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Friday, April 4, 2003 02:20 pm

The Case of Sampson's Ghost

During the summer of 1837 Lincoln represented a widow who claimed an attorney named James Adams stole land from her husband. At the time, Adams was running for probate justice of the peace in Sangamon County, opposed by Lincoln's friend, Anson Henry. As Adams and Henry campaigned and Lincoln pushed the widow's case forward, letters lambasting Adams written by someone calling himself "Sampson's Ghost" began appearing in the Sangamo Journal. Most of the letters accused Adams of stealing land, specifically of signing land transfer papers with an "x" to forge an owner's signature. Evidently, Sampson was the name of another person Adams had done this to. Adams fired back with his own letters in the Illinois Republican, and eventually the identity of Sampson's Ghost was obvious to everyone in Springfield. Lincoln's final letters in the exchange, which lasted for months, are written under his own name. But the letters didn't do any good. Adams died shortly thereafter, and court cases dealing with this matter were abated. As for the probate election, which took place in August 1837, Adams beat Henry 1,025 to 792. What follows is one of the more creative letters purportedly written by Lincoln. It was submitted by a "stranger" who had a run-in with Sampson's Ghost.

 

A GHOST! A GHOST!

"Art thou some spirit or goblin damn'd--

Bringst with thee airs from heaven or blasts from hell?"

--Shakespeare

 

I am distressed. A wonderful apparition has appeared before me. I was at the election in Springfield on Saturday, and having taken too heavy a portion of the true democratic drops on my way home, as if in sympathy with my feelings, I dropped from my horse and quietly fell into a refreshing and gentle slumber. At midnight I woke, and my brain was clear as the beautiful heavens above me; for they were beautiful;--the moon was just taking its leave in the west, and the stars twinkled gloriously. It was at this "witching hour of the night," when sprites are flitting throughout the air, and when music and voices of unearthly sound are whispering in the groves and prairies, I had fancied that I loved scenes like these;--in my ardent imaginings I had often pictured the beautiful prospect that then lay before me. The flowers of the dell sent up their exquisite odors, and I at once was revelling [sic] in the delights of an imaginary Eden.

But the current of my thoughts was changed. --Gliding through a lengthened and dark vista formed of the growth of the forest, I saw a ghost coming towards me, with a noiseless tread, that did not rustle a leaf or bend a spire of grass. My blood was chilled, and my hair stood erect as he approached me; but there was gentleness, a kindness in the manner of my visitant, that restored me to consciousness and confidence, as the sprite thus addressed me.

Ghost. "Be jiminys, who are YOU?"

Stranger. "I am a way faring man, and do harm to no body. Please leave me."

Ghost. "Be St. Patrick, I would not harm you at all at all. The rest of the dead is disturbed by the wickedness of the living. I loved my wife and children, and left them my little all. But it is taken away from them--and how can I rest in my grave in peace?"

Stranger. "And what would you have of me?"

Ghost. "Nothing. It is for my own flesh and blood to see to their rights, and if they have a drop of Irish blood in them they will not rest until they have obtained justice! Justice! Be jiminys if I was alive how I would do it!"

Stranger. "You speak of things I do not comprehend."

Ghost. "And do you say you do not comprehend me? Well--I was born in ould Ireland--swate Ireland;--I kem over to Ameriky--to this blessed land. My wife and little ones came with me here--not far from this very spot. We toiled and we labored--I bought a few acres--left it in the care of a friend--went farther and died."

Stranger. "And what of all that? Most men die sometime or another."

Ghost. "I left my land in the hands of a friend--and that friend--Oh! be jiminys! What is all I say? My very grave cannot contain me--My spirit wanders about seeking rest and finding none. My acres are in the hands of my friend--signed, sealed and delivered!"

Stranger. "But perhaps, this transfer was legal."

Ghost. "By the hill of [oath] 'tis a lie!"

Stranger. "Unless all the proceedings are regular, no transfer can stand, as you well know."

Ghost. "Jiminys gracious! 'Tis signed with a cross, and I could write my name as well as any man! Oh jiminys! jiminys!"

Stranger. "Rather curious, I confess. But did you not make the assignment?"

At this question my unearthly visitant threw himself into an attitude, that made the cold sweat run down to my feet. There was that in his countenance which made me turn from him with horror. --Anger, indignation, vengeance flashed from beneath the chilly eyelids of death. I fell to the ground very affright.

Ghost. "Stranger! You lie! He could I sign a judgment before it was obtained. Be Jiminys Christ it is not so!"

How long I lay in this swoon I do not know. When I rose from it, the sun was just rising over the timber of Sugar Creek, and my horse was grazing near me. I mounted him and I returned home, more dead than alive.

Whether there be aught in this epistle that is true, or not--whether I was sleeping or waking--whether it was a hallucination of the brain, or matter of fact--I have no more grounds for judging than yourself. It has, however, made a deep impression on my mind from a real incident, said to have occurred within the limits of Sangamon County. u