Who’s the most famous lawyer-author of all time? Nope, not John Grisham.
Here are some hints:
- Last week was his birthday.
- He grew up in a log cabin.
- He wore a tall top hat.
- And, oh yeah, he helped free the slaves.
Surprised? We were, too.
But in April, 1846—or eight-score-and-ten years ago—then-lawyer Abraham Lincoln published a short crime story in a Quincy, Illinois, newspaper. The tale, published under the awkward title of “Remarkable Case of Arrest for Murder,” found its way over a hundred years later into Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine as “The Trailor Murder Mystery.”
Our sixteenth president was—according to various accounts—a “great admirer” of Edgar Allan Poe and wrote the story “based on a peculiar murder/disappearance case he defended, and which is detailed in several biographies.”
Constrained by the cumbersome narrative style of the time, Lincoln’s dramatized version of his case was stilted. Still, as connoisseurs of opening lines, we were impressed with Lincoln’s first attempt:
“In the year 1841, there resided, at different points in the State of Illinois, three brothers by the name of Trailor.”
That set the stage for a story about the Trailor brothers who came together for a road trip with a fourth man—a wealthy fellow—named Archibald Fisher.
And there, the intrigue begins. During their travels, Fisher disappears. Authorities soon set their sights on the brothers. While interrogated, one Trailor confesses that the other two killed Fisher and “made a temporary concealment of his body” until moving the corpse to a permanent grave. The problem: no one can find Fisher’s body.
In his The Best American Mystery Stories of the Nineteenth Century, Otto Penzler—one of the world’s foremost authorities on crime, mystery, and suspense fiction—explained that “n the mid-1800s it was a common practice for lawyers to use their own cases as the basis for lurid ‘true crime’ fiction, embellishing where needed to bring excitement to a case and, not coincidentally, enhance the perception of them as brilliant lawyers and clever detectives.”
Penzler also noted that Lincoln’s story was “included in this collection as a curiosity, not as an example of compelling storytelling or distinguished literary style.” Indeed, Honest Abe’s Goodreads page—yes, there’s a Goodreads page—gives the story three stars.
Yet, while it’s no Grisham-type page-turner, the tale does have an intriguing premise and raises questions about the limits of our justice system, particularly when a community is out for blood. Everything points to the guilt of the Trailor brothers. There’s eyewitness testimony, physical evidence, a financial motive, and even a conspiracy-theory angle for those so inclined. But all is not what it seems.
The Gettysburg Address it isn’t, but in honor of President’s Day, it makes for a fun read. The full story is here.
Anthony Franze is a lawyer in the Appellate & Supreme Court practice of a prominent Washington, D.C., law firm and a critically acclaimed thriller writer whose novels are set in the Supreme Court, including The Advocate's Daughter, and next month’s highly anticipated The Outsider, a book James Patterson called “as authentic and suspenseful as any John Grisham novel.”
Barry Lancet is the author of the international suspense series featuring Jim Brodie. The latest entry, Pacific Burn (Simon & Schuster), is out in paperback this month. The first book in the series, Japantown, won the Barry Award for “Best First Novel,” and the second, Tokyo Kill, was a finalist for a Shamus Award for “Best P.I. Novel of the Year.” Lancet divides his time between Japan and the United States.