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Honest Abe Held the Bar High
Reviewed in the United States on July 4, 2018
The authors give the reader a ring-side seat at the trial of The State of Illinois vs. "Peachy" Quinn Harrison. It was Abraham Lincoln's last major murder trial before his presidential election and it was a nail-biter! The trial was held in the Springfield State Court House in 1859. Lincoln had already shot into the public eye after his seven debates with Stephen Douglas the summer before. Lincoln knew both the victim and the murderer and chose to join the defense team. Was it a case of murder or self-defense?
Lincoln became a lawyer in 1839. He was essentially self-taught and continued to read the law throughout his lifetime. He rode the Illinois Circuit Court for twenty years trying over 2000 cases of which two dozen were murder trials. Other cases Lincoln prosecuted are touched upon to give the reader a sense of his style and diligence to see justice served. A fellow lawyer and prosecution opponent in this very trial noted, "Well, you know Abe ...He could sell you a mule, convince you it's a stallion and have you end up thanking him for the bargain." On the other hand, a fellow circuit lawyer wrote, " He could compel a witness to tell the truth when he meant to lie. He could make a jury laugh and generally weep, at his pleasure....He understood, almost intuitively the jury, witnesses, parties and judges and how to best address, convince and influence them." Lincoln tried three cases before the Illinois Superior Court and one case before the US Supreme Court. Abe Lincoln and his peers were at the cutting edge of many new laws as the young nation was dealing with territories, new states and a trans-continental railroad.
How are the particulars of this 1859 murder trial known? Lincoln hired a court stenographer, Robert Roberts Hitt, who using a gold-nibbed ink pen, transcribed verbatim the trial proceedings. Hitt telegraphed his notes back to a Chicago paper which published them. Miraculously, the original transcriptions were found tied with a ribbon in a shoebox in a Fresno, California garage in1989. For the lucky reader, the transcripts provide as spell-binding an account as if this trial were in the news today.