Friday, February 18, 2011

Remarkable Case of Arrest for Murder

Abraham Lincoln (1809–1865)
From True Crime: An American Anthology

Last year’s publication of the unapologetically preposterous Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Slayer stirred up a predictable amount of eye-rolling (“the most inane idea imaginable,” snorted Richard Norton Smith, the founding director of the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum) and garnered a few unexpected fans (including novelist Lev Grossman, filmmaker Tim Burton, and—if the author can be believed—even historian Doris Kearns Goodwin).

Yet, as amusing (or perplexing) as the latest rage in mashup books might seem, a far more plausible idea for such a novel might have been
Abraham Lincoln: Private Eye.

After all, in Springfield, the future President practiced law and handled thousands of cases for nearly twenty-five years in the Illinois courts, actions ranging from debt and divorce to petty crime and murder. And he is known to have been a fan of Edgar Allan Poe (who was less than a month older than Lincoln). One friend from his Springfield years wrote that Lincoln “read and loved ‘The Raven’—repeated it over and over” (a copy of the book containing the poem is known to exist among his personal papers), and biographer Michael Burlingame reports that Lincoln especially liked the stories “The Gold Bug” and “The Facts in the Case of M. Valdemar.”

One of Lincoln’s court cases stands out, however—especially because he turned it into a story that shares a few similarities with some of Poe’s fiction. In June 1841 Lincoln wrote to his friend Joshua Speed a letter that began, “We have had the highest state of excitement here for a week past that our community has ever witnessed . . . and the curious affair that aroused it, is verry [
sic] far from being, even yet, cleared of mystery.” Five years later, he rewrote his account of the affair as a front-page narrative for the tri-weekly local newspaper, the Quincy Whig. At the trial, Lincoln stood as the defense attorney for William Trailor, a man accused of the murder of Archibald Fisher. Lincoln’s only true-crime story is regarded by many readers as an early example of the genre and, more than a century later, it enjoyed wider prominence when it was reprinted in the March 1952 issue of Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine.

Note: It is helpful to know that William Trailor’s youngest brother and the alleged victim were both named Archibald; thus, in the story Lincoln refers to the victim simply as Fisher.

IIn the year 1841, there resided, at different points in the State of Illinois, three brothers by the name of Trailor. Their Christian names were William, Henry and Archibald. Archibald resided at Springfield, then as now the Seat of Government of the State. He was a sober, retiring and industrious man, of about thirty years of age; a carpenter by trade, and a bachelor, boarding with his partner in business— a Mr. Myers. . . . If you don't see the full story below, click here (PDF) or click here (Google Docs) to read it—free!

This selection may be photocopied and distributed for classroom or educational use.


Anonymous said...

This is really neat, thanks. I noticed a possible typo in the first paragraph, I think you mean Doris Kearns Goodwin (

The Library of America said...

Thanks! We fixed it.