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?

Book review: When Affirmative Action Was White: An Untold History of Racial Inequality in Twentieth-century America

I was introduced to the concept of affirmative action as being mainly for whites during the Scene On Radio series of podcasts about whiteness (Being White). I scoured the podcast’s bibliography and found When Affirmative Action Was White.

To be honest, for some reason, I thought the book was going to be a narrative history from the 1600s onward. In reality, it was an argument that focused on government policies from the 1930s through the 1950s. The New Deal, Social Security, labor laws, the GI Bill were not necessarily racist or written for whites only. But because of political and institutional racism in the US, they ended up being discriminatory.

These laws and federal programs helped millions of white Americans and pushed aside millions of black Americans. While African Americans received some benefits, the aid they received was miniscule compared to what whites received. These federal programs were responsible for creating a middle class. Ironically, these programs increased inequality and the wealth gap between whites and blacks. Thanks to these programs, blacks are now further behind whites.

When Affirmative Action Was White is less a history about affirmative action and more a review of how the programs propped up the Southern racist culture and Jim Crow laws. To cut to the chase, to get sufficient votes for these programs to become law, non-Southern Democrats had to cut deals with the Southern Democrats. The deals they cut? Allow the states to administer the programs locally and distribute the money. In essence, Southern Congress members could ensure that their Southern way of life (read: racist) continued.

It was as if the Civil War and the freedom of the slaves never happened. The result has been generational poverty and wealth inequalities.

About the time that moves were made to include blacks more and more in affirmative action, the cry for color-blindness arose. Affirmative action was OK for whites, but when it extended more fully to blacks, then suddenly race needed to be ignored.

The author argues that the convention of looking at affirmative action as starting in the 1960s with Johnson’s Great Society does a grave disservice to understanding the inequality gap. You cannot cry foal with modern forms of affirmative action (e.g., “Susie Smith didn’t get into Harvard because her spot went to a black student”). This ignores how previous affirmative action preferenced whites over blacks.

The endpoint that the author builds up to is President Johnson’s speech at Howard University in 1965 and Justice Powell’s 1978 decision that both supported and circumscribed affirmative action. Johnson’s vision never came to fruition. And Powell’s description of affirmative action as needing to be clear and specific about racial injuries AND remedying a racist public policy is held up as the gold standard.

Honestly, I am not clear why Powell’s description has such weight.

The author also argues that the opponents of affirmative action have been super clear in their arguments against it. Those in favor of affirmative action haven’t been and must be.

Again I am not sure what these arguments should be other than they must follow Powell’s guidelines.

I feel like this book assumes intimate knowledge about the history of affirmative action and certain laws. (Portal to Portal Act? Taft-Hartley?)

Parts of the book were enlightening and made me think. I realized that WWII led blacks to experience treatment that they did not in the segregated US. Being treated as a human with respect and dignity in Europe made it difficult to return to the Jim Crow South or discriminatory North. The civil rights movement in part came out of the taste of first-class treatment that blacks GIs received abroad during the war.

However, I didn’t think about this same situation occurring after WWI. The 1920s, immediately after WWI, was a horrible time in terms of racism in the US. Not that other times were great but the 1920s saw a sharp rise in racism, e.g., lynchings, KKK hysteria. Why? The implication is that black GIs returned to a US where they were not treated as human beings. They needed to be controlled and forced back into the sub-human places the dominant white culture demanded they be.

The utterly disheartening and enraging point that surfaces again and again is the acquiescence to Southern demands that Southern culture (i.e., white supremacy) not be touched. State administration was demanded and the cry of states’ rights raised repeatedly.

I realized, thanks to this book, how completely US public policy has been hijacked by the South and their racist agenda. Blacks have not truly been free. The South dictates everything in all spheres of life. And non-Southern politicians have allowed the racism to persist and have helped prop it up. This is unconscionable.

State’s rights, which have always made me uneasy, are clearly code for racism and discrimination. Leaving states to decide how to implement federal programs or distribute money is kind of like putting the fox in charge of the hen house. Not a good idea if you want to have hens. Or if you want federal programs to positively impact the economic and social betterment of all Americans.

Book review: Amateur: A True Story About What Makes a Man

I had heard about this book in the last year and thought it would be fascinating to hear the perspective of someone transitioning from female and male. What privileges would he realize that he inherited? In what ways was he restrained by masculine norms? How did he exist as a man with the lived experience of being a woman in the past in a world designed and controlled by men?

Amateur is a window into Thomas’ thoughts, feelings, and experiences about his life Before and After the Transition. The vehicle for exploring his transition and masculinity in general was an article that he was going to write about training for a charity boxing match. The readers get to go along for the ride and watch as he experiences the mostly masculine world of boxing and strives to figure out what it means to be a man.

Thomas is very forthright with his past and his family—supportive mother and siblings but an abusive stepfather. He describes how he was treated and related to as a woman, and then how things flipped during and after his transition when the world started seeing him as a man.

Suddenly he was no longer invisible or discounted. He mattered in the eyes of the world. He found that by opening his mouth and using his voice, he could silence rooms. People listened to what he said. They assumed a degree of competency on his part that women continually fight for and are rarely given.

He notes not only the differences between how he was treated before and how was treated after, but how he treated women before and after. By merely training for five months for a charity boxing match, his status was elevated in the eyes of other men. He was deemed an expert of sorts. He was listened to about boxing. Never mind that he barely knew how to throw a couple different types of punches. He saw this differential at the first gym he was training at. A female trainer there had to work twice as hard to prove herself. And still she was, not discounted really, but not taken as seriously as a guy who could walk into the gym without much boxing experience.

Or his sister who had boxed for years and had expertise much beyond his own. Thomas recounts an experience where he was out walking and talking with a group. A question about boxing came up. His sister, an expert, spoke up, but was ignored. Thomas talked over her. He was listened to. She wasn’t. Not even by him. It was as though he knew all about boxing. As though he had boxed for years.

Any woman can relate to this story. Talked over. Ignored. Your experience and expertise irrelevant. You are irrelevant.

Thomas didn’t realize what he did during this conversation about boxing until later. In fact, he didn’t really realize it. His girlfriend pointed it out to him later. Of course, he felt horrible. At some point he did eventually manage to bring it up with his sister and apologize. Which is great but kind of beside the point. I could feel for his sister, my own experiences projected on her and her feelings, accepting the apology but stoically resigned to this is just what men do.

To be a man, it seems, is to fundamentally degrade women. Interestingly, Thomas mentions that the phrase “be a man” is culturally contextualized. In Denmark, “be a man” means do not be a boy. It is linked to the admonition to be an adult. In the US, “be a man” means do not be a woman. Being a man is linked to a gendered hierarchy.

This hierarchy really is inherent in the American system. I find myself frustrated and angry when once again I find myself discounted, devalued, talked to disparagingly—in essence, I realize that I am being treated “as a woman” and I find it enraging because being treated like a woman means I am being treated as someone less than human, who can be discounted and shoved aside. A second-class citizen of sorts.

Another point in the book that I found illuminating s the talk about violence. Violence is a form of male bonding. The boxing gym in some ways is the epitome of maleness. You are setting out to physically overcome someone else. Blood, sweat, bruises, black eyes. But Thomas also recounts very tender moments, words of encouragement and physically caring for other men.

But violence, he points out, is central to being male. As a man, you cannot let yourself be dominated by someone else. Why do men fight? When they feel humiliated, shamed, not powerful.

Violence is approved towards those who are “legitimate targets”. Who are “legitimate targets”? Someone you are entitled to dominate, who has less power than you—in other words, a woman. And here we see the rationale for domestic violence. You cannot take out your anger on your boss. He is not a legitimate target. But your girlfriend, wife, daughter. You can take it out on them.

Thomas realized that he was now rewarded for what previously he was punished for doing. He could speak up. Stand up for his ideals. He could push back. He could take credit for things. He could play power games. All things he was punished for doing when he was a woman. To exist in the world as an individual is to do all of these things, but women are beaten down again and again for doing them. For men, it is expected, a birthright, and an accepted way of moving through the world.

Thomas has tried to be conscious of these differences, to remember how he was treated as a woman and not to perpetuate this treatment of women. But it is different. Fish forget the water they swim in. At first when you encounter something, a new way of being treated, you notice it because of its newness. But with time, it becomes the new norm.

He tries to remember and be conscious. He tries to combines bits of his former self that he doesn’t want to lose—the caring, emotions, asking for help, aligning with women. But it isn’t always easy or possible. When his mom was dying, it was his sister who cared for her. It was expected that another woman would. As a man, he was kept out of that world and lost out in the closeness and tenderness of caring for his mom.

He tries to monitor himself. He mentions watching at work who talks over whom and why. Out for a run, he notices a female runner ahead of him looking over her shoulder, clearly worried about these footsteps fast approaching from behind her. Where previously he experienced fear of other men when he was out alone as a woman, he realizes what his presence as a man means to this runner. In the future, when he encounters another female runner, he calls out that he is passing on the left. An attempt to allay fears of an unknown man approaching from behind.

In Amateur, Thomas seeks to find out what it means to be a man in a world with abusive fathers and toxic masculinity. Without growing up male, he seems to feel a bit bereft. But through observation and reflection, he is crafting masculinity that feels right for him. The book takes us on his journey and lets us share in his observations about what it means to be male and juxtaposed against that what it means be female in a male-dominated world. And ways men can be that can heal both themselves and women from toxic masculinity.

Book review: Go Tell It on The Mountain

The value of a novel is in revealing truths that move the reader, leaving the reader changed. Go Tell It on the Mountain does just that.

As I closed the book upon finishing it, an audible expression of astonishment escaped my lips. Go Tell It On The Mountain is a surreptitiously powerful book. The story seems so simple—a fourteen-year-old boy raised in a house led by stepfather who is a Pentecostal preacher.

Baldwin draws the reader deeper into the lives of major characters one by one. Their sins, their pain, and the suffering of their lives are laid bare for the reader to see. No judgement about them is clear-cut.

He plays with the role of sin and religion in the lives of African Americans. Sin envelops and morphs, rationalized away and looking different from various perspectives and through the eyes of various people. Religion both uplifts and destroys. Religion is a truth that brings salvation and partial healing. And a hypocrisy that brings damnation and harm. Salvation is never final and sin exists everywhere.

Racism of the early 20th century dances through the storyline. The poverty, the lack of opportunity, the despair screams of racism. Hatred of and distrust of white people pervades the life of some characters. Indifference of white people is the reality of other characters. White people appear on the fringes of the story as absent employers, violence to black lives, and the very present threat of police and the criminal justice system.

The novel shows lives cut short or full of pain. Lots of lost opportunities, snippets of love but mostly punctuated with hatred. Family and community are not idealized. The reality of relationships is on full display with its raw harshness.

My heart ached for each character in turn. They all exist in hell and live with a past that they wish to return to or long to forget. Life is a long series of pain and loss. Ironically in a such a family where religion plays such a central role in their lives, God seems absent.

Go Tell It on The Mountain is James Baldwin’s first major work, a semi-autobiographical novel. It is generally considered an American classic, and I can see why. His storytelling is superb and he reaches into the soul of the characters he describes. He touches on important themes, bringing them briefly front and center to the reader’s attention without preaching or belaboring his points. He relates truths in American society that leaves one pondering the items weighing down one’s soul from the telling of his story. The value of a novel is in revealing truths that move the reader, leaving them changed. Go Tell It on the Mountain does just that.

Book review: The Devil in the White City

I believe I first learned about The Devil in the White City on a tour of Irvington. It was a fall night as a hundred or so of us trudged from site to site in Irvington, an eastern neighborhood of Indianapolis. The tour was a ghost tour special for the Halloween season. I learned much about historical tidbits of the area, including H.H. Holmes, the so-called devil in the book title.

One house we stopped outside of was presumably haunted. Current owners confirmed this. And by the way, the house was where H.H. Holmes killed a boy. Who? What? Holmes, a serial killer during the world’s fair in Chicago in 1893, passed through Irvington, albeit it temporarily.

With that information, I thought that I needed to read this book about Holmes and Chicago. Years later I finally have.

As I read it, I had to remind myself that it was non-fiction. The book reads like a novel. Two threads and main characters run through the book. Holmes and his murder spree. Burnham, the Chicago architect in charge of making the world’s fair a reality, and the World’s Columbian Exposition of 1893.

Sporadically as I was reading, I remembered that Holmes existed. He was real. His deeds happened. And then I’d need to put down the book. But in between those times of realization, the “novel” was easy to consume.

Larson weaves fascinating descriptions about the inner lives of people. Their hopes, dreams, and fears come alive. These people seem real and relatable.

The history of how the fair came to be, details about society and life of the times, the labor struggles, and economic woes of the times are also engrossing. I thought of the world’s fair in Chicago as just magically coming into being. But this book depicts its real struggle and how close it came to not happening. Again and again.

Chicago being picked to host the world’s fair reminded me of sites selected for modern-day Olympics. Everyone wants the honor but then the reality hits. Much money and energy is poured into the endeavor. The city boasts some honor for hosting the event, but then the costs turn out to be so high. And everything built for the event is left to rot after the crowds disperse.

The world’s fair in 1893 was no different. On the surface, the fair was a smashing success. A beautiful temporary site rose from the barrenness that was a city park in Chicago. Word spread about the White City and visitors were enthralled with its beauty.

What would happen when the fair ended six months later? There was no talk of repurposing buildings or the site. The structures were left to rot. Or more accurately to become a shanty town for the hordes of homeless and unemployed during the economic downturn that the fair straddled and deepened. When the fair closed, thousands more were spit out to join the ranks of the unemployed in an economically depressed country. They inhabited the abandoned White City.

Until fire destroyed much of the structures on the site.

It was a sad ending to a beautiful, inspiring event. Chicago was galvanized. It proved to others that it was cultured enough, educated enough to host a world’s fair that would not only make Chicago proud, but the rest of the country.

Nothing really remains of the fair today. One of the buildings was made into a more permanent structure—which houses the Field Museum today. The landscaped grounds designed by the famous Olmstead still sport the wooded island and lagoon. But the fair is all but gone.

Sadly, I did not realize the location of the fair, the historical significance of the location of the Field Museum, or the grounds having been designed by Olmsted—despite having visited the museum several times in my life. Though to be fair, based on the description of Olmsted in The Devil in the White City, I suspect that the landscape in the park no longer conforms to any of Olmsted’s designs and would have him spinning in his grave.

Larson names drops quite a bit in The Devil in the White City. The world’s fair attracted and influenced lots of people. Olmsted was just one among many. (Olmsted designed Central Park, along with dozens and dozens of other well-known places.) Frank Lloyd Wright appears in these pages as a former colleague of another exposition architect, Louis Sullivan, possibly drawing his prairie style inspiration from the Japanese buildings on the Wooded Island. Walt Disney’s father appears—the White City may have influenced his own designs. Eugene Debs pops up as the organizer behind late 1800s train strikes. Baum visited the fair and went on to write about the magical land of Oz. Buffalo Bill headed the wild west show next to the fair. The Ferris’s wheel made its debut at the fair. And on and on.

Larson does an excellent job weaving all of these histories together, giving us glimpses in some cases and more in-depth looks in others into people and events. The White City almost seems impossible to have been. The killings by Holmes seem impossible to have been. Yet both took place. The book shows the heights of joy and the depths of tragedy—from all of the killings, the abandonment and destruction of the fair site, and the pain suffered by both anonymous and named people. Life is transitory. This book drives home that point.

The book starts with Burnham on a trans-Atlantic voyage long after the fair and ends with the knowledge that a colleague from the fair died with the sinking of the Titanic. In between are tales and descriptions that have stuck with me. Larson has taken the real and weaved it into a story that almost seems to be a fabrication rather than a recounting of actual events. The beauty of the White City was too fleeting. As was Larson’s recollection of its existence.