Lincoln’s Last Trial: The Murder Case that Propelled him to the Presidency by Dan Abrams and David Fisher. (Hanover Square Press, 2018)

 

The point of view from which a novel is told influences the reader’s perception of events, until we decide whether or not to trust the narrator. I wouldn’t classify Lincoln’s Last Trial: The Murder Case that Propelled Him to the Presidency; as a novel. In fact, it is not even a non-fiction novel. However, there are elements of fiction in the depiction of Lincoln’s final appearance in court as an attorney, including the fact that our reactions to Abraham Lincoln, trial lawyer, are colored by Robert Roberts Hitt, the man with whom we can credit the creation of the Harrison trial transcript, which preserved the important case for historians like the book’s author, Dan Abrams, to study.

When Robert Roberts Hitt arrived in Springfield, Illinois in August 1859, he was already a well-known steno recorder. Actually Hitt was the first court stenographer, and it is due to his skill and diligence that we have the transcripts of the historically important Lincoln-Douglas debates today. Of Hitt, Horace White, a newsman of his time, wrote, “Verbatim reporting was a new feature in the journalism in Chicago, and Mr. Hitt was the pioneer thereof.” (p.17) As Lincoln’s Last Trial depicts Hitt frantically scribbling to keep up with the court proceedings, the stenographer has to pause frequently to shake the cramps out of his aching hand. Hitt was tenacious in his work, and he also had built a relationship of trust and mutual respect with Abraham Lincoln during the debates, which had occurred in the fall of 1858.

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Lincoln recognized the significance of Hitt’s transcriptions, and, in fact, it was Lincoln who had requested Hitt’s presence at the Lincoln-Douglas debates to preserve the speeches for posterity. Lincoln’s insistence on Hitt’s steno skills at the debates “provided Hitt with a vantage point to history.”

In order to write Lincoln’s Last Trial, Dan Abrams, the chief legal affairs anchor for ABC News and CEO and founder of Abrams media, along with his writing partner, David Fisher, used Hitt’s transcripts to provide them with the accurate details of the last trial in which Lincoln ever participated as an attorney.

      In the late summer of 1859 Lincoln agreed to take the case of a young man named Simeon Quinn “Peachy” Harrison, who was facing prosecution for murder. “Peachy” had been accused of stabbing an acquaintance of his, Greek Crafton. According to many witnesses, the Greek Crafton and his older brother, John,  had been threatening to “stomp all over Peachy’s face” due to a verbal disagreement that they had had, The three men were well known in their home community of Pleasant Plains, about ten miles from Springfield where the trial was to take place.

“Lincoln had known both young men for a considerable time . . . both of them came from wealthy and well-positioned farming families in the community. Peyton Harrison, the accused killer’s father, was a staunch Republican and a longtime friend and Lincoln supporter. The victim, Greek Crafton, also was close to him. In fact, he had aspired to the law and did much of his training as a clerk right there in the office and Lincoln & Herndon, acquitting himself quite well,” the authors write. (p.27)

 

Lincoln had gained prominence on the national political scene in June of 1858, when he delivered his acceptance speech as the Republican nominee for the Senate from Illinois. He spoke these famous words, “A house divided against itself cannot stand. I believe this government cannot endure, permanently half slave and half free. I do not expect the Union to be dissolved---I do not expect the house to fall---but I do expect it will cease to be divided.” (p.92)

Lincoln gained further renown in the Lincoln-Douglas debates the following fall. However, he was still considered a dark horse for the 1860 presidential race. Thus, taking on the role of defense attorney in the Harrison trial was viewed as a political risk for Lincoln. A defeat in this trial could have buried Lincoln for once and for all.

It was a well known fact that Lincoln revered the law and considered it to be the foundation on which democracy thrived. He refused to take a case in which he did not believe in his client’s innocence. Despite the fact that he had great admiration for the deceased, Greek Crafton, Lincoln accepted the challenge of the murder trial, defending Harrison as not guilty becauseHarrison had been defending himself in the melee that led to Crafton’s death. What made this defense difficult was that young Harrison had been armed with a knife when he encountered the Crafton brothers, which could be argued showed premeditation on his part.

Lincoln’s Last Trial reveals a number of last minute trial revelations that prove that Abraham Lincoln was the Sherlock Holmes of his time. His courtroom disclosures had been know to exonerate an innocent man in the last moments, leaving the courtroom breathless with his genius.

 As we approach President Abraham Lincoln’s 210th birthday on February 12th, I recommend Lincoln’s Last Trial: The Murder Case that Propelled Him to the President. The book gives us further appreciation for the 16th president for his ability to put evidence together to force a fair verdict, but it also reveals some little known details about his personal life. For example, Lincoln did not carry a briefcase to court; rather, he toted legal papers in his tall hat and removed them once he arrived in court. His law office was a shambles, and certainly did not reflect one of America’s most brilliant minds. Abrams and Fisher’s collaboration is a worthwhile read that you will want to discuss with other aficionados of the history of American law and politics.