the making of a Great President By Julie M. Fenster, Palgrave Macmillan, 2007, 256 pages, $24.95
The autopsy confirmed what the doctor suspected; someone had been trying to poison George Anderson. The strychnine in his system certainly explained his excruciating stomach pains, but it had not killed him. Apparently, his assassin ran out of patience and resorted to a more traditional method of execution. It did not take a medical degree to determine the cause of death. Someone had struck Anderson in the back of the head with a hammer. When his family found him, he was already dead, laying face down in his own back yard on Monroe Street, between Fifth and Sixth streets, in downtown Springfield. Citizens were both horrified and intrigued. Nearly everyone had a theory. The smart money seemed to be riding on Anderson’s widow, Jane, and his young nephew, Theodore. Gossipers claimed that the pair were having an affair and wanted the old man out of the picture. The theory was hard to argue against, especially after investigators discovered a bottle of strychnine in Theodore’s trunk, along with a daguerreotype of Jane and a number of unsigned love letters. Prosecutors charged both Jane and Theodore Anderson with murder. Long before the birth of the 24-hour news cycle and cable television, Springfield editors realized that they were sitting on a sensational story that promised to sell newspapers. They devoted several pages per issue to the murder mystery and the ensuing trial, which began on Nov. 19, 1856.
Enter Abraham Lincoln. The overworked state’s attorney, Amzi McWilliams, knew he needed help with the case. He offered Lincoln $200 to become a special prosecutor, but to his surprise, Lincoln declined. Instead, Lincoln announced that he had accepted $75 to assist the defense. Lincoln scholars have not focused on the Anderson murder case. Albert A. Woldman’s Lawyer Lincoln (1936) does not mention the case, while John J. Duff gives little more than a brief synopsis in A. Lincoln: Prairie Lawyer (1960).
However, we live in exciting times. In 2000, the Lincoln Legal Papers project (now the Papers of Abraham Lincoln) in Springfield released the single most important resource on Lincoln’s legal career, The Law Practice of Abraham Lincoln: Complete Documentary Edition.
Historians have mined the resource and are now beginning to share their findings. Two excellent books on Lincoln’s legal career have recently been published. Mark E. Steiner’s An Honest Calling: The Law Practice of Abraham Lincoln (2006) takes a broad approach and covers Lincoln’s diverse 25-year legal career, while Brian Dirck’s Lincoln the Lawyer (2007) approaches the topic from a slightly different angle. Dirck examines how Lincoln applied his legal skills to his political career. Julie M. Fenster’s new book, The Case of Abraham Lincoln: A Story of Adultery, Murder and the Making of a Great President, fits neatly onto the Lincoln studies bookshelf. I recently sat down with the author. We discussed the Anderson murder case, the intersection of Lincoln’s legal and political careers, and her upcoming projects.
Wheeler: The Case of Abraham Lincoln is an interesting title with a number of implied meanings. On one level, the book deals with a specific case in Lincoln’s vast legal career, People v. Anderson and Anderson. The twists and turns in the case are enough to keep true crime aficionados turning the pages, but there is something else going on here. Correct me if I’m wrong, but you want to crack an even larger case in the Lincoln canon. You want to uncover how a relatively obscure small-town lawyer became one of the nation’s greatest presidents. You build your case around the year 1856. What was so special about that year?
Fenster: I set out in hopes of recreating the actual texture of Lincoln’s practice — which is to say, a great many small cases and occasionally, an important case of the type that hits the headlines. The Anderson case, being Springfield’s “murder of the century,” fit the latter description. Yet in my mind, its role in the book is something like a clothesline, if you will, drawing out over a span of about six months. On that line, I could hang the medium and small matters that came Lincoln’s way during the same timeframe: the priest being sued for slander, for example, or the Chicago sharpie trying to pull a fast land deal. All in all, I was aiming for a slice of time that answered the question: just exactly what did Lincoln do to make a living? The year 1856 was the best choice for a second reason. It was a crucial year for Lincoln as a politician, being the year that he made the touchy decision to join the Republican Party. It is not over-covered in the Lincoln canon, by any means, yet it reflected a sea change in Lincoln’s political fortunes, from the beginning of the year to the end. If Lincoln had looked back on his life, I think he might have chosen 1856 as his favorite year. A lot happened to him — and because of him. He managed to juxtapose his legal career and political work without detriment to either, and by the way, his family was well and happy.
Though Lincoln’s “Lost Speech,” delivered at the Bloomington Convention, never surfaced, several sources claim that it was one of Lincoln’s finest political performances. In the absence of a transcript, how did you piece together Lincoln’s comments and ultimately, how did you weigh the evidence?

William Herndon, Lincoln’s law partner and loyal supporter, considered the “Lost Speech” to be the finest address of Lincoln’s whole career. It was delivered at the first Republican Convention in the state of Illinois, May 29, 1856. People who heard it went to the Republican Party’s national convention soon afterward and they were still so fired up, they garnered over a hundred votes for Lincoln as the vice-presidential nominee. He ultimately placed second, but he was on the national stage for the first time.
The speech has long been known as the “Lost” Speech, because the reporters who were present didn’t write it down. That doesn’t, however, mean that it was lost to the ages. A speech of that much influence is measured in the changes it makes in the minds of the listeners. In that sense, the “Lost” Speech wasn’t lost, at all. People acted on it, as at the national convention, and certainly remembered it. Because it was considered so important, those who heard it were often asked to recollect it. In my research, I collected letters, speeches, and memoirs, along with newspaper clippings, in which men who were present recalled the points Lincoln made and sometimes, even the words he used. When the accounts were put together, they gave a remarkably clear picture of what had happened that day, that May 29. Most of these recollections fit neatly into the whole — that is, they repeated enough of the same facts to lend a credible consistency. Lincoln did accomplish something magnificent in the speech, turning the momentum of the slavery crisis around, and giving the North a dominant line of reasoning to use against the South.
My hope would be that with The Case of Abraham Lincoln and other works to come, the May 29 address would no longer be called the “Lost” Speech. That name does a disservice to its importance in Lincoln’s career. The “Remembered Speech” would be a good alternative; the “Republican Empowerment Speech” would be accurate. The “Bloomington Speech” would, at least, be simpler. But “Lost?” No. If it had truly been lost, that is, unnoticed and forgotten, then somebody else’s face would probably be on the penny right now.
You understand that Lincoln’s legal and political careers were never really separate entities. They were not simply connected, but they actually fed off one another. I am interested in how you developed the concept for the book. Were you drawn to the Anderson case first or did the overall political drama of 1856 intrigue you? Was the idea always to integrate the legal and political narratives or did it just work out that way?
You are right. Lincoln’s legal career and his political aspirations can’t be separated, especially during his ascendancy in the late 1850s. In central Illinois in the 1850s, members of the legal profession held most of the power over politics and even business; entrepreneurs, clergymen, journalists, union leaders and corporations were still emerging. For example, of those on the organizing committee of the new Republican Party in the state, about 90 percent were lawyers. Lincoln was, of course, well-aware of the special status of lawyers in his place and time. In The Case of Abraham Lincoln, I wanted to show the synergy between Lincoln’s legal and political machinations on a daily basis. He used his travels with the circuit as a kind of unending campaign, making himself known and maneuvering into a position to note even small shifts in mood and opinion. Lincoln didn’t always find it easy to go back to trial work after the exhilaration of political campaigning, but over the course of the summer and fall of 1856, he had no choice: he had to find ways to make room for both sides of his life, often in the course of a single day.
Lincoln’s legal colleagues have always been some of my favorite characters. Again, they were not merely his legal friends, but they were also his political lieutenants. Your book draws a number of colorful sketches. I’m thinking of folks like Orville Browning, David Davis, William Herndon, Stephen T. Logan, John Todd Stuart, and Henry C. Whitney. I found your characterization of Benjamin Edwards most intriguing, and of course, Usher F. Linder. But I was curious, which of these characters did you find most interesting?
Many of Lincoln’s fellow lawyers were remarkably well-educated, graduates of Princeton and other eastern schools. The fact is, rising to the top of the political fray in Illinois offered very steep training for Lincoln. And the others had further advantages that Lincoln did not have: Browning had a great deal of money. Edwards was the son of a former governor. Davis, of course, was the judge on the Eighth Circuit and had a mass of connections because of it. Lincoln distinguished himself nonetheless, with that mysterious quality of seeing further than others, and with a lot of plain, hard work, as well.
But you asked about my favorite of these lively colleagues and competitors. I can’t help but say: John Stuart. When he was around, things were never dull; he was extroverted and he could be funny. He also knew Lincoln well, probably as well as anyone. Stuart maintained a lively, caring correspondence with his daughter, who was away at school. That proved very useful in the book, since he told her about events around Springfield, including the Anderson murder. The fact that John Stuart sided with the South on the slavery issue helps to bring the complex atmosphere in Springfield to light. Stuart was opposed to Lincoln politically, but maintained a sure loyalty to him otherwise.
I believe John Walsh’s book, Moonlight: Abraham Lincoln and the Almanac Trial touches on the Anderson case. Walsh says that the Anderson trial was the last murder case Lincoln was involved in before his most famous murder case, the Almanac Trial. But, off the top of my head, I don’t know how many murder cases Lincoln was involved in. More importantly though, how would you compare Lincoln’s participation in the Anderson case to other cases in his legal career?
Lincoln was retained in 27 murder cases, or an average of approximately one per year. Consulting my copy of The Law Practice of Abraham Lincoln Complete Documentary Edition, that most valuable and highly recommended body of research, it appears that Lincoln did play a role in a couple of cases (People v. Goings & Beck and People v. Bantzhouse) in between the Anderson trial in November 1856 and the famous Armstrong case, which came to a close in May of 1858. That doesn’t detract from the interest of the Armstrong case, or Mr. Walsh’s Moonlight, which covers it. Many people assume that Lincoln had a white-glove sort of a practice, but actually, he was involved in capital crimes and other cases that placed him in the midst of very distressing situations. He was a defense attorney: his job was to straighten out the messes people got themselves into. That’s important, because Lincoln’s circle of acquaintances was wider because of it. He didn’t only come into contact with people just like himself. Through his profession, he knew all sorts and, what’s more, people in all sorts of emotional states. He undoubtedly learned a lot about human nature from the variety of his practice.
In the Anderson case, Lincoln was retained less than a week before the trial. Oddly enough, that was how he liked to practice. It was very much the style expected of lawyers on the Eighth Circuit. Logic, argument, and presentation were their weapons. It made for an expeditious practice, but apparently, it was on the verge of changing in the mid-1850s. A more studious, Eastern-style was on its way West. Lincoln wasn’t comfortable with the Eastern style, with its dependence on depositions, briefs, and research. “They study on a case perhaps for months,” he said of Eastern lawyers, “as we never do. We are apt to catch up the thing as it goes before a jury and trust to the inspiration of the moment.” The Anderson case suited that style; he was certainly inspired to provide his trial arts at their most effective.
Why wasn’t the case reopened? Did newspapers or any of Anderson’s children ever press to reopen the case? Why was nobody ever punished for the crime?

The mystery does continue in the Anderson case. Even apart from the Lincoln connection, George Anderson’s murder is an intriguing case. Everyone who reads the Case of Abraham Lincoln seems to have their own theory as to who killed George Anderson. Springfield and its police were conspicuously quiet after all of the storming during the trial. As far as can be known, they never looked for another suspect. Anderson’s family didn’t seem to press for further investigation, either. For the sake of the book, I appreciated the way that the Anderson case reflected quite a lot about Springfield at the time that Lincoln lived there. Sometimes I wish that I could’ve found evidence implicating someone with certainty, but it is a book about justice in Lincoln’s time, rather than closing cases from this distance of time.

You’ve written on a wide variety of subjects. You’ve written a New York Times bestseller about a 19th century priest called, Parish Priest: Father Michael McGivney and American Catholicism. You’ve authored a book about a 1908 auto race, as well as another book called Ether Day about “America’s greatest medical discovery.” I’m curious: how did the Lincoln experience compare to your other projects? And, of course, can your readers expect another Lincoln book in the future?

I have been a student of the Civil War for many years, and about 10 years ago, I compiled a series of audiotapes recreating battles such as First Bull Run and Shiloh entirely through solders’ letters from each side — and often the soldiers were describing the same specific action in the battle, which was very exciting. My interest in Lincoln has always seemed to center on his law career — I can’t seem to get over the fact that he was the only President who was earning a living, a regular living in the private sector, right up to the time that he won the Presidency. I have long read everything I could on that aspect of his life, but once I homed in on the Anderson murder and Lincoln’s first campaign as a Republican during 1856, I went to the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library, which offered a trove of fresh material, and my usual favorite source: microfilmed newspapers of the day. The Case of Abraham Lincoln is the result of my attempt to walk with Lincoln for a few months, a season in the sun, just before the rest of the world discovered him. I am starting my reading in anticipation of another book on Abraham Lincoln. I am interested in how he has been viewed in other countries, from his time to ours; in other words: we know what he has meant to our nation, what has he meant to the world?
Samuel Wheeler is a doctoral student at Southern Illinois University in Carbondale, studying history with a specialty in Lincoln studies and the Civil War era. He is also the creator and editor of www.lincolnstudies.com.
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