Thursday, Aug. 16, 2018 12:09 am
Lincoln’s last trial
How a smart Springfield lawyer saved Peachy Harrison from the gallows
Before he became president, Abraham Lincoln practiced throughout central Illinois, becoming one of the finest attorneys the state has ever produced. His exploits as a trial lawyer and legal writer are often unappreciated in comparison to his political accomplishments, but Lincoln had a successful and lucrative law practice until the day he left Springfield to travel to Washington, D.C., in 1861. Lincoln’s Last Trial, the Murder Case that Propelled Him to the Presidency, by Dan Abrams and David Fisher, is an enthralling but mistitled historical account of the murder trial of “Peachy” Quinn Harrison during the summer of 1859. The title suggests that this trial in some way advanced Lincoln’s presidential ambitions but offers no evidence to support that assertion. Though during the trial Lincoln often returned to his office after court to work on political matters, it was the summer of 1859 and it was an era when presidential campaigns had yet to reach the perpetual campaign cycle that we presently experience in our nation. After this case was completed, Lincoln would have plenty of time to speak on important issues facing the nation. That would be the public face of his campaign. Much more work was done behind closed doors. This was 1860, and campaigns were substantially different than in modern times.
In 1989, a pristinely stored transcript of the trial in People of the State of Illinois v. Quinn Harrison was discovered. Robert Hitt had been hired by the Illinois State Journal to provide a daily transcript of the trial for readers. The case was a major event in Sangamon County and interest in the community was high. Transcription was still a relatively new concept. During the Lincoln-Douglas debates of 1858, newspapers ordered verbatim transcripts of the remarks of Lincoln and Stephen Douglas. Robert Hitt had been engaged by the Chicago Tribune to provide transcripts that were then published by the paper. Lincoln ordered copies and became aware of Hitt’s work. After learning that Hitt would attend the Harrison trial in Springfield, Lincoln arranged to obtain a copy of the transcript should it be needed for an appeal. The Hitt transcript serves as the foundation for Lincoln’s Last Trial.
Before focusing on the trial, the authors marvelously re-create the practice of law in the era when Lincoln’s career flourished. Lawyers “rode the circuit,” traveling from community to community in Illinois. The Eighth Judicial Circuit ranged from Springfield to Champaign and as far north as Pekin. Lawyers went to each community spending several days meeting clients, preparing and trying cases and then moving to another community to perform the same tasks. They often stayed in hotels or homes together and built a sense of camaraderie and fellowship. One of the lawyers who traveled with Lincoln was David Davis who would be Lincoln’s campaign manager in 1860 and later serve on the U.S. Supreme Court. Justice was far less formal in Lincoln’s time. If a judge was unavailable lawyers would often serve in that role on a case-by-case basis.
Abrams and Fisher provide a full portrait of the Harrison trial. “Peachy” Harrison was alleged to have cut and killed Greek Crafton after an argument in a drugstore in Pleasant Plains. Both the victim and the defendants were from prominent families and the Harrison family retained Lincoln and Stephen Logan to represent Quinn Harrison. The prosecution was led by John Palmer, who would later become governor of Illinois and a U. S. Senator. The trial required Lincoln to assert self-defense but he was hampered by Illinois law that had not yet fully developed on that issue. Nevertheless, through the transcripts and full detail of the events and personalities, Lincoln’s Last Trial is a vivid account of one of Abraham Lincoln’s final appearances in an Illinois courtroom. He was bound for a greater task in the coming years. Saving “Peachy” Harrison from the gallows was nothing compared to saving the Union from those who were bent upon its destruction.
Stuart Shiffman served as an associate circuit judge in the Seventh Judicial Circuit of Illinois from 1983 until his retirement in January 2006. Prior to his judicial career he was an assistant state’s attorney in Sangamon County.