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 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.
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.
Comment below for a chance to win a copy of Perish from the Earth by Jonathan F. Putnam!
To enter, make sure you're a registered member of the site and simply leave a comment below.
TIP: Since only comments from registered users will be tabulated, if your user name appears in red above your comment—STOP—go log in, then try commenting again. If your user name appears in black above your comment, You’re In!
Perish from the Earth Comment Sweepstakes: NO PURCHASE NECESSARY TO ENTER OR WIN. A purchase does not improve your chances of winning. Sweepstakes open to legal residents of 50 United States, D.C., and Canada (excluding Quebec), who are 18 years or older as of the date of entry. To enter, complete the “Post a Comment” entry at https://www.criminalelement.com/blogs/2017/06/how-history-influenced-my-mystery-the-murder-of-elijah-lovejoy-comment-sweepstakes beginning at 3:00 p.m. Eastern Time (ET) June 26, 2017. Sweepstakes ends 2:59 p.m. ET July 4, 2017. Void outside the United States and Canada and where prohibited by law. Please see full details and official rules here. Sponsor: Macmillan, 175 Fifth Ave., New York, NY 10010.
To learn more or order a copy, visit:
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 www.jonathanfputnam.com