Lincoln’s Last Trial
When I was about eleven, I fell in love with the story of Abraham Lincoln. We lived only a block from the town’s library. I checked out everything I could find on the 16th President of the United States. At the time, I desperately needed an honorable male role model in my life. My father didn’t fill the bill. I read everything I could find on Lincoln more than once. My excitement at the publication of this new book, Lincoln’s Last Trial, by Dan Abrams and David Fisher, is based on personal history.
Lincoln’s struggle with depression helped me understand my mother’s history of despondency.
Lincoln’s Last Trial is a Murder Mystery
Lincoln one of my favorite characters to read about. But I also love a good mystery. Add to that, the political implications of the trial and you have a realistic setting amid the political controversies today to create a perfect story.
Lincoln was considered one of the best lawyer in Illinois at the time.
Can you even imagine any lawyer today who would take on a controversial defendant in a murder trial if they were running for President?
They found the transcript of the trial in the basement of a house in Fresno, California in 1989. It was in a shoe box wrapped in a yellow ribbon. This is the only known copy to exist to this day. Who was the man who kept this historical evidence protected for so many years? The trial took place in 1859, so this is something a father entrusted to his son generation after generation. One mystery built on another!
The Accused Holds the Evidence
The man who saved it was the great-grandson of the actual defendant in the trial.
Can you even imagine? It wasn’t found in the National Archives or the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum in Springfield. No, they found this classic piece of American history in possession of the great-grandson of a man accused of murder back in 1859.
Background on writing Lincoln’s Last Trial
The only known transcript of any trial Lincoln ever argued was in an old box held together with a yellow bow in the man’s garage.
Stenography was a new tool first used in the Lincoln-Douglas debates. Lincoln realized how important records were to the field of law. He refused to begin the discussion until the transcriber arrived.
The Andrew Luck Book Club interviewed Dan Abrams. That interview provided these and more incredible insights into the production of the book, Lincoln’s Last Trial. Go here to listen to the entire interview.
Abrams shared an amusing side-story to the book: Someone complained that the authors took far too many liberties in writing the story.
Abrams admits that he recreated some private conversations and things the men were thinking at the time. He also states that everything about Lincoln at the time and the city of Springfield are entirely accurate.
The complainer talked about the fact that Lincoln supposedly purchased a bed bug remedy during the trial. Abrams laughingly explains that there are websites that accurately recorded things Lincoln did and the exact days they happened in history. He used that information to determine what Lincoln did during the days of the trial. Lincoln did purchase a bed bug remedy. (Even Presidents aren’t exempt from the everyday irritants we all experience.)
Lincoln’s Last Trial Overview
At the end of the summer of 1859, twenty-two-year-old Peachy Quinn Harrison went on trial for murder in Springfield, Illinois. Abraham Lincoln, who had been involved in more than three thousand cases—including more than twenty-five murder trials—during his two-decades-long career, was hired to defend him. The trial was to be his last great case as a lawyer.
What should have been a local case took on momentous importance. Lincoln’s debates with Senator Stephen Douglas the previous fall had gained him a national following, transforming the little-known, self-taught lawyer into a respected politician. He was being urged to make a dark-horse run for the presidency in 1860.
Taking this case involved significant risk. His reputation was untarnished, but should he lose this trial, should Harrison be convicted of murder, the spotlight now focused so brightly on him might be dimmed. He had won his most recent murder trial with a daring and dramatic maneuver that had become a local legend. But another had ended with his client dangling from the end of a rope.
Challenges for Lincoln
The case posed extreme personal challenges for Lincoln. The murder victim had trained for the law in his office. Lincoln had been his friend and his mentor.
His accused killer, the young man Lincoln would defend, was the son of a close friend and loyal supporter.
To win this trial, he would have to form an unholy allegiance with a longtime enemy, a revivalist preacher he had twice run against for political office—and who had bitterly slandered Lincoln as an “infidel…too lacking in faith” to be elected.
Lincoln’s Last Trial captures the presidential hopeful’s dramatic courtroom confrontations in vivid detail as he fights for his client—but also for his blossoming political future. It is a moment in history that shines a light on our legal system, as in this case, Lincoln fought a legal battle that remains incredibly relevant today.
“Dan Abrams and David Fisher write the heart-pounding pulse of history. Abraham Lincoln: the dusty shoes, the weary eyes, the Jedi mastery of a jury in a true case of life and death. So pull up a chair. This book not only brings a rare transcript to life, it makes you feel as if you are watching a live camera riveted on a courtroom more than 150 years ago.” —Diane Sawyer
“You didn’t know that Abraham Lincoln was the defense lawyer in a notorious murder case on the eve of his presidency? Neither did I. But Dan Abrams and David Fisher tell the remarkable tale in Lincoln’s Last Trial, and the story is both compelling on its own terms and a lesson about some eternal truths about criminal justice.” —Jeffrey Toobin, author of American Heiress
“The authors give readers a moment-by-moment account of the murder trial, which featured a well-liked young victim, a claim of self-defense, [and] a deathbed admission… Lincoln enthusiasts will find the illumination of his preternatural legal skills a worthy subject; casual readers will find the centerpiece murder trial an engrossing legal thriller.” —Publishers Weekly
“Legal affairs journalist Abrams and coauthor Fisher illuminate a key marker on Abraham Lincoln’s path to the White House… The transcripts reveal Lincoln at his best, fighting for a cause he believed in with brilliance and passion—qualities that would serve him so well as president.” —Booklist
About the Author
Dan Abrams is the Chief Legal Analyst for ABC News. He’s the host of top-rated cable series “Live PD” on A&E Network. He was previously the co-anchor of ABC’s Nightline, host of “The Abrams Report” and the acclaimed “Verdict with Dan Abrams” on MSNBC.
He is the longtime Chief Legal Correspondent for NBC News. In those capacities, Dan has covered all of the highest profile cases of the past two decades. Dan also served as General Manager of MSNBC. While there, he presided over a period of unprecedented growth. (Ratings and profits each increased well over 50% during his tenure.)
Dan is a graduate of Columbia University Law School. He has also published numerous articles in the New York Times and Wall Street Journal. Other publications include The Yale Law and Policy Review, ABCNews.com, and Mediaite.com, among many others.
His first book (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) was a Washington Post bestseller. His latest book is Lincoln’s Last Trial: The Murder Case That Propelled Him to The Presidency.
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Lincoln’s Last Trial was published on June 1, 2018, by Harlequin Digital Sales Corp. Abrams wrote the book in the Point of View of Robert Hitt, scribe to the trial. His notes are all hand-written and are a true American treasure.
“Abrams and Fisher quote generously from Hitt’s transcript to bring into sharp focus the witness-by-witness testimony and courtroom proceedings.” —Library Journal
“We all know the story of Abraham Lincoln the wartime president, the defender of the Union, and the emancipator of the slaves. But Abraham Lincoln, the defense lawyer? Dan Abrams and David Fisher recount the engaging story of Lincoln’s last trial, occurring on the cusp of the Civil War. An entertaining book filled with twists and turns and tailor-made for Civil War buffs.” —Jay Winik, author of April 1865 and 1944
“Lincoln’s wartime leadership overshadows his life as a lawyer. But you can’t understand one without the other. In this rich and previously unexplored corner of history, the authors take you inside the courtroom to watch Abraham Lincoln – at the height of his powers as a lawyer and on the edge of eternal fame – as he tries a thrilling murder trial to a jury.” —Chris DeRose, New York Times bestselling author of The Presidents’ War, Congressman Lincoln, and Founding Rivals
Today, more than at any time in history, the importance of our Constitution has been questioned over and over.
If you have ever been interested in viewing history in real-time, Lincoln’s Last Trial is a must-read. It will confirm the importance of the Constitution in shaping this nation both then and now.
I am still devoted to reading about Lincoln’s life and values. We need that kind of inspiration and affirmation today as much as we have at any time in history.