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- The Cartography of WolvesApril 22, 2021
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In the following passage, Dan Abrams and David Fisher describe the charges and the jury selection process for the last murder case Abraham Lincoln argued as a defense attorney. Lincoln was defending Peach Quinn Harrison, on trial for the murder of Greek Crafton.
The prosecution and defense had laid out their positions in the pretrial hearing weeks earlier. No one disputed the fact that Peachy Quinn Harrison had stabbed Greek Crafton during a brawl in Mr. Short’s store. But the case would turn on why. Why was the all of it. Prosecutor Palmer intended to prove that this was a premeditated act, that Peachy Harrison had forced the issue with his taunts, then prepared for the inevitable meeting by borrowing the deadly weapon and carrying it on his person. This was not a random act of self-defense: Harrison hadn’t picked up a knife lying on the counter to protect himself, he had been ready and waiting for the showdown.
The defense, conversely, was going to argue that Peachy Harrison had no choice but to defend himself with force, as he was by far the physically slighter of the men and Crafton had repeatedly threatened to stomp his face. During the confrontation, he had clung desperately to a counter railing but had been yanked free, then attacked by both Greek and his brother John.
The law defining self-defense while clear by statute was still somewhat murky in practice. The statutes had been loosely developed based on British common law mostly to protect white landowners and, like much criminal law, were subject to local interpretation. Friendly juries sometimes used self-defense to justify the verdict they desired; it was flexible enough to be shaped to fit popular outcomes. In a case earlier that year, Illinois Court of Appeals Judge Sidney Breese wrote that jurors “could assume the responsibility of deciding, each juror for him- self, what the law is.” But basically it was most often interpreted to allow a man to use as much force as reasonably necessary to defend himself from an attacker. Harrison’s defense team had to demonstrate he was in fear for his life.
But Abraham Lincoln was holding what he hoped would be the ace. In his deathbed declaration, Greek had apparently claimed responsibility for his own demise. “I brought it on myself,” he supposedly had admitted. Yes, he actually forgave Peachy. And while the man who took that declaration happened to be the defendant’s grandfather, he also was a widely respected man of the cloth. Lincoln was not concerned about the Reverend Cartwright’s credibility, particularly after taking an oath to the Lord, even to save his grandson’s life. The problem Lincoln faced was getting this testimony admitted at all.
There had been no difficulty about that during the coroner’s inquest. During that hearing Cartwright had testified that Crafton had forgiven his assailant. On the other hand, Dr. J. L. Million, who had comforted Greek as best was possible, testified that during the final few days he had several conversations with his dying patient and rather than absolving Harrison, he had censured him.
The rules governing the coroner’s hearing were quite different than those followed during a trial. This clearly was hearsay and typically was barred from being heard by a jury. There simply was no way of knowing for certain what actually was said, and such emotional testimony easily could influence a jury. With Judge Rice on the bench, Lincoln surely knew it was going to require some clever lawyering to potentially get Cartwright’s critical testimony admitted into evidence.
At half past the hour of nine the court crier, T. S. Kidd, shouted, “Hear ye! Hear ye! Hear ye! Court is now in session. Judge Edward Rice presiding. God save the United States and this honorable court.” Judge Rice greeted the participants, cautioned spectators that he would tolerate no outbursts and immediately began jury selection. In most instances filling a jury box was a wearisome task; it seemed people like the concept of a trial by jury, but they liked it best when they didn’t have to serve on the jury. At times the court would be forced to send marshals into the streets to bring back whatever bystanders they could find, but that was not true in this case. Being selected for the jury guaranteed a seat for the entire proceedings, in addition to the $1.50 a day pay. Just about everybody in Springfield knew both Peachy and Greek; a lot of them had seen both of the young men grow up, and already held an opinion about each of them. Greek could be rough sometimes, but he was at heart a good boy, one of Springfield’s own. Maybe he brawled from time to time, but being killed for doing what most men had done? That was a different story. But Peachy was well-liked, too; he had an affable smile and a pleasant way about him, and wasn’t free of shenanigans either. He wasn’t a fighter like Greek, but wasn’t known for being cowardly either. A lot of people wondered what had got into him to make him do something so foolish.
The difficulty in finding a truly impartial jury in this too common situation was stated accurately by the young humorist Mark Twain, who said, “We have a…jury system which is superior to any in the world, and its efficiency is only marred by the difficulty of finding twelve men every day who don’t know anything and can’t read.” The law in Illinois made that even more difficult by specifying that jurors had to be natural-born or naturalized white, male, property-owning American citizens between the ages of twenty-one and sixty.
Lincoln took great care when selecting a jury. In an earlier murder case Lincoln had spent three days picking the jury and only one day to make his case in front of them, and got his acquittal.Lincoln took great care when selecting a jury.
His intention was well-known and simple. He would build a personal relationship between himself and the jury, a relationship strong enough that it required a mountain of evidence to overcome his claim that his client was innocent. This was his gift: by the end of a trial, the jury just didn’t want to let him down. Lincoln’s close friend Leonard Swett liked to tell people about the day Lincoln was questioning potential jurors for a circuit case in which they were serving as opposing counsel. “He asked each of them if they were acquainted with my client. Small town like that, everybody knows everybody else, it hardly was a necessary question. Of course they did, they said. Finally Judge Davis had had enough of that. ‘Now, Mr. Lincoln,’ he said, ‘you are wasting the court’s time. The mere fact that a juror knows your opponent does not disqualify him.’ Lincoln looked at Judge Davis then explained, ‘No, it sure doesn’t, your Honor. But I’m afraid some of these gentlemen may not know him, which I reckon would place me at a disadvantage.’”
It is said that every great defense lawyer has a feel for those jurors more likely to be sympathetic to his case, an intuition developed over a long period of time and considerable experience. Lincoln was no different. He had his own way of determining who might be in tune with him, and sometimes it was just physical: he did not want blond, blue-eyed men on his jury, believing that type of man to be a bit nervous and too easily led by the prosecution in violent cases. Over time he had formed a prejudice against men with a high forehead, finding that too often men like this formed an early opinion and were hard to dissuade—unless he could discern from questioning that this man’s opinion favored his client. He actually liked to have corpulent men on his jury, perhaps because it was generally believed that men of great size prospered by their wits rather than their toil. That was the kind of man who might better appreciate the delicacy of his arguments and approach, which Lincoln’s partner Herndon described as the “patient but relentless unfolding of a case…reasoning through logic, analogy and comparison.” Finally, whenever possible he wanted young men on his juries rather than older men. This was often because his clients were of a similar young age or experience, and undoubtedly he felt young jurors might relate better to the circumstances. And older men, he found, were often too set in their ways and their beliefs to be moved. The panel had been summoned from the city and close farms. It was considered an unfair burden to make those people living way out in the county responsible for fulfilling their jury duty. The progression of candidates for the jury continued through the morning. The different lawyers took turns questioning prospects: “Do you know the defendant or his family?”
“Did you know the decedent (or as the prosecution pointedly described Greek, ‘the victim’) or his family?”
“What is it you do to earn a living?” Once even, “Are you sober?” to which came the response, “You mean, right now?” At times the spectators would respond to an answer with a burst of laughter or even a supportive cheer. The first man seated was one of the oldest and more respected citizens of the city, Charles Nukolls, who was well-known to all the participants. It was an entirely appropriate choice. Mr. Nukolls had settled in the area decades earlier and worked in the leather business. With his profits he purchased land, including the tract on the corner of Sixth and Washington. He paid $12 for that lot and, as the city filled in around it, sold that property to the county in 1845 for $1200. It was the precise plot on which the courthouse, in which he was sitting, was built. More recently Nukolls had studied medicine at McDowell College in St. Louis and graduated from that institution. His Republican politics also were well-known, which obviously pleased Lincoln, and yet there sim- ply was no way either side could challenge his ability to judge fairly in this case.
The questions continued. “Do you consider yourself a political man?”
“You think the leanings of any of these people (indicating the lawyers) will influence your ability to be fair-minded?”
“Have you read about this case in the newspapers?”
The second man seated, Josephus Gatton, also had arrived in Springfield before Lincoln. Like Lincoln, he had come to Illinois from Kentucky—in fact, Mr. Palmer had cautioned him, “You’re not gonna let those Kentucky roots influence you for Mr. Lincoln, are you?” Gatton had earned his keep as a farmer, his success allowing him to continue purchasing and cultivating additional wild land and building large houses on the lots until he was one of the wealthier men in the city. As with Mr. Nukolls, it would have been considered an affront to reject a man like this for any cause other than his own choice.
By the end of the morning two more men had been selected. One of them, Moses Pilcher, who was acknowledged to be the best carpenter in the city, had been a political ally of Lincoln for decades. In an 1840 letter to his partner Stuart, Lincoln had suggested that Pilcher “be enlisted in the (William Henry) Harrison cause as he was always a Whig and deserves attention.”
Palmer, by law lacking the same number of juror challenges as the defense, and perhaps appreciating his future need for a fine carpenter, let him be seated.
The fourth was the widower Isaac Payton, who was struggling to farm a small spread with his two young boys while doubling-up as a shipping clerk for the new Wabash railroad line. Neither side wanted to deprive him of the juror’s pay, which was sure to help him clear some debts.
There were some candidates who were dismissed by the judge, among them a farmer named Johnson who claimed, “I believe it’s dawn when my rooster wakes me, other than that don’t believe much a anything I hear,” and a blacksmith who warned that if he was put in the jury “not one a you would get your horses done for a week!”
***As the afternoon heated up, the jury box started to be filled.
As the afternoon heated up, the jury box started to be filled. Zenas Bramwell fit Lincoln’s desire for a corpulent man, in addition to being the son of a Baptist minister known for speaking in both Greek and Hebrew and being the brother of the town clerk over in McLean County. Bob Cass, who had one of the larger farms in the county and was known to be a stern but honest man, was approved without challenge. Ben Brown, whose prize bull, George II, was highly valued for mating purposes, took his place alongside the curmudgeon George Robinson, another farmer, who had lost a thumb and a big toe in a shooting incident. William Patterson was an immigrant and naturalized citizen who had landed in America a decade earlier and joined his cousin on his farm, and still spoke with a hint of a Scottish brogue. Although Lincoln shared the questioning with Logan and Cullom, Hitt noticed that even when just sitting and listening he remained wholly involved. It was clear he was a casual man, even in court, and on occasion when he stretched backward his very large black shoes would suddenly appear from beneath his wooden desk. At different times everyone in the courtroom had to fight to stifle a yawn; but if Lincoln did so the steno man didn’t catch him at it. Sometimes he was staring straight ahead, sometimes his hands were clasped behind his neck and his eyes seemed riveted on a point on the ceiling, sometimes he was leaning forward on his right elbow, his thumb beneath his chin and his index finger curving along his cheekbone but, it was clear, even in this most tedious aspect of the trial he was paying close attention.
When it was his turn to ask questions, he turned on his folksy charm, which somehow never seemed disingenuous. He appeared right interested in every answer, as if listening to pick up that one speck of information that he might later hook on to and use for a personal appeal to that individual.
***Perhaps because they knew the participants seemed more personally involved, more apt to respond with some sound or gesture, as if watching theater.
The basic courtroom was laid out based on the British justice system. The judge sat at the head of the courtroom on a raised platform, purportedly because as the representative of justice participants had to look up at him, but also because it gave him a clear view of the entire courtroom. The witness stand was next to the judge’s bench. The lawyers, the petitioners, the accused and most of the court officials sat or stood in front of the judge’s bench, separated from the gallery by a low rail called the bar; called that because it was likened to the great sandbar in the Thames River east of London harbor that, once crossed at high tides, made ships and their crews subject to British law. In the nearest big city of Chicago, spectators dressed more formally and included far more women; in Springfield most observers wore work clothes of some sort, and perhaps because they knew the participants seemed more personally involved, more apt to respond with some sound or gesture, as if watching theater. Pretty much after each man had been interviewed and either chosen or most often rejected, he would be welcomed back into the gallery with a spatter of humorous remarks, ranging from, “You’re too damn ugly for them to have to look at that puss every day,” to “That’s alright, they know you need your wife to make decisions for you.”
The afternoon droned on. Farmer William Hinchey drew hearty laughs when he responded resolutely, after being asked by Mr. Cullom if he was aware of the details of the confrontation, “I don’t know nuthin’ about nuthin’!” And then he looked proudly at the gallery and grinned a wide, mostly toothless grin. The gallery cheered as one when both sides agreed to place him on the jury.
Farmer Jefferson Pierce was the eleventh man to be selected, following an interesting exchange with young assistant prosecutor Norman M. Broadwell about how to reconcile his religious beliefs with the dictates of the law. Initially he professed some difficulty having to judge the consequences of sinners, not wanting to trespass in the province of the Lord, but after trading biblical passages with Mr. Broadwell he admitted he could see his way clear to reach a decision.
After concluding his questioning, Broadwell looked at Lincoln and indicated with a pleasant smile and slight bow that it was his turn. Lincoln responded with an appreciative nod and an equally knowing smile. Six years earlier Broadwell had trained in the law with Lincoln and Herndon, striking out on his own two years later. He had been opposed in his very first case, an accusation of slander, by Lincoln. The parties had settled for an apology. But clearly Lincoln had watched this clever exchange with some personal delight, and accepted Pierce without additional questions.
A grayish cloud of tobacco smoke was hanging over the gallery, motionless in the still summer air, by the time jury selection concluded early in the evening. The final selection was twenty-two-year-old farmer M. H. Pickrell, the 101st man to be questioned that day and the youngest member of the jury. Pickrell seemed mostly an unformed vessel, polite, unopinionated, wanting to please; he seemed ready to be shaped by whichever of the lawyers proved a more able legal sculptor; hence there simply was no reason to reject him.
Judge Rice made a few remarks warning the jury not to discuss the case or their deliberations with anyone, “that means everybody else on the jury, but especially your wives,” and was preparing to dismiss court for the day when Bob Cass raised his hand. He was feeling poorly, he said, and asked to be excused. His word carried sufficient weight for his request to be granted without discussion. While no law at the time mandated there be twelve jurors, and they could have proceeded with the remaining eleven, both sides agreed that a twelve-man panel was preferable, assuming they could agree on one other person. So everybody had to sit back down.
Most of the remaining candidates had scattered, so Lincoln and Palmer agreed to seat a bystander, James A. Brundage, who had been watching the proceedings. Brundage was known to both men; in fact, Lincoln and Herndon were currently representing him in the appeal of a civil judgment. Mr. Brundage had sued Mr. William Camp in Sangamon County Circuit Court for $300 over nonpayment for the sale of two mules. When that court ruled for his opponent, Mr. Brundage had hired the firm of Lincoln and Herndon to make his appeal to the Illinois Supreme Court; Lincoln had argued the case but had yet to receive a verdict. Palmer knew him to be an honorable man and agreed to let him be seated.
By this time everyone was ready to get on home. Judge Rice reminded everybody to be back in the courtroom at exactly nine o’clock, or at least as close as they could make it, then gaveled the day closed.
Adapted from Lincoln’s Last Trial, by Dan Abrams and David Fisher, Copyright © 2018. Adapted with permission of Hanover Square Press.