Not long ago, I completed one of the more satisfying books I have read in quite a long time.
“Lincoln’s Last Trial: The Murder Case That Propelled Him to the Presidency,” by Dan Abrams and David Fisher, was released in 2018, and I found it in a local big box store’s woefully understocked and steadily shrinking book shelves sometime early last year.
Ordinarily, I would not have picked up such a title, but the name Lincoln caught my attention for a less-than-scholarly reason.
A few years back, as Hasting’s here in Paris was shoveling everything they had out the door at really discount prices before shuttering the place and leaving me and other faithful bookstore browsers in Paris with next to no options for a good read, I found a book in a clearance pile called “Abraham Lincoln, Vampire Hunter.” The title made me laugh right out loud on the crowded sidewalk, and I threw it back into the pile and kept digging. But then I went back to it, drawn by the lurid cover art of one of our most beloved presidents looking all presidential while holding a bloody axe and the severed head of a vampire of all things. I bought the book, took it home and read it, and thoroughly enjoyed it. It was a lively mash-up of American history, Southern slave culture and vampire lore, told in a way that made this ridiculous tale seem — almost— plausible. I can recommend it to anyone willing to suspend their disbelief for a while and indulge in a little bit of pseudo-historical mayhem.
I had never heard of Dan Abrams or David Fisher, but their jacket bios seemed pretty solid, so I bought what I really expected to be a pretty dry tome. I thought I might stick it on the back of the toilet at my house and use it as a last ditch way to pass the time doing what one is wont to do in a bathroom.
Turns out it was a really fine read.
Abrams and Fisher turned to court transcripts of the 1859 murder trail of Quinn “Peachy” Harrison of Springfield, Illinois, charged with the knife murder of Greek Crafton, after Crafton and his brother jumped him and tried to beat him senseless over some minor dispute, to flesh out the legal proceedings.
Everyone in Springfield in 1859 knew the dead man and the defendant, and all of their families, as did Lincoln himself. The trail was avidly followed by all of the residents of the town.
Lincoln’s reputation was on the rise in the wake of his election debates with Illinois politician Stephen Douglas, which had garnered attention in the big cities back east and a Chicago newspaper hired a transcriptionist — a profession only then coming into use in courtrooms — to cover the trial and published each day’s proceedings, which was eventually picked up by newspapers in New York City and Washington, D.C. The political movers and shakers back east took notice and within months, Lincoln was propelled into the race for the White House.
The book is full of colorful details, taken from many different sources, letters, diaries, newspaper reports of the times and eyewitness accounts detailed during the trial. It is supported with a great deal of historical research, as well.
If you like history, the changing face of American legal procedure, and biography, this is one you should read.
Abrams has written two other books in this vein, one dealing with Theodore Roosevelt, the other about John Adams, each wrapped around court cases that shaped their lives, and sharpened their reputations. I hope to run up on these books soon. I should enjoy them, if the first book is anything to judge by.