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the case of abraham lincoln

22 december 2012

Julie Fenster's Case of Abraham Lincoln is another book that I scooped off the shelves of my university library's "popular reading collection." These hot items are consistently five years out of date. But since I have an unmatched ability to miss new publications, I'm grateful for a service that takes me, as in a time machine, back to the new-book displays of six years ago.

One weird fact I learned immediately from The Case of Abraham Lincoln: there's a town in central Illinois named "Lincoln," after Abraham Lincoln. Well, duh. I knew about Lincoln, Illinois; I often mention it in discussing the life of the poet Langston Hughes, who once lived there. What I didn't know is that Lincoln was named after Abraham Lincoln in 1853.

But Lincoln was evidently that kind of guy. It's very easy to lapse into prolepsis when discussing Lincoln's younger days. After 1865, pretty much everybody who'd ever seen Abraham Lincoln in the distance wrote, or was interviewed for, a memoir of the experience. Most of them commented on his magnetism and his manifest destiny. Much of that rhetoric must be discounted. But now and again you hear a story, like the decision of the town fathers of Lincoln to name their new village after the lawyer who'd helped them draw up its incorporation papers (Fenster 42).

And then there's the "Lost Speech" of 1856. At the time, Lincoln was a circuit lawyer and former congressman, 47 years old, his political career going nowhere. At the initial organizing convention of Illinois "anti-Nebraskans" in Bloomington – the kernel of what would become one of the most influential state Republican party organizations – Lincoln gave a speech that prefigured his great orations of the next few years: the House Divided, the Douglas debates, the Cooper Union. But nobody wrote it down; nobody was expecting it, and Lincoln himself was uninterested at the time in preserving it for posterity.

News of the Lost Speech spread quickly and exponentially, though, and before long Lincoln was crossing Illinois in support of Republican gubernatorial candidate William Bissell (who was disabled and didn't campaign much for himself). He spoke for hundreds of hours, and as Fenster points out, listened for many hundreds more, making himself the indispensable man of Illinois Republicanism.

Lincoln, inevitable though he now seems, had one of the steepest four-year rises to power of any President – not quite Clevelandian in its improbability. Like Barack Obama 148 years later, Lincoln was propelled to the Presidency by giving a single speech while he was still a fairly lowly local politician in Illinois. In the days before digital recording, of course, Lincoln had to get out and give that speech over and over again in lots of places till his inevitability snowballed. And that's the end of the flimsy parallel. 1856-1860 were volatile times, and strange things happened politically as the nation realigned itself. It's not astonishing that someone could come out of nowhere; it's just perhaps astonishing that this particular someone did.

The "adultery" and "murder" promised by the subtitle remain a long time unconnected to the case of Abraham Lincoln. In a parallel narrative, Fenster discusses a murder that happened a few blocks away from the Lincoln home in the spring of 1856. The story reads like a primeval episode of CSI Springfield. Blacksmith George Anderson was found to have strychnine in his system. But that wasn't the cause of death; blunt-force trauma did that. Somebody or somebodies had killed him twice.

Anderson's doctors revealed that they'd suspected strychnine poisoning for some while; the victim had been suffering its effects for months. But they couldn't figure out how the poison had been getting into his system. The only person to touch his food and drink was his devoted wife …

hang on – the wife who was having an ill-disguised affair with Anderson's nephew, who was later found to have a stolen half-empty bottle of strychnine in his trunk? Yes, that wife. Motive, means, and opportunity couldn't be clearer. But evidence was lacking. I won't spoil the story. After all, you know Abe Lincoln became President. Until about page 205, you won't know what on earth he had to do with the Anderson case, still less how the case turned out, unless you are a real strong buff on 19th-century true crime.

The connection may seemed forced at times, but the two stories are skillfully sort of not-woven in a way that keeps you reading, and infuses a strong picture of country politics and law in Lincoln's Illinois while you're waiting to see how the murder turns out. Well-done.

Fenster, Julie M. The Case of Abraham Lincoln: A story of adultery, murder, and the making of a great president. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2007.