The Grisly Murder Trial That Helped Raise Abraham Lincoln's National Profile - HISTORY

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The victim was one of Lincoln's former law clerks. The accused, who Lincoln defended, was the son of one of his prominent political supporters. It was complicated.

Even by today’s standards, The State of Illinois v. “Peachy” Quinn Harrison would be considered newsworthy. The prerequisite elements for a “high-profile” trial were all there: a well-liked and promising young man stabbed to death by a neighbor with whom he had grown up; a struggle and claim of self-defense; eyewitness testimony, including from the victim’s own brother; an alleged deathbed admission; a critical celebrity witness; and a community fiercely divided. That division stemmed, in part, from the fact that this was one of those close ones where the lawyering could absolutely impact the outcome.

So if Abraham Lincoln had not been retained to represent the accused, the case still would have been closely watched and scrutinized by the community and local media alike. But in 1859, just nine months before the Republican convention that would catapult him to the presidency and eventually schoolbooks of every American child, having Lincoln for the defense made it that much more notable. While hardly a household name yet, political insiders certainly were coming to know of Abe Lincoln, particularly on the heels of the Lincoln-Douglas debates. This trial would serve as an audition for some, a second look for others, but in either case Lincoln had far more to lose than gain. Creating an aura of invincibility is the goal of every person who stands for election, and a loss in the courtroom might easily damage that perception.

The trial, and the spectacle it became, were seen through the eyes of Robert Hitt, the scribe whose handwritten words take us into the courtroom. Transcribing every word of an often fast-moving trial with witnesses who did not always speak up, using just a steel-tipped pen and paper was, at times, a herculean task. And trial transcriptions were still extremely rare. The attention given to the trial would boost his growing reputation as a pioneer in the field. Hitt had been hired by the Illinois State Journal to provide a daily transcript for its readers. But as the trial began, both the families of the accused and the victim purchased copies of that transcript, which would prove a valuable tool should an appeal be necessary, paying $25 each.

Lincoln subscribed for an additional copy from his friend Hitt, for which he paid $27.50. The future president knew Hitt from his transcribing work on the Douglas debates. Text of that event was sent by telegraph to newspapers throughout the entire country, and in several weeks had transformed a little-known Illinois lawyer into a widely admired political figure. So when the scribe arrived into town before the trial, he made his way directly to Lincoln’s office to catch up on the case.

William Henry Herndon

William Henry Herndon was Lincoln’s law partner at the time of the trial. (Credit: Universal History Archive/UIG via Getty Images)

The law office of Lincoln and his younger partner, William Herndon, was in a back room on the second floor of a brick building on the northwest side of the square, on Fifth Street. It would be charitable to describe Lincoln’s office as messy. A pair of windows overlooking the backyard were caked so thickly with dirt and grime that very little light edged into the room, which actually was a sort of blessing, as the dim light obscured much of the disorder. A large ink blotch stained one wall, supposedly the result of an angry law student firing an inkstand at another young man’s head. One visiting attorney, Henry Whitney, wrote flatly, “no lawyer’s office could have been more unkempt, untidy and uninviting than that of Lincoln and Herndon.”

Like most attorneys of that period, Lincoln had no specialty; he dealt with both civil and criminal cases. When called upon he would sit as a judge, act for the community as a prosecutor or represent individuals with a gripe, a claim, a need or a criminal charge. He might just as easily be found settling a minor land claim as arguing an historically important case to determine navigation rights on America’s rivers; on the same day he might write a will in the morning and defend an accused rapist in the afternoon.

Hitt knew Lincoln to be a man who carried most of what he needed in his mind, although when necessary he actually carried his legal papers in his tall hat, and spent as little time as possible on the mundane chores that chewed up the day. So the steno man was not at all surprised when, on August 28, 1859, he came to see his friend and walked into the clutter.

Robert Hitt

Robert Hitt, 1898. Hitt was a pioneer of court stenography, whose transcriptions of the Harrison trial would help extend Lincoln’s reputation.  (Credit: The Print Collector/Getty Images)

Seven weeks earlier, on Saturday the 16th of July, Greek Crafton had walked into the Short and Hart’s drugstore in Pleasant Plains, Illinois, about 10 miles outside Springfield, carrying with him a ton of anger. His older brother John Crafton was stretched out on a counter; his reason for waiting there was still in dispute.

Simeon Quinn Harrison—“Peachy” as he was called—was sitting at the other counter next to Mr. Short, reading the newspaper. Harrison was a frail young man, weighing no more than 125 pounds, and Greek had a substantial advantage of size over him. Greek took off his coat, and with his brother grabbed hold of Harrison and pulled him away from the counter. According to Lincoln, the Crafton brothers tried to drag Harrison into the back of the store to administer a sorrowful thrashing. Proprietor Benjamin Short tried to step between the boys, but was pushed away by brother John.

The smaller Harrison struggled to break free. Greek Crafton struck him a hard blow. The brawlers fell over a pile of boxes. With that, Harrison pulled a four-inch-long white-handled hunting knife and began slashing at his tormentors. Stabbing wildly, he made a deep slice into Greek’s stomach. As Greek stumbled away, Harrison stabbed at John, catching him on his wrist and opening a nasty cut. To keep Harrison away, John threw a balance scale, some glasses and even a chair at him before they finally could be separated.

But Greek had been grievously wounded, cut from the lower rib on his left side to his groin on the right. Crafton’s bowels protruded and later were pushed back into place by Dr. J. L. Million. He was taken to bed and lingered for three days, but there never was any real hope of survival. Supposedly, on his deathbed, as Greek prepared to meet his Maker, he wanted to set himself right. Peachy’s own grandfather, the renowned Rev. Peter Cartwright, had gone to pray with Greek, and was stunned when Greek said to him, “I brought it upon myself and I forgive Quinn, and I want it said to all my friends that I have no enmity in my heart against any man. If I die I want it declared to all that I died in peace with God and all mankind.”

But a statement of forgiveness wouldn’t change the law. Quinn was arrested and his family hired the men who would defend him.

Greek Crafton had lingered for three days before succumbing to his injuries. For a time it was also feared that his brother John, whose wrist was sliced open, might also die. He survived. Then, for almost a week following the deadly encounter, Peachy Harrison could not be found. In fact, as it became known later, he was in hiding, perhaps in fear of Greek Crafton’s posse of friends or supporters, perhaps to keep himself out of the sheriff’s hands until a proper defense could be arranged. For a time his good friend, the 29-year-old city attorney Shelby Moore Cullom, gave him cover in his home, then hid him under the floor of the Illinois State college building.

The boy’s father, Peyton Harrison, retained an eminent former judge, Stephen Trigg Logan, and Lincoln to represent his son. There were strong bonds between all of these men. Lincoln had first represented Peyton Harrison in a minor dispute more than two decades earlier, and they had remained friends since. The wealthy Harrison had been a key contributor to Lincoln’s political ambitions. But the victim, Greek Crafton, also was close to Lincoln. In fact, he had aspired to the law and did much of his training as a clerk right there in the office of Lincoln & Herndon, acquitting himself quite well.

Stephen Trigg Logan

Stephen Trigg Logan, 1887.  Judge Logan was Lincoln’s mentor, good friend and co-counsel for the defense. (Credit: Benoitb/Getty Images)

Judge Logan had been a mentor to Lincoln, as well as a friend. The fact that Logan, perhaps the most respected lawyer in the region, had selected young Lincoln to be his law partner in 1841 provided a tremendous boost to Lincoln’s career. One reason for the selection, he later wrote, was that Lincoln had the ability to bond with all people: “Lincoln seemed to put himself at once on an equality with everybody—never of course while they were outrageous, never while they were drunk or noisy or anything of the kind.” The partnership had been dissolved after three years because Logan wanted to work with his son, and by then Lincoln felt ready to establish his own firm. Lincoln always spoke fondly of the man and all he had learned from him. During his presidency Lincoln described Stephen Trigg Logan as “one of my most distinguished, and most highly valued friends.” Logan was one of the few people the president invited to travel with him to Gettysburg for the dedication of that battlefield.

Few lawyers in the area were more respected than Logan and Lincoln, Hitt knew, and Quinn Harrison could not have better representation.

The coroner’s inquest into the facts of the encounter, to determine if a crime had been committed, had convened on August 2. The legal question here was simply whether Greek’s death should be deemed a homicide rather than some other noncriminal cause of death. Because of his prior work with Lincoln, Hitt had followed the events as much as possible in these earliest stages, although the details had been sketchy. As many as 75 witnesses were subpoenaed, and most of them eventually testified.

“Listen to this, Bob,” Lincoln told Hitt, withdrawing a newspaper from the pile he had been reading. “Here is the crux of the matter. This from the Register, ‘In the most debatable testimony, Mr. Cartwright testified that Crafton, on his deathbed, absolved Harrison from blame, and blamed himself for the difficulty and its sad result… This was rebutted by Dr. Million, who stated that he had several conversations with Crafton on his dying bed, relative to the difficulty, and that he did not absolve Harrison from blame, but censured him.’ ”

Lincoln laid down the newspaper, squeezed the bridge of his nose between his thumb and forefinger, and went on to explain that he and Logan had agreed immediately on their strategy for this hearing: This was clearly a case of self-defense. Peachy Quinn had been attacked by the Crafton brothers and had been forced to fight back to save himself. One witness even testified that he had heard Crafton boasting that he intended to throw down Harrison and stomp on his face.

The prosecution disagreed, of course, examining the same facts and arguing quite a different conclusion: The laws concerning self-defense had been mostly settled; a man had no legal right to stand his ground but to save himself from imminent and serious bodily harm or death—then and only then did he have the right to use deadly force. Harrison could have avoided this fight, but instead had armed himself with a deadly weapon that he was prepared to use. When given the opportunity, the prosecution argued, he had knowingly murdered Greek Crafton.

The whole of the event was argued back and forth with great skill, although Lincoln admitted to Hitt that neither he nor Logan anticipated it would end at the initial pretrial hearings. Feelings were far too raw for a decision to be reached without all of the evidence being presented and all of the witnesses heard. Failing that, the town might never heal. There would have to be a full-blown trial.

The coroner’s inquest came a few weeks before the Sangamon circuit Grand Jury would officially determine if charges were to be lodged against Harrison.

That was but a formality, Lincoln knew. The Grand Jury would indict and Peachy Quinn Harrison’s trial would begin within days after that.

This story is excerpted from Lincoln’s Last Trial: The Murder Case That Propelled Him to the Presidency by Dan Abrams and David Fisher, published by Harper Collins. 

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