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Book Reviews

Lincoln's Last Trial: The Murder Case That Propelled Him To The Presidency (2018).

Posted by friendsofthenewarkfreelibrary on March 26, 2019 at 5:55 PM

By: Dan Abrams and David Fisher

Reviewed by: Bob Taggart

This is a fascinating, mostly-true, story of Lincoln's last murder trial in the stifling hot summer of 1859 in Springfield, Illinois. Springfield then was a small, bustling town of about 5,000 people where everybody seemed to know everyone. The state capital had a large contingent of capable lawyers, and Lincoln was simply the most famous of them. Having litigated more than 3,000 cases, including 27 murder cases, Lincoln was an experienced attorney, able to represent all sides in a large variety of situations.

We know what occurred in the State of Illinois vs Peachy Quinn Harrison case because the court stenographer, Robert Hitt, took copious notes during the trial. By pure chance, his transcript was found in an old shoebox in the garage of the defendant's relative in Fresno, California in 1989. The transcript showed Lincoln at his lawyerly best, getting the defendant off after the man had knifed his attacker, killing him. Lincoln and his previous mentor, Stephen Logan, succeeded in building a case of self-defense. It was a difficult case because the victim had not been armed, though he had attacked Harrison with his fists. They won the case because of Lincoln's careful attention to the witness statements and his persuasive style with the judge and jury.

Lincoln used logical and plain-spoken arguments, in a folksy, friendly manner that won the jury over to his side. His dry wit, colorful storytelling and strong sense of justice made for a masterful presentation. He would use his well-known honesty and ability to see himself in the defendant's place, while using any emotion necessary, to persuade the jury that the defendant was trapped into forceful action that could not have been avoided.

Robert Hitt sent his transcriptions daily by telegraph to a major Chicago newspaper which was passed on to readers in all major cities so they were able to follow the trial. Lincoln was already famous because of the 1858 Lincoln-Douglas debates, also described by Hitt. This belies the book's subtitle, because Lincoln was already being "propelled" by his own actions, including the speeches he was about to give in Ohio and New York. However, he would have been hurt politically if he had lost this case, so the positive result of the trial definitely enhanced his fame. The current reader may wonder whether Lincoln really proved his client's innocence, but his skillful presentation style convinced the jury as he would also convince a wider audience at the upcoming Chicago Republican National Convention in 1860. Lincoln was famous for a good reason. After all, as Hitt wrote, "winners win".

Categories: Nonfiction

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