Looking Back at Lincoln

The Civil War Sesquicentennial has caused a revival of interest in Abraham Lincoln. Let’s examine some evidentiary issues that arose before, during, and after his presidency.

Lincoln as a young lawyer
Lincoln as a young lawyer

I. Law Practice

Lincoln was admitted to the Illinois Bar on March 1, 1837. He eventually became a bar examiner administering oral examinations, once from a bathtub to an amazed applicant.

Most of us had heard only of his successful defense of Duff Armstrong, accused of murder by slungshot (not slingshot). In the January 2009 issue of this Journal I reviewed a book by Julie Fenster, The Case of Abraham Lincoln, recounting another trial where Lincoln won acquittals for murderers Jane Anderson and her nephew Theodore Anderson.

We now know more about his law practice because of the current Lincoln Legal Papers project in Springfield. Researchers have combed courthouse records throughout the circuit Lincoln rode. Most of his cases were civil and included debt collection, land titles, slander, divorce and railroad litigation. His largest fee ($5,000) was earned in a victory for the Illinois Central Railroad, but he had to sue his client to collect!

Lincoln himself was slandered concerning his defense of Duff Armstrong. He used an 1857 almanac to prove by judicial notice that the crime night was too dark for the key prosecution witness, Charles Allen, to have seen what he swore he saw. Lincoln’s political detractors claimed he used an almanac from a different year. But the truth is that Lincoln showed the book to prosecutors and passed it to jurors. The foreman later made an affidavit that the almanac was, indeed, authentic for the year 1857.

I found two books to be especially good. One is Lawyer Lincoln, by Albert A. Woldman (1936). The other is An Honest Calling, by Mark E. Steiner (2006).

II. Presidency

During the War Between the States President Lincoln wrote a letter of condolence to a widow in Boston named Lydia Bixby:

Dear Madam,
I have been shown in the files of the War Department a statement of the Adjutant General of Massachusetts that you are the mother of five sons who have died gloriously on the field of battle.

I feel how weak and fruitless must be any words of mine which should attempt to beguile you from the grief of a loss so overwhelming. But I cannot refrain from tendering to you the consolation that may be found in the thanks of the public they died to save.

I pray that our Heavenly Father may assuage the anguish of your bereavement, and leave you only the cherished memory of the loved and lost, and the solemn pride that must be yours to have laid so costly a sacrifice upon the altar of freedom.

Yours very sincerely and respectfully,
A. Lincoln

Did Honest Abe write the letter, or was it written instead by his personal secretary John Hay? Until recently scholars thought Hay wrote it. But some discovered letters of Lincoln’s lawyer son Robert state that Hay himself told Robert that he (Hay) was not the author. See Jason Emerson, “America’s Most Famous Letter,” American Heritage (Feb./Mar. 2006).

Widow Bixby, by the way, lied to authorities about her five sons, probably to get sympathy money. Two sons died in battle, two sons deserted, and the fifth survived warfare and was honorably discharged. Mrs. Bixby’s occupation? She ran a whorehouse. See Michael Burlingame, “The Trouble With the Bixby Letter,” American Heritage (July/Aug. 1999).

III. Assassination

John Wilkes Booth ended Lincoln’s life on April 14-15, 1865. In jumping from the theatre box to the stage, Booth fractured his fibula. He and David Herold ended up at the Maryland home of Dr. Samuel Alexander Mudd, who splinted the left leg. For this charitable act Dr. Mudd was tried and convicted by a military tribunal and sentenced to life on the Dry Tortugas Islands (west of Key West). President Andrew Johnson pardoned Mudd after almost four years. A century later President Jimmy Carter declared Mudd innocent.

Evidence proves the doctor guilty as sin. He had been plotting with Booth since December 1864. In fact, Booth spent the night at Dr. Mudd’s house on Dec. 17. By the time Booth limped into the Mudd residence on April 15, 1865, the two had met at least three times. Lincoln Legends, by Edward Steers Jr. (2007).