Sunday, July 29, 2018

Not Your Normal Legal Fiction! Lincoln's Last Trial: The Murder Case That Propelled Him to the Presidency!

Mister Robert Roberts Hitt, the well-known steno man, arrived in Springfield late on the sweltering afternoon of August 28, 1859. As he stepped down onto the platform of the new station, he paused briefly and nattily patted the beads of sweat from his forehead, then vainly attempted to tug the wrinkles out of his jacket. The Alton Express had covered the two hundred miles from Chicago in a quite acceptable nine hours. 
Hitt had tried with limited success to practice his shorthand on the ever-shaking rails. It had not surprised young Hitt that the carriage was far more crowded than he had previously experienced: the Peachy Quinn Harrison murder trial had attracted considerably more attention than might otherwise have been expected once it became known that Abe Lincoln was going to defend the accused killer. 
A fair number of people were coming to Springfield to take the measure of Abraham Lincoln. His seven debates with incumbent senator Stephen Douglas the previous fall had gained him a national reputation, and the bigwigs were predicting he was going to make a run for the presidency in 1860. There was great interest in the man, and all the regional newspapers were covering the trial, including the Chicago Press and Tribune. The country had been introduced to him, thus far liked what it saw, and his conduct during the murder trial might help determine if this early flirtation would turn into a serious courtship. 
Hitt already knew the cut of the man. Although he dismissed it humbly when offered credit, it was his fine work that had helped bring Lincoln into prominence. As a student at the Rock River Seminary and DePauw University, Bob Hitt had taken a keen interest in phonography, the skill of rapidly converting spoken words to print, and became quite an expert at this form of shorthand. It was a well-paying trade, and he opened his own office in Chicago in 1856, working regularly for the state legislature, the courts and on occasion newspapers, which were rapidly adopting this new form of journalism. 
He had first met Abe Lincoln in ’57, when he had been hired by the Chicago Daily Press to cover the Effie Afton trial, a landmark case that was to determine the balance between traditional river navigation rights and the construction of railroad bridges over a waterway. During that trial Lincoln had taken a liking to the energetic young reporter. 
The great stir created when Lincoln and Douglas announced they would debate the complex moral, legal and economic economic issues of slavery and state’s rights throughout Illinois caused Press and Tribune co-owner and managing editor Joseph Medill to hire Hitt to bring a word-for-word account of the debates to his readers. Hitt’s transcriptions caused quite a stir. As newsman Horace White recalled, “Verbatim reporting was a new feature in the journalism in Chicago, and Mr. Hitt was the pioneer thereof. The publication of Senator Douglas’ opening speech in that campaign, delivered on the evening of July 9, by the Tribune the next morning, was a feat hitherto unexampled in the West.” Hitt’s transcriptions were sent by telegraph to newspapers throughout the entire country, including Horace Greeley’s important New York Tribune, and in several weeks transformed a little-known Illinois lawyer into a widely admired political figure. 
Lincoln was so taken with these transcripts that he requested two copies from the Press and Tribune’s co-owner Charles H. Ray, offering to pay “for the papers and for your trouble. I wish the two sets, in order to lay one away in the raw, and to put the other in a Scrap-book.” That “Scrap-book,” as he referred to it, was eventually published and sold more than thirty thousand copies, which added to his luster. 
Lincoln spoke plainly and forcefully, the power of his words defining his character for many thousands of Americans; but he also was shrewd enough to appreciate Hitt’s value to his ambitions. So much so that at the second debate, in Freeport, Lincoln was dismayed when Hitt was not present onstage and refused to begin until the steno man could be lifted out of the throng and seated on the platform, his papers on his lap. The two men, the tall, angular Lincoln and the small and slender Hitt, had become good friends, and were brought together again at this murder trial. 
Lincoln had already agreed to defend Harrison when Hitt was 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, Quinn Harrison, and the victim, Greek Crafton, 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. Hitt also was permitted to provide copies of his transcript to newspapers. If that recording might also prove beneficial in spreading Lincoln’s reputation, well, certainly none of his admirers would find that objectionable. 
Hitt was quite pleased to accept this opportunity. In addition to his substantial fees, the attention given to the trial would also boost his own growing reputation as a pioneer in the field. Trial transcriptions were still extremely rare. There existed no devices to assist the reporter, meaning every word had to be captured by hand, an extraordinarily time-consuming and difficult process. Especially in a courtroom where complicated legal terms and phrases were proudly bandied about. And, in most instances, there didn’t seem to be much need for every word to be written down. Judges didn’t rely on transcripts to make their decisions. Summaries of the proceedings had long been sufficient. And when necessary lawyers were expected to be truthful in their memories. 
Like most early practitioners of this profession, Hitt had developed his own system. Although relying mostly on the phonemic orthography method introduced in 1837 by the Englishman Sir Isaac Pitman, in which symbols represented sounds that could later be transformed into words, he had added those flourishes necessary for American English. He usually made his own transcriptions from those notes, but when pressed for time his assistant, a French Canadian named Laramie, would assist him with them. 
In addition to a change of clothing, Hitt carried in his carpetbag the necessary tools of his trade: several of the new Esterbrook pens with long-lasting steel nibs, a supply of ink and a sufficient number of loose sheets of machine-produced paper. 
While the potential benefits to Lincoln’s political future that could be gained by providing an exact transcript to the Chicago newspapers—and beyond—were obvious, there also was an element of risk: Lincoln’s reputation was relatively untarnished; he had won the popular vote in the Senate election of ’58, but at that time senators were appointed by state legislatures, and the Democratic majority in the Illinois legislature had awarded the seat to the Democrat Douglas. Should he lose the trial, should he even make a major misstep, should Peachy Harrison be convicted of murder, the spotlight now focused so brightly on him might be dimmed. 
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.

You may also want to check out an interview with the author
on Arts and Entertainment By Rachel Bozek...

Little-Known Last Murder Trial

This extraordinary book, based upon a recently found transcript by Robert Roberts Hitt, is a pleasure to read...There are so many pieces to absorb beside the actual last trial by Lincoln. The time itself was in the midst of now being able to make available full transcripts of trials, speeches, and more. Robert Hitt was one of the earliest individuals who we normally called stenographers; i.e., there was no machine involved, it was one individual taking down what each individual said and then presenting a full documentation of what had occurred. 

Yes, I was one of those stenographers at one time early in my life; but it was as part of full secretarial duties, so I can't imagine taking notes hour after hour, within a trial environment.  I found myself, since Mr. Hitt, serves as the book's narrator, paying attention to what he was going through... speaking of his fingers cramping but unable to stop  writing...running out of ink and missing a few words which he would try to fill in later...  And just imagine that he had become a personal friend to Abe Lincoln and had a personal desire to ensure his work for him was the best it could possibly be...

The second point of interest was that laws were being written as a result of crimes being committed and trials taking place. It seemed a bit haphazard; on the other hand, the men who were lawyers at that time, loved the law and were personally dedicated to improving the processes as they handled each case. In order to move justice forward, lawyers would take turns acting on behalf of the defendant, as the prosecutor, and even the judge. Men like Abraham Lincoln had gained their reputation through their won cases and trust in the individual proved to be a deciding factor on which lawyer someone would select.

A perfect illustration of this was being asked to handle the case for Quinn Harrison, by his grandfather, who within the political area. Lincoln and he were mostly enemies... Yet, Lincoln was requested and he accepted, even though he was already in the midst of, having decided to run, working to promote his candidacy as president of the United States.

What was most refreshing, however, was the atmosphere of the setting of a trial. First, this was a highly controversial murder in a small town where the two men involved had family and friends. Everybody had already taken sides as to who was guilty... Indeed, at that time, entire communities would come to watch legal cases, using it as a high form of entertainment, even beyond their possible personal interest. While basic structure was maintained, still one lawyer or another felt free to stand, interrupt, and propose a thought, without anybody objecting. Then, too, most of the lawyers knew and liked each other and rarely would treat the other without complete respect. 

All in all I enjoyed the historical perspective of the whole book, well beyond the murder case itself...The research beyond the found transcript certainly increased the awareness of the time period as well as the people involved.

For me, the murder case was cut and dry...There was no doubt in my mind that the defendant was not guilty--perhaps I've read too many novels by Kenneth G. Eade who gives us thrills and suspense! Kinda kidding, but, truly, there was such a difference...everything straight forward, nothing but the law being reviewed, applied and acted upon to pull together the facts that ultimately allowed a clear decision to be made... Or was it?

Because the closing argument by Lincoln was "one of those speeches" he was known for and held all within the building spellbound... Just as I was for the entire book! For legal fiction fans...This is a Must-Read. For Historical non- and fiction fans...This is a Must-Read. And let's face it, just for the value of learning about our great president's last murder case... Well, I recommend it as a Must-Read...for Everybody!

Abe Lincoln had the knack for making his complete preparation look casual, from the choice of his words to the cut of his cloth. He dressed to satisfy the jury. To his closing argument in a high-profile libel case argued in Vermillion County, where he was not well-known, he had worn a fine broadcloth suit, a silk choker and thoroughly polished boots. But here in Springfield the people knew him well and would not be impressed by any highfalutin silk ties. So he wore his almost-threadbare black frock coat, a vest, an old-fashioned stock tie and handmade suspenders, and shapeless brown trousers. His boots were dull from use, although they had been soaped clean. He was a Sangamon man. 
He walked to the jury box and took in all twelve of them with a glance. He wished them “afternoon,” and said hello to those five or six men he knew by first name. He was following the first rule of good criminal lawyering, Hitt realized; he was building a relationship with the jury. He was just Abe, their neighbor, the man who shared their values and their lives, standing here hopin’ they could solve this sticky problem together. 
Years earlier, Hitt knew, Lincoln had given practical advice about talking to a jury to a young man he was mentoring, it might have even been Broadwell, and that advice had been passed along and passed along until he had heard it. “Talk to the jury as though your client’s fate depends on every word you utter. Forget that you have any one to fall back upon, and you will do justice to yourself and your client.” He spoke to the jury in a soft voice, often dropping the final g of a word, and yet it did not come across to Hitt as an affectation or a ploy; rather a tone the State Journal would describe as “earnest, natural and energetic.” And it was natural to him; like the clothes he wore; he spoke the language of the jurors...


Dan Abrams is the Chief Legal A​nalyst​ for ABC News and the host of "Live PD" on A/E Network. He was previously the co-anchor of ABC's Nightline, host of “The Abrams Report” and the acclaimed “Verdict with Dan Abrams” on MSNBC, as well as the long time Chief Legal Correspondent for NBC News. His co-author is David Fisher.

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