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Wednesday, April 15, 2009 08:40 pm

Archaeology and a newspaper editor

Dishes dumped “out back” yield stories of a friend of Lincoln in early Springfield

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Archaeologists found a thick brick pad, probably the base for this press, and several pieces of lead type around it.

A plain white pitcher, a bowl, a broken plate and a whiskey bottle from the mid-to-late 1830s are among the finds from Floyd Mansberger’s digs on the block where the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library now stands. Those dead relics come to life when the archaeologist pieces together that they were owned by Springfield’s pioneer newspaper editor who was a close friend of Abraham Lincoln.

From 2001 to 2004, Mansberger’s firm, Fever River Research, did the archaeological digs on three city blocks in advance of construction of the library, the museum and the parking garage. After years of research, analysis and writing, Mansberger revealed his findings last week in a lecture at the Illinois State Museum, where many of the relics are on display. His work covered what was left behind from dozens of houses and commercial structures over several decades, including the contents of 117 privies. The hole in the ground out back served not only as a toilet but also as a private landfill for old plates, bottles and other throwaways from 19th century Springfield. One cistern behind a bar yielded an early history of alcohol consumption, with whiskey bottles and shot glasses at the bottom and wine bottles and beer steins, from several decades later, closer to the top. Squirrel bones and turtle shells are evidence of early bar food, and an opium pipe reveals that illicit drug use is not a modern invention.

A piece of the research involves the life and times of Simeon Francis, who arrived in Springfield in 1831, the same year Abraham Lincoln came to New Salem. Then in his mid-thirties, Francis had published the Buffalo Emporium newspaper in New York, but had to leave there in 1828 due to “anti-Masonic agitation.” In Springfield he issued a prospectus and started selling subscriptions for a new weekly, the Sangamo Journal, which published its first edition Nov. 10, 1831. It served all of Sangamon County, which then also included the present-day counties of Logan, Mason, Menard and Cass.

He set up shop on the on the west side of the square, at the southwest corner of Fifth and Washington, where the Myers Building now stands. Then in 1833 he built himself a large, upscale residence on the corner lot at Sixth and Jefferson, fronting on Jefferson. Two years later he moved the newspaper to a frame building on that same block, on the northeast corner of Sixth and Washington, where it would live for 18 years and grow from a weekly to a daily, eventually becoming the Illinois State Journal.

The “new” Illinois State Journal building.

While living in New Salem, young Abraham Lincoln sold subscriptions to the Journal and wrote letters to the editor. After he moved to town in 1837 the budding politician became friends with the editor, also a Whig and later a Republican. Lincoln was a frequent guest in the new Francis home. After Lincoln broke up with Mary Todd in 1841, Mrs. Francis helped them to reconcile, and the couple was married in November, 1842. During the 1840s the Francis family, reflecting rising affluence and new markets to serve a consumer society, got new dishes, plates and glasses. They deposited growing quantities of the old ones — some not even broken — in the privy out back.

The publishing business was good for Simeon Francis and his brothers. In 1853, after 18 years at Sixth and Washington, the newspaper moved to new offices a half block north on Sixth, just south of Simeon Francis’s home at Sixth and Jefferson. The building was a large commercial structure with three storefronts, each 20 feet wide, and newspaper offices on the second and third floors.

Lincoln would frequently stop by and stay for an hour or more, talking politics with the editor and reading the exchange newspapers from other states. Sometimes he would bring his boys, who would wreak havoc on the crowded 16-foot by 20-foot room that housed the editorial, business and circulation departments, all with one table each. It is said that during the late 1850s, when he had important other things going on in his life, Lincoln would play handball on the vacant lot just south of the newspaper, using a building wall as a backstop. “Mr. Lincoln got as much or more real enjoyment in these games than any of the others,” wrote an editor. “His suppleness, leaps and strides to strike the ball were comical in the extreme.”

But even with new offices, and having the Obama of his day stop by to loaf and play pickup ball, Francis burned out. In June, 1855 he sold the paper and wrote to a friend, “The relief I feel in mind and body is most wonderful. Hitherto all my duties have been performed ‘under whip and spur,’ and indeed I had no time to enjoy the common socialities of life. From daylight until bedtime every day I suffered from the exacting claims of a daily newspaper press.”

He sold agricultural implements from one of the storefronts in the newspaper building, but that didn’t work out financially.

In 1859 he closed his Springfield business, sold his house for $10,000 to the city of Springfield for a city hall that was never built, and moved to Portland, Ore. He worked there as an editor until his old friend, now in the White House, gave him a job as a paymaster for the U. S. Army for the Washington Territory, a job he held until he retired in 1870, two years before his death. Before he left Springfield for the last time, Francis probably visited the privy to prepare for this journey, and to deposit household trash — and future finds.

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