Sunday, May 27, 2018

Lincoln's Last Trial: The Murder Case That Propelled Him to the Presidency

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I received a a free ARC from the publisher via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.

Rating: 5 Stars

I went into this one not quite sure what to expect. I mean, Dan Abrams is kind of dramatic. At least, he is on Live PD. I have seen a couple episodes randomly and it is not boring, that's for sure.

Despite my own personal goal of reading books about all the presidents besides Lincoln/Washington/Kennedy, I could not pass this one up. I have read so many books about Lincoln (hence the goal that I set for myself last year), but as our 16th president. I've read very little about his life before DC, before the Civil War, before he became the Great Emancipator. This book seemed perfect to remedy that, and though the title is a little misleading (this was not his last trial, though it was certainly the last of his major trials. And while it may not have 'propelled' him to the presidency, it surely could have hurt his chances had he lost the case). In in the end though, it was exactly what I wanted. In fact, in looking back over my notes on Goodreads, I discovered that I did not actually take any notes. This is both good and bad. It bodes well for the book usually, meaning that I was so into the book that I could not bother to stop to take notes. On the other hand, it becomes tricky when time comes to write the review, and I have ti flip back and forth through the book itself for exact quotes and anecdotes. Ah well, such is the life of a book dragon.

To say that Lincoln has had the most books dedicated to his life is not any stretch, by far. I saw some stats recently on this very subject and wish I could find the article again to share here. Something like over 100,000 books about him. Washington was in second place with around 80k and Kennedy around 60k. Again, see the need for my presidential reading goal? Yep, I am part of the problem. EDIT: After doing A LOT more searching into this, I discovered that these numbers are hugely inflated, as they were counting EVERYTHING written about him, not just actual books. The more accurate estimates are as follows - Lincoln = 16,000, Washington = 900, and Kennedy = 40,000. As you can see, other information I have located appears to say that far more books have been written about Kennedy than Lincoln.

Anyway. Given the fact that there are SO MANY books about Lincoln, it is hard to find a fresh angle to approach his life story. And do we really need a fresh angle? Haven't we possibly said all there is to say? Well, in general I suppose that answer is a resounding yes. Unless long-lost diaries and documents are discovered, I think it is safe to say that Lincoln's life has been well-covered.

Specific incidents in his life though, that is another story entirely. It is THIS story, in fact. A high-profile case that became his final murder trial before moving on to run for the highest office in the land. Instead of the story coming to us from Lincoln's perspective, we are given the facts from Robert Hitt, a stenographer whom Lincoln had met while debating Douglas, and who was on-hand to record the trial. Hitt had been hired by the Illinois State Journal to transcribe the case for the paper's readers and thank goodness for that, because what a wealth of information they provide. This was not a common practice in the 1850s, unlike today where this is not even given  second thought, because OF COURSE there will be court transcripts. Several pieces of the transcripts were used and I found it utterly fascinating - and to think, these documents had been lost until their discovery in 1989. We are "seeing Lincoln in action" so to speak, in a way so different from his words we have from his presidency. It is like another door has opened into his life and we are getting a new glimpse of him. An unfortunate side note to consider though - throughout the book Lincoln's ability to deliver a closing argument is referred to more than once. Yet you will not find those words transcribed, which was a disappointment. Closing arguments were not considered part of the trial testimony and thus, they are lost to us.

The book is fairly straight-forward, following the events from the feud between the victim and the defendant up to the end of the trial and Lincoln's victory. The lives of so many of the principal players were intricately entwined, as one would expect in a small town. The young man who died, Greek Crafton, had worked as a clerk in Lincoln's law office. Crafton's grandfather, Dixon Cartwright, makes several appearances - he and Lincoln were certainly not on the most friendly of terms, often butting heads in the political arena, though Cartwright was a preacher. The defendant was a young man named Quinn "Peachy" Harrison, who claimed to have stabbed Crafton in self defense. Lincoln knew Harrison well also, and was good friends with Harrison's father. I could not help but notice a parallel in this case to what Lincoln would deal with as our 16th president. Perhaps I am reading too much into it, or perhaps this is what Abrams intended, but hear me out. Springfield was a small town - around 10,000 at the time. Many people knew these young men and their families well. Lincoln had an unenviable role, his ultimate task was to try to bring closure to a painful episode for the community. Isn't that ultimately what he had to do during the Civil War? He had difficult decisions to make as our country tore itself apart, turning family members and friends against one another. The feud between the two men had been simmering for a while and ended in death for one of them. The raging debates over slavery had also been waged, simmering and eventually boiling over. I don't know, maybe I am looking too deeply, but that is the connection I made.

Despite my personal five star rating, the book is not without some flaws. There were certain aspects of the writing, such as conversations, thoughts, and feelings projected onto the men involved that we simply can't know for sure if they are accurate. There is a bit of conjecture, things Lincoln might have said based on what is known of his previous trials that would have been applicable here, and I am never a fan of that practice. However, so much of the book is based on Hitt's records, that it is a little bit easier to handle this conjecture than in other books that might be lacking contemporary sources and direct quotes. It is sometimes easy to get caught up in the narrative and forget, so just keep that in mind.

Overall, I enjoyed this book quite a bit. To see Lincoln the Lawyer instead of Lincoln the President was something I really liked. Lincoln clearly excelled in his profession and I wonder what his life, and our nation, would have been like had he remained a successful attorney and not sought the presidency. It is an interesting thought to ponder. A readable and engaging look into his life, highly recommended.

8 comments:

  1. A hundred THOUSAND books on Lincoln? Seriously? WOW! Can one person stand that amount of biography. They must know absolutely everything about him. Is that even possible? Not that I'm planning on reading anything about him but presumably there are 10-20 books considered to be *the* books to read on him?

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    1. Okay, so I have been doing some more research and found that the 100k+ number is a bit misleading, as it includes EVERYTHING, from pamphlets to books. I will go back into my post and edit those remarks. I did more digging and found that book-wise, there are about 16,000 books specifically. This article was pretty neat:

      https://www.npr.org/2012/02/20/147062501/forget-lincoln-logs-a-tower-of-books-to-honor-abe

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    2. AND I found sources saying that more books have actually been written about Kennedy. But I wonder if that is including books about the Kennedy family in general, or books specifically about JFK.

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    3. 16 thousand is still a LOT of pages! Agreed on the Kennedy stuff. There's so much around him as well as about him that the field is probably enormous - especially taking into account the assassination and all the theories about it.

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    4. Agreed on both accounts. I have seen some crazy documentaries about conspiracy theories related to how the Bush family is responsible for not only JFK's assassination, but also the death of JFK Jr. Not sure if they are still on Netflix, or if we even have access to all the same content, but it was wild. I also read a book within the last year about if Kennedy had lived, what his second term would have looked like, so there's that material too. Even now, I think we are so enthralled by the Kennedys because they were the only 'royalty' we've had (since George III of course).

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  2. I had no idea that there were so many books about him...that's amazing! The only one I've read is his vampire hunting...

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    1. I have done some more research and found those numbers to be inflated as they did not just include books, but basically anything written about him, down to short pamphlets. After looking around I found more accurate numbers that ONLY include actual books. And this interesting article from NPR:

      https://www.npr.org/2012/02/20/147062501/forget-lincoln-logs-a-tower-of-books-to-honor-abe

      Still, 16,000 is a lot of books too. And I thought my TBR was out of control - it's nothing compared to this, haha

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    2. Also, did you ever see the movie? It was so absurd, which I know was the intent. I wanted to read the book prior to the movie, but the movie put me off. Did you like the book?

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