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An Abe story with legs longer than his: 'Abe in Lincoln church' question revisited

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To the editor:

In February I wrote an article saying the "Abe in Lincoln church" question had been 99 percent answered. The recent discovery of forgotten "old news" now indicates the unanswered portion of the question should be at least a little greater than 1 percent. My February article explained that Lincoln scholars James T. Hickey and John A. Duff had presented strong evidence that Abraham Lincoln had not practiced law in the building that soon after became the Lincoln Christian Church. The 1857 fall term of the circuit court was held in the pre-church building because the Logan County Courthouse was being rebuilt after a fire had destroyed it in April of that year. The spring 1858 court term might also have been held there.

As explained below, the discovered "old news" is a short passage in an article in the Lincoln Evening Courier of July 21, 1941, about the dedication of the bronze plaque placed on the front of the 1904 Lincoln Christian Church to commemorate its belief that Mr. Lincoln had practiced law in the 1857 pre-church building. The discovery of this article was made by Bill Donath, president of and researcher at the Logan County Genealogical & Historical Society in Lincoln, after he read my February article. Neither church officials nor I had seen the 1941 article in 2007 when I pointed out a lack of primary source evidence for the "Abe in church" claim. In 2007, church members then began looking for primary source evidence as well as the fabled, lost plaque. I have published the entire 1941 Courier article on my community history Web site of Lincoln (link below).

In 2007 church officials did not know when the plaque's dedication was made, but they did know that the Rev. Earl C. Hargrove and Judge Lawrence B. Stringer had participated in the dedication ceremony. I then determined the time frame of the dedication to be between 1937, when Hargrove became minister of the Lincoln Christian Church, and 1942, the year Stringer died. I did not believe any newspaper article about the dedication would be significant because, like the plaque, it would be only a secondary source and thus not definitive. Consequently, I did not go looking for that article. As it turns out, I should have because the Courier article contains the full text of Stringer's dedication speech, and that speech refers to an obscure primary source.

That primary source is the reminiscence of Dr. J.H. Beidler, a native of Pennsylvania, who became a citizen of Lincoln in 1857. In the middle 1880s, Beidler wrote of his early experiences, and they were published in the Lincoln Herald. One of Beidler's recollections is his account of a session of the 1857 fall court term when it was held in the pre-church building. Stringer quotes Beidler's recollection:

I saw Lincoln for the first time in the village of Lincoln in Logan County. The Logan County court house had been destroyed by fire and court was held at the time in the Christian Church. As I entered the court room, I discovered that Judge Davis was not occupying the bench but that another man and one I had never seen was dispensing justice. His rulings were so rapid and his language was so pertinent that I felt he must be a legal gentleman of eminence. I inquired who he was and was informed that he was Abe Lincoln of Springfield.

Stringer's 1911 "History of Logan County" makes several references to J.H. Beidler, M.D., and includes a brief biographical sketch of him but does not refer to Beidler's story of having seen Abe in 1857 on the bench in the pre-church building.

Historians have described situations where Davis asked Lincoln to substitute for him as judge. Willard L. King, Davis's biographer, wrote that "in emergencies, Lincoln and certain other lawyers sometimes presided in Judge Davis's place. Of course, a mere member of the bar could not sit in any case if the lawyer for either side objected" ("Lincoln's Manager: David Davis," p. 95).

Historians understand that reminiscence is sometimes unreliable, but Beidler's testimony is significant for two reasons. First, it explains why Stringer would have been inclined to believe that the judge's instructions in the 1857 Dalby case had been written by Lincoln (John A. Duff pointed out these instructions were in the handwriting of Judge David Davis.) Second, Beidler's story raises the question of whether some other court document in Lincoln's hand from the 1857 fall court term or such other relevant contemporary evidence as a letter or newspaper report might yet be found.

The Lincoln Log says that by Sept. 26, 1857, Mr. Lincoln had returned to Springfield from Chicago after the Effie Afton case concluded in his firm's favor. The 1857 circuit court in Lincoln was in session throughout the following week till Friday, Oct. 2, when Mr. Lincoln could have traveled to his namesake town and back the same day, and he would have reason to do so because his firm then had cases before that court. (Willard King even cites an example of a case in Sangamon County when Lincoln substituted for Davis and Lincoln's partner, Herndon, represented one of the parties [p. 95]. King wrote that typically Lincoln substituted for Davis only a day at a time or part of a day.)

[to top of second column in this letter]

Beginning decades ago, various scholars have combed through county seat court records looking for documents written and signed by Lincoln. According to the online site titled The Law Practice of Abraham Lincoln, a full search of court cases in Logan County has been conducted to locate Lincoln-related documents: "Researchers examined all available county records pertinent to Lincoln's practice, 1836-1861. Typically this involved a page-by-page examination of all county circuit court dockets, record books, and case files. Researchers located Lincoln-era county records at two locations. Due to an April 15, 1857 (Logan County) courthouse fire, all county records prior to that date were destroyed. Researchers located all post-fire court record books, judge's dockets, judgment dockets, execution dockets, and fee books at the courthouse in Lincoln. Researchers located the case files at the Illinois Regional Archives Depository at Illinois State University in Bloomington."

These searches notwithstanding, I wondered whether a document written by Lincoln as a substitute judge might exist for the 1857 fall term. King explains: "The occasions on which Lincoln presided for Davis are hard to find since the participating lawyers agreed that the clerk's official record should show Judge Davis as sitting throughout, and only Lincoln's handwriting on the Judge's personal docket reveal the substitution" (p. 95).

I therefore e-mailed Dr. Daniel W. Stowell, director and editor of The Papers of Abraham Lincoln, about this matter, and he replied by e-mail on Feb. 25, 2010: "The staff of the Lincoln Legal Papers who searched the surviving (post April-1857) records would have been looking for any Lincoln handwriting and would have had the expertise to identify it. I am fairly confident that there is no Lincoln handwriting from the fall 1857 term in surviving documents. If he served as judge, his handwriting would have been on the judge's docket. The judge's docket for that term exists, and we have examined it."

Officials of the Illinois State Historical Society may or may not consider Beidler's reminiscence strong enough evidence for them to endorse an historical marker at the 1857 church site. In my view, the quality of Dr. Beidler's reminiscence remains uncertain. First, there is the question of how reliable Beidler's nearly 30-year memory was: No known primary source, such as a court document, newspaper report or letter corroborates his story. Second, there is the question of how reliable the informer was who told Beidler the man on the bench was Abe. Yet the possibility of finding a primary source supporting Beidler's story remains, as does the possibility that primary source evidence may yet be identified that discredits him. And a primary source may yet be found to show that Abe was at the bar in the 1857 pre-church building or that the 1858 spring term of the court was held in that building when Lincoln is known to have attended that session. In my view, those possibilities are remote, but perhaps the rest of the story is yet to be written.

Previously, in researching the Lincoln heritage of his first namesake city for a book I am writing on that subject, I had discovered that Jacob Hoke Beidler (1829-1904), M.D., was a pioneer organizer of teacher institutes in Logan County, inventor and published poet, who had written several poems eulogizing Lincoln in the sentimental tradition of the Fireside Poets of the 19th century. Stringer says a copy of Beidler's "Poems" was placed beneath the cornerstone of the present-day Logan County Courthouse when it was laid in 1903. Beidler's "Poems" includes a mysterious picture of Mr. Lincoln that I am researching. Attached is a photo of an aged Beidler that appears in his 1903 "Poems."

Darold Leigh Henson, Ph.D.
Professor Emeritus of English, Missouri State University, Springfield, Mo.
http://english.missouristate.edu/faculty/henson.html http://www.facebook.com/leigh.henson
Developer of The Pulse of Lincoln and Logan County, IL (an online public affairs forum):
http://www.facebook.com/
group.php?gid=164502030271

___

References

"Honor Lincoln with Tablet Dedication," Lincoln Evening Courier, July 21, 1941: link at http://findinglincolnillinois.com/
#1941courierarticle
(PDF). (At the end of this PDF, I present the mysterious picture of Abe from Beidler's 1903 "Poems" and tell of my research on that picture.)

"Lincoln historian delves into answering the long-standing 'Abe in church' question," Lincoln Daily News, Feb. 12, 2010, http://archives.lincolndailynews.com/
2010/Feb/12/News/today021210_a.shtml
.  The original version of this article, titled "The Question of Whether Abe Practiced Law in the Lincoln Christian Church 99% Answered," with complete source citations is available at http://findinglincolnillinois.com/
#abeprobablynotinlincolnchurch
.

Lawrence B. Stringer biography and photos:
http://findinglincolnillinois.com/historians.html#lbs.

The Law Practice of Abraham Lincoln:
http://www.papersofabrahamlincoln.org/
narrative_overview.htm
.

The Papers of Abraham Lincoln:
http://www.papersofabrahamlincoln.org/.

[Posted March 05, 2010]

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