A study of a murder trial with potential implications for the political career of our 16th president.
Abraham Lincoln was involved in thousands of cases in his distinguished legal career, few more intriguing than the 1859 murder trial of “Peachy” Quinn Harrison. ABC News chief legal affairs anchor Abrams (Man Down: Proof Beyond a Reasonable Doubt That Women Are Better Cops, Drivers, Gamblers, Spies, World Leaders, Beer Tasters, Hedge Fund Managers, and Just About Everything Else, 2011) and prolific author Fisher (co-author, with Richard Garriott: Explore/Create, 2017, etc.) assert that Lincoln’s successful defense of Harrison served as a springboard to the 1860 Republican presidential nomination. In July 1859, Greek Crafton physically attacked Harrison in a drugstore; Harrison responded by stabbing Crafton with a knife, mortally wounding him. A grand jury indicted Harrison for murder, prompting his father to hire Lincoln and Stephen Logan, Lincoln’s former law partner, as defense attorneys. What unfolded was a dramatic trial, a complete transcript of which was kept by stenographer and future congressman Robert R. Hitt. Harrison’s acquittal was largely due to the judge’s decision to allow Peter Cartwright—Harrison’s grandfather and loser of an 1846 congressional election to Lincoln—to testify that Crafton had given a deathbed absolution of Harrison. Lincoln’s dramatic closing argument before the jury may have also played a role. Abrams and Fisher adeptly place the Harrison trial within the context of Lincoln’s legal career and his well-known skills before a jury, but they fail to support their argument that the case “propelled” Lincoln to the presidency. The case had nothing to do with slavery, the dominant issue of the 1860 presidential campaign and election. Moreover, there are several examples of inaccurate dates—e.g., the Comstock silver lode was made public in 1859 but possibly discovered a year or two earlier—and the authors admit that at times, “we had to deduce what was said [by Lincoln and others and]…suggest appropriate thoughts and/or mannerisms.”
The story of Lincoln and the Harrison murder trial is intriguing but not necessarily significant enough to merit its own book.