How History Influenced My Mystery: The Murder of Elijah Lovejoy

Read Jonathan F. Putnam's exclusive guest post about Elijah Lovejoy, the anti-slavery martyr that inspired his latest Lincoln & Speed historical mystery, and make sure to sign in and comment below for a chance to win Perish from the Earth!

My new historical mystery, Perish from the Earth, is being published by Crooked Lane Books in July. Perish is the second book in my Lincoln & Speed Mystery series, which features the young Abraham Lincoln and his real-life best friend Joshua Speed as a kind of Holmes and Watson on the American frontier. The series is set in the late 1830s when Lincoln (not yet married to Mary Todd) and Speed shared a room—and, indeed, a bed—in Springfield, Illinois, where Lincoln was a newly admitted member of the bar, while Speed ran a general store.

My debut novel, These Honored Dead (2016), is set largely in Springfield. I knew that for my second book, I wanted to take Lincoln and Speed on the road. As it happens, in his real-life legal practice, Lincoln often “rode the circuit.” Since many towns in Illinois were too small at the time to have their own lawyers—to say nothing of a judge or courthouse—twice a year, a group consisting of Lincoln, other lawyers from Springfield, and a judge would set off together in a large horse-drawn carriage. They would spend a month riding from town to town, trying cases and resolving disputes at each stop along the way. 

So in planning the novel that would become Perish, I started looking into murder mysteries Lincoln could have encountered as he rode the circuit around Illinois. And I stumbled upon a spectacular real-life murder, indeed: one of the most infamous and consequential murders of the 19th century, although it is little remembered today.

Elijah Lovejoy

Elijah Lovejoy was born in Maine in 1802, the oldest son of a preacher. Lovejoy intended to follow his father’s footsteps, studied theology at Princeton, and became an ordained minister. But Lovejoy became outraged by the plight of enslaved African-Americans at a time when the abolitionist movement was just beginning to flower in the United States, and he decided that his calling was to oppose slavery with every ounce of his energy.

Lovejoy moved to Missouri, a slave state, and established a newspaper in St. Louis—one of the largest cities in the West and the crucial shipping hub on the Mississippi River. Lovejoy filled his newspaper with articles about the evils of slavery and fierce anti-slavery editorials. He soon became the most reviled man in the city. On one occasion, a mob broke into his newspaper office, tore apart his printing press, and threw the press into the river.

Eventually, Lovejoy decided he and his young family were no longer safe in St. Louis, and he moved across the river to Alton, Illinois. Slavery was outlawed in Illinois, but the state was nonetheless virulently racist and strongly pro-slavery. In early 1837, the Illinois legislature voted 77-6 in favor of a resolution supporting slavery. (Lincoln, a member of the state legislature at the time, had been one of the six legislators to vote against the resolution.) 

Lovejoy resumed publication of his newspaper in Alton, again featuring his anti-slavery articles and editorials. He quickly proved no more popular there than he had been in St. Louis. Twice more his press was broken up by vigilantes and thrown into the river. When Lovejoy remained undeterred, the town fathers called a public meeting. Lovejoy courageously stood and spoke at length in his own defense, a speech that is one of the great expressions of the freedom of the press in American history. Unmoved, the town leaders voted unanimously to require him to either cease publication or leave town.

But when Lovejoy still refused to leave, a mob again formed up and attacked. Lovejoy had just landed a new printing press (his fourth!) in Alton and hidden it in a warehouse along the river owned by a sympathetic businessman. On the night of November 7, 1837, a mob of more than one hundred men—many of them armed—attacked the warehouse to seize Lovejoy’s new press. Lovejoy and his allies were greatly outnumbered and outgunned, and in the ensuing battle, Lovejoy was shot five times in the chest and died instantly. For good measure, the mob proceeded to break apart the new press, hurl it into the river piece by piece, and burn the warehouse to the ground. Though there was general agreement that several prominent doctors in town had fired the fatal shots, no one was ever convicted of Lovejoy’s murder.

Wood Engraving, By Unknown –, Public Domain

Lovejoy’s shocking murder made headlines from coast to coast, and he quickly became a great martyr of the abolitionist cause. Former President John Quincy Adams called the tragedy of Mr. Lovejoy’s death “a shock as of an earthquake [felt] throughout this continent.” Over a century later, Senator Paul Simon, in his biography of Lovejoy, called the abolitionist’s murder “one of the two greatest boosts the antislavery movement had from the day of independence to the outbreak of the Civil War,” the other being publication of Uncle Tom’s Cabin by Harriet Beecher Stowe in 1852.

As I dug into this history, I immediately realized I’d found the setting and pivotal event of my new Lincoln and Speed historical mystery. Lovejoy’s murder happened precisely during the period when my series is set, and Lincoln was very familiar with the murder and referred to it in his own anti-slavery speeches. Lincoln later became close confidants with Owen Lovejoy, Elijah’s younger brother, who witnessed Elijah’s death and took up his abolitionist crusade, later becoming a prominent politician in Lincoln’s Illinois Whig party. 

In addition, Lincoln often visited Alton while riding the circuit. In fact, when I went to Alton myself as part of my historical research for Perish, I discovered the actual two-story brick building, perched on a hillside overlooking the Mississippi, in which Lincoln tried cases when he came to Alton. In Lincoln’s time, it was the shipping office of Captain Ryder, who loaned his building to the judge for use as a courtroom whenever the circuit came to town. Today, it’s a popular lunch spot called “My Just Desserts.” If you’re ever in the neighborhood, stop in. I recommend the All-Star Sandwich.

Inspired by the history I discovered, I wrote Perish from the Earth. Lincoln takes on a mysterious murder case and is soon faced with a fateful choice on which the future of the nation may hang—if his own client doesn’t hang first. Elijah and Owen Lovejoy are important characters in Perish, and they end up both giving and withholding critical clues from Lincoln and Speed. Elijah Lovejoy’s real-life fate turns Lincoln’s legal case on its head.

Can Lincoln see his way through to solving the mystery and winning his case? You’ll have to read the book to find out. 

Read an excerpt from Perish from the Earth!

Comment below for a chance to win a copy of Perish from the Earth by Jonathan F. Putnam!

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Jonathan Putnam is a writer and attorney. A graduate of Harvard College and Harvard Law School, he is a nationally renowned trial lawyer and an avid amateur Lincoln scholar. His second Lincoln & Speed Mystery, Perish from the Earth, will be published in July. The first book in the Lincoln & Speed series is the critically acclaimed These Honored Dead. Find out more at


  1. Patricia Pinkston

    Would love to read Perish from the Earth. Having grown up in East St. Louis, IL, Elijah Lovejoy was, and still is, a local hero. Thanks for the opportunity to win this book.

  2. Pat Murphy

    Would love to win a copy. I am an avid mystery fan and enjoy the historical mystery genre.

  3. John Smith

    I love the period Lincoln thing! Maybe going steampunk could make it even better!

  4. Pearl Berger

    This historical mystery sounds intriguing. Thanks.

  5. Terry Pearson

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  6. Vernon Luckert

    Really love good historical fiction books.

  7. pearl berger

    Perish sounds unforgettable and meorable. Many thanks.

  8. pat murphy

    This work sounds interesting .

  9. Jeffrey Tretin

    Sounds great!

  10. ellie lewis

    Fascinating historical.

  11. Clydia DeFreese

    Sounds like a good read. Thanks for offering such an unusual mystery for us.

  12. Karl Stenger

    I would love to read the book.

  13. bill norris

    the story sounds great

  14. Marybeth Mank

    I’ve been a fan of history since I was in 5th grade (a really really long time ago!) and I have always admired President Lincoln. This sounds like it would be a really great book to read. Thank you!

  15. Janice

    Sounds like a very interesting book to read. Would love to win.

  16. Diane Chenier

    Love historical mysteries – sounds like a great read.

  17. teresa sopher

    I’m sure I’ll enjoy book two as much as book one

  18. Patricia Nicklas

    I’ve added the Lincoln & Speed Mystery series to my to-read list. Thanks for the review

  19. Peter W. Horton Jr.

    I need this book! Yes!

  20. Karen Terry

    Sounds like a great read.

  21. Marisa Young

    Love to read historicals and this one sounds intriguing.

  22. Carl

    I’m totally intrigued by this post, I wish I knew more about historical events like this one. Thanks for the chance to win this book, it sounds wonderful.

  23. Susan B

    My two favorite genres…history and mystery!

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    This sounds good!
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    Thanks —

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  26. Darlene Slocum

    I enjoy reading historical novels.

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    I started reading novels based on historical event while I was in high school. This one sounds like it’s right up my alley.

  28. Carole Knoles

    What could be grander than a mystery imagined starring one of our most beloved Presidents.

  29. Laurent Latulippe

    I love a historical fiction.

  30. Daniel Morrell

    sounds interesting

  31. Desmond Warzel

    Count me in, please!

  32. Jamie Whitten McCauley

    I would love to win a copy for my little free library 🙂

  33. Meredith Miller

    I like that he used Lincoln as a murder investigator!

  34. Beth Talmage

    Oh, this sounds grand!

  35. samantha cox

    Would so love to read this.

  36. Crystal Blackburn

    I would love to read this book/series.

  37. Elaine Roberson

    Sounds like a series that I would like. Thanks for a chance to win a copy.

  38. Saundra K. Warren

    Sounds like an awesome book!

  39. jackie morris

    love history!! and a mystery !! thanks for the chance to win!

  40. jackie morris

    love history!! and a mystery !! thanks for the chance to win!

  41. Susan Nygren

    Would love to win this book

  42. Anita Yancey

    I enjoy reading historical mysteries, and this one sounds really good. Thanks for this chance.

  43. Kyle Johnicker

    Grounding books in history is one of my favorite literary devices! A great way to tell a story.


    Another WINNER> I want this!!!

  45. vicki wurgler

    this book about Mr lincoln sounds interesting

  46. Karen Salyer

    Historical mysteries are my favorite genre. Looking forward to this series.

  47. Karen Salyer

    Historical mysteries are my favorite genre. Looking forward to this series.

  48. Angie Stormer

    I hope to win but even if I do not Perish From The Earth is going on my list of must-read books

  49. Polly Barlow

    I do not believe I ever heard of Elijah Lovejoy. “Perish from the Earth” sounds like a very intriguing read.

  50. Patrick Murphy

    This sounds very interesting

  51. Portia Asher

    A book I would love ..

  52. Theresa

    Historical fiction mysteries are one of my favorite genres to read!
    thanks for the giveaway!

  53. Merrilee Gibson

    I just finished reading Perish from the Earth (I got it through NetGalley–thank you!) and posted a review on my blog and on Amazon. I was so impressed with the authenticity of the story–the author’s knowledge was evident! Very thought-provoking–I knew little of this period of history and learned a lot even as I was enjoying the story. Thank you very much!

  54. Jean Mitchell

    Having lived for 40 years in Quincy IL, an underground slavery town, and growing up on the other side of the state in Lincoln territory, and as a lover of history and mystery, this sounds like it is going to be a good read – as long as it remains true to the real people involved.

  55. Jean Mitchell

    Having lived for 40 years in Quincy IL, an underground slavery town, and growing up on the other side of the state in Lincoln territory, and as a lover of history and mystery, this sounds like it is going to be a good read – as long as it remains true to the real people involved.

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