TBA Law Blog

Posted by: Donald Paine on Jan 1, 2009

Journal Issue Date: Jan 2009

Journal Name: January 2009 - Vol. 45, No. 1

A Story of Adultery, Murder and the Making of a Great President

By Julie M. Fenster
Palgrave MacMillan | $24.95 | 255 pages | 2007

Abraham Lincoln was a famous trial lawyer before he was at the helm of our shipwrecked nation. But there is scant evidence of trial transcripts. Fortunately for us, Ms. Fenster found in the Springfield State Journal newspaper stenographic verbatim reports of Illinois v. Jane Anderson and Theodore Anderson.

Jane was the wife, and Theodore the nephew, of George Anderson. They had sexual relations and decided to rid themselves of George, first by strychnine and (after doctors' suspicions) finally by a hammer blow to the skull.
I shall let you read the book (or listen to the audio version) to find out what happened at the trial. But I believe lawyer Lincoln led Judge Davis into error on an evidence issue.

The prosecution offered witnesses whose testimony would have circumstantially shown that Jane and Theodore were messing around: "being alone together in fields, laughing together in downtown stores, walking alone, conversing alone, and even ducking into an abandoned house together." Because adultery was then a crime, the court excluded this evidence upon Lincoln's objection.

But the law then and now is that other crimes, while inadmissible to prove propensity, are admissible on noncharacter issues such as motive. Jane and Theodore's adultery provided a motive to murder George Anderson.

The frustrating aspect of this book is that the author spends most pages discussing Lincoln's political activities rather than the "case" that Lincoln tried. But I recommend it for a rare glimpse at a documented trial.

Donald F. Paine DONALD F. PAINE is of counsel to the Knoxville firm of Paine, Tarwater, Bickers, and Tillman LLP and a member emeritus of the Tennessee Bar Journal editorial board.