Wednesday, June 8, 2011

"The Case of Abraham Lincoln" by Julie M. Fenster

I have always been a fan of Abraham Lincoln. Although I do realize that some of his intentions in freeing the slaves were politically motivated, I have always held him in high regard. The Emancipation Proclamation is a prime example of his political prowess. Had it not been for the later passage of the 14th Amendment, the Proclamation would have kept slavery alive in the North until 1900, while abolishing it immediately in the South. But the man has always fascinated me, even in Kindergarten, where I first spied his face on the wall, alongside of George Washington.

Abraham Lincoln, by the spring of 1856, was considerd a former Congressman with a legal practice. His political capital was at an all time low, and he lamented that he would go down in history as just another lawyer, riding the circuit of the local courts. And it may have wound up just that way, were it not for a Mrs. Anderson and her husband's nephew, Theodore.

George Anderson, a blacksmith in Springfield, was married to Jane Anderson. They lived next door to the Masonic Hall, a very busy gathering spot for the towns politicos and aspiring office seekers. It was also the main gathering spot for news of the day. That spring the hall was unusually busy with the debate of two pressing national issues; the first being the spread of slavery into the new territories, and the second being the suppression of Catholicism as a growing "threat" to the naton. The focus in Springfield was about to become more local.

From April 22nd through May 15th, George Anderson was gravely ill. He was expected to pass away. His symptoms were fever, convulsions and extreme pain. The convulsions arched his back to the point of breaking. His weight dropped to the lowest point since his youth. The attending physicians, Dr. Lord and Dr. Fowler were certain that George Anderson was being poisoned with strychine, but were not sure by whom. The only person who administered his food and medicine was his wife, Jane. At the same time, Jane was having an affair with her husbands nephew, Theodore.

By all accounts, Geoge Anderson was a strong man. As a blacksmith he was very fit. When he became ill so suddenly, red flags were raised, and all through April and early May, Dr. Lord and Dr. Fowler were on hand, trying to determine the cause of Mr. Anderson's troubles. But a strange thing happened around the middle of May; Mr. Anderson seemed to be making a full recovery.

On May 15th he was well enough to leave his sickbed for the first time in almost a month. He went to the tailors and bought some new cothes to fit his now thinning body. He was also supposed to meet his wife at his brother's house for tea. They were celebrating his recovery. Mrs. Anderson never made it to the tea, electing instead to go home and have tea alone. Prior to that, she had been shopping, and was seen in the company of Mr. Anderson's nephew.

That evening, upon his return home, Mr. Anderson confronted his wife as to her absence from the tea. They fought briefly, in front of the servants, before retiring for the night. Sometime around 10 PM, Mr. Anderson, according to Mrs. Anderson, crept quietly from their bed to use the outhouse in the backyard. He took his pistol with him. He never returned.

By 11 PM, Mrs. Anderson had awakened, and peering out the window, saw her husbands body lying on the ground. She summoned the servants to see to him. She never went to check on him herself, falling into hysterics instead.

The town sheriff concluded that Mr. Anderson had been struck over the head with a board as he exited the outhouse. The board was found about twenty feet away from the body with blood on it. By the next morning, though, bloodied sheets and a ball peen hammer were found in the bushes, raising the possibility that Mr. Anderson had been killed in bed and then moved outside. Moreover, Mrs. Anderson was now charged with her husband's murder.

What ensues after that is a quickly paced book, which not only covers the trial of Mrs. Anderson and her husband's nephew, but also offers a glimpse at a country struggling with the divisive issue of slavery. It also gives us some new insights into the law career of Abraham Lincoln, a man who fought for both sides of every issue that came his way. His work in the Fugitive Slave Act cases underscores his ability to argue, and win, cases for which he had previously argued against. From 1836 to 1861, Lincoln argued more than 5,000 cases. More than just a debt lawyer, Lincoln was involved in over 30 murder trials. The Anderson case came on the scene just in time to revitalize his political career, and offers one of the best insights into his years as an attorney.

The Anderson trial began on November 19th, 1856. Lincoln had not returned to Springfield until June, a month after the murder took place. The State's attorney, Amzi McWilliams, needed help to prosecute the case, and to that end offered Lincoln $200 to be the Special Prosecutor. Lincoln turned him down, citing an overload of cases, but offered instead to assist in the Defense for $75.

I will not go any further into the case. It is one of the most overlooked episodes of Lincoln's 25 year career as an attorney, and as such, offers some new perspective into both the man himself, and the volatile times in which he lived. If you like Lincoln, you will love this book.

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