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Thursday, Oct. 21, 2010 06:54 pm

Wicked Springfield

New book catalogs hometown vices in the Lincoln era

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The Matteson residence that Fourth and Jackson was paid for with the help of embezzled funds.
COURTESY SANGAMON VALLEY COLLECTION

“This book is not about Abraham Lincoln and his virtues,” announces Erika Holst in her introduction to Wicked Springfield: Crime, Corruption & Scandal during the Lincoln Era. “It is about Lincoln’s hometown and its vices.” Rather than the by-now familiar cast of supporting players in Abraham Lincoln’s drama of self-improvement, Holst introduces us to the town’s boozers and fornicators, its wife beaters and brawlers, its deadbeats, slanderers and thieves. As penned by Holst, they are lively if sordid company, and her little book makes an informal but entertaining social history of the era.

Springfield was then only a generation away from the frontier, when white and native alike scalped their foes in combat. Fighting was a recreation, and the violence that sometimes ensued was often gruesome.

Lincoln slips through these stories as he did in life, as a townsman, a colleague, a lawyer (some of the juicier stories were culled from recent scholarship about his law career) and politician. The Lincoln of the 1830s and ’40s wrote anonymous political screeds that often bordered on the libelous. (“Slasher-gaff politico” is how Michael Burlingame describes the Lincoln of that period.) One of his targets challenged Lincoln to a duel in 1842, a farcical incident that embarrassed Lincoln deeply.

Holst was given – and reportedly was delighted to get – a copy of Donald Herbert Donald’s Lincoln for her 16th birthday, and says she carries a picture of Abraham Lincoln in her wallet. (Where was she in high school when I really needed her?) Trained in early American history, she was employed for four years as a research associate with the Papers of Abraham Lincoln. She is now curator of collections for the Springfield Art Association.

Holst is anything but prudish about Springfield’s seamier side. (“The people of Springfield were only human, after all, and every so often humans get mad and kill one another.”) and has a way with a yarn that Lincoln himself might have appreciated. One must however complain about Holst’s inclusion of slavery as merely one of the peccadilloes she catalogs here. She blows the dust off one of the most repeated tales in the Lincoln lore, that after an encounter with a slave market in New Orleans he said to his companion, “If I ever get a chance to hit that thing, I’ll hit it hard,” a statement that is as disputed by historians as often as it is repeated by everyone else. Holst also errs in suggesting that shenanigans of the sort she recalls date “back even to Lincoln’s day.” Springfield’s selection in 1824 as the county seat was based on something like fraud, after a committee sent to select a Sangamon County seat was deliberately misled by the town’s boosters about the location of a competing site.

Springfield today would seem to be sedate (if not sedated) in comparison to the days when political foes “debated” with their fists rather than with party clichés. Folks then had a flair for the felonious; Blago had only a closet of loot, in the form of $400 suits; Gov. Joel Matteson had a whole mansion, paid for in no small part by embezzled state funds.  

Still, there was an art to the mayhem that we seem incapable of mastering. “When a man relied on personal popularity to bring him office, it was natural that his opponents should direct their attacks at his character and personal habits,” noted Paul Angle in Here I Have Lived. “And when personalities entered, there was no limit to insult and vituperation.” Indeed. Angle offers in evidence the case of William L. May, who while running for Congress in 1834 was accused of adultery, among other misdemeanors. Holst gives us a welcome fuller treatment of the affair. An anonymous correspondent to the Illinois State Journal wrote of May, “Your name became a bye-word, your touch was contamination, your foot-tread was like the mildew.” Compared to that, calling an opponent a socialist is watered-down whisky.  

May, however, returned that blow and then some. He described his accuser as “some puling, sentimental, he old maid…. [a] spindle-shanked, toad-eating, man-granny, who feeds the depraved appetites of his patrons with gossip and slander.” Talking such trash would get a candidate tossed out of the League of Women Voters, but voters in those days were all male in every sense. “Apparently, the one thing Illinois voters liked less than an adulterer,” observes Holst, “was a man-granny.” May was elected to Congress by a comfortable majority.

Wicked Springfield: Crime, Corruption & Scandal during the Lincoln Era by Erika Holst. The History Press, Inc. 2010. Illustrated.

Contact James Krohe Jr. at peptobiz@mindspring.com.

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