Book review: Lincoln’s Last Trial: The Murder Case that Propelled Him to the Presidency

Lincoln’s Last Trial recounts an intriguing murder trial in mid-19th century Springfield, IL. Most of the town knew each other all their lives. The families of the defendant and the victim were united through marriage. The lawyers knew each other. Some people had run against each other for elected office. It was an odd situation where friends and former colleagues were on opposite sides.

The trial is a vehicle to examine small town lawyering, legal norms, and Lincoln before he ascended to the presidency. Lincoln remains a mystery but points are drawn out based on this trial and previous trials where he was a prosecuting or defending lawyer. Lincoln, the book argues, wove an image of himself as a folksy, down-to-earth, small town lawyer. His clothes were worn and his hair askew. It turns out that he really did store his papers in his stovepipe hat.

But his rumpled appearance was a ruse. His modus operandi was to build a friendly rapport with the jury—he is just like them. He looks like them. He talks like them.

And yet. We know he is not like them. When situations warranted it, he dropped the ruse and defended positions in the courtroom with an articulate and polished force. During these times he was a sight behold. People flocked to the courtroom to see him perform. Or at least to see him perform in this murder trial.

The novel is based on stenographic notes that Robert Roberts Hitt had written during the trial. Hitt was trained in a new technique of note taking. The quality of transcripts that he produced was so outstanding that he was in high demand. He had transcribed notes for Lincoln in the past and was specifically called to record this trial.

It is all by a twist of fate that we have the details for the Harrison-Crafton trial. We only have the details thanks to his notes of the trial. Stored in a garage in California. Discovered by chance in 1989.

The book recounts interesting historical tidbits, not just about Lincoln, but about legal customs. Under Illinois law, defendants could not take the stand in their own defense. Without Harrison testifying that he knew about threats to his life, how would Lincoln prove that he acted in self-defense?

But most interesting observations about legal norms came from Hitt who had transcribed trials in large cities like Chicago. Hitt noted the differences between small town courtrooms and big city courtrooms. The norms of the former were likely formed by the informal rules of circuit trials, which often were held in impromptu places. Jurors asked questions of witnesses in the middle of the trial with no cause for concern. Witnesses were allowed to freely give their accounts of stories without interruption or objections.

Some descriptions made me laugh out loud. The trial, which involved two local families, was highly anticipated and well attended. The courtroom was packed and standing room only. As a nod to the customs of the time, normally gentlemen would give up their seats for ladies present. But this trial was too important. Men wanted to attend without standing the entire time.

“As he [Hitt] waited for the proceedings to begin, spectators filled all the seats and standing room in the back and on the sides of the courtroom. There were a few women among them, but Hitt noticed with some amusement that the seated men tried to appear natural as they desperately avoided meeting the eyes of a woman, lest he would be compelled to give up his precious seat. But in several instances they were unsuccessful and, with a defeated shrug gave up their seats and joined those standing.” (page 60)

In another case, the response to questions posed in jury selection showed a quick wit (or slow obtrusiveness) on the part of the potential juror. “…’Are you sober? [asked the lawyer to a potential juror.] To which came the response, ‘You mean, right now?’” (page 67)

Dr. Allen, a witness for the defense, was a good friend of Lincoln’s and encouraged him to go into politics. “Dr. Allen had organized and ran the first Sunday school in the village, which proved very popular, but also had founded the local Temperance Society, which was exceedingly less so.” (page 193)

Lincoln’s Last Trial shows us a Lincoln that we already know as well as one that we may not. Lincoln the everyman comes across as a shrewd political operator. He sized up situations, typically hiding his intellect but bringing it to play at key times. He was ever observant and he knew how to ingratiate himself. But he was also a man of integrity who would not defend someone he didn’t believe in or prosecute someone whom he thought was innocent.

The myth of Lincoln looms so large. How much of the image in the book depicts the real Lincoln and how much the legend that he became?

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