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According to conventional wisdom, Abraham Lincoln spent most of his law career collecting debt and representing railroads, and this focus made him inept at defending homicide cases. In this unprecedented study of Lincoln’s criminal cases, George Dekle disproves these popular notions. Through careful examination of Lincoln’s homicide cases and evaluation of his legal skills, Dekle demonstrates in Prairie Defender that Lincoln was first and foremost a trial lawyer, that the trial of accused criminals was an important part of his practice, and that he was quite capable of defending murder cases, which he tried at the rate of about one per year.

Dekle begins by presenting the viewpoints of those who see Lincoln as a perfect lawyer whose only flaw was his inability to represent the wrong side of a case and those who believe Lincoln was a less-than-honest legal hack, and he invites readers to compare these stereotypes to the flesh-and-blood Lincoln revealed in each case that is described, including a case where Lincoln assisted the prosecution in an axe murder, a poisoning case he refused to prosecute for $200 but defended for $75, and a case he won by proving that a supposed murder victim was still alive.

As Dekle deals with each case, he first tells the stories of the feuds, arguments, and insults that led to murder and other criminal activity, giving a gripping view of the seamy side of life in nineteenth-century Illinois. Then he traces the course of the pretrial litigation, describes the trials and the various tactics employed in the prosecution and defense, and critiques the performance of both Lincoln and his adversaries.

Dekle concludes that Lincoln was a competent, diligent criminal trial lawyer who knew the law, could argue it effectively to both judge and jury, and would use all lawful means to defend clients whether they were innocent or guilty. His trial record shows Lincoln to have been a formidable defense lawyer who won many seemingly hopeless cases through his skill as a courtroom tactician, cross-examiner, and orator. Criminal defendants who could retain Lincoln as a defense attorney were well represented, and criminal defense attorneys who sought him as co-counsel were well served to have had Lincoln as a trial partner. Providing insight into both Lincoln’s legal career and the culture in which he practiced law, Prairie Defender resolves a major misconception concerning one of our most important historical figures.


"With over 16,000 books published about Abraham Lincoln is there need for another? Emphatically yes! And this contribution to understanding Lincoln proves it. Lincoln’s service as president was based in large part on his experience as a lawyer as well as his first love – politics. The author describes succinctly that Lincoln was a first rate attorney, especially in his counsel in criminal cases. While not a large part of his practice of over 5,000 cases, Lincoln’s defense of those charged with murder demonstrate that he was skilled in the art of cross examination and clever by half in convincing juries. Much of this comes from his empathy by putting himself in the place of another and experience what they were feeling. This noble and effective quality in Lincoln’s character is shown repeatedly in this volume."—Frank J. Williams, retired Chief Justice of Rhode Island and founding Chair of the Lincoln Forum

"George Dekle’s 'Prairie Defender: The Murder Trials of Abraham Lincoln' is not only an important addition to Lincoln legal literature, it is a must read for all lawyers, Lincoln historians, and legal scholars. Dekle relates the stories of Lincoln’s major homicide cases in scholarly detail and gives anecdotal background to the trials giving a life beyond the trials themselves. As a lawyer, Dekle’s analysis of Lincoln’s trial work will not only enable the modern lawyer to understand those trials, but as a superb writer he writes in a manner to make the book enjoyable to all readers regardless of their legal interests."—Travis H.D. Lewin, professor emeritus, Syracuse University

"Only an experienced criminal lawyer could have written this engaging book. The case by case study of Lincoln's murder trials in not a rehash of earlier volumes about Lincoln the lawyer . It is an original, in depth analysis of Lincoln's trial strategies, tactics, and techniques; it offers fresh insights into his ability as a trial lawyer. It a must read for anyone interested in evaluating Lincoln as a trial attorney."—Guy Fraker, author, 'Lincoln's Ladder to the Presidency: The Eighth Judicial Circuit'


Discusses the commonly told stories about Lincoln as a practicing lawyer, roughly dividing them into two types: "Lincolnolatry," which portrays Lincoln as a saintly lawyer who never raised technical defenses and could not defend guilty clients; and "Lincolnoclasm," which portrays him as an unethical legal hack with marginal lawyerly skills. Also discusses the commonly held belief that Lincoln was not an accomplished criminal trial lawyer.

CH. 1: PEOPLE versus HENRY B. TRUETT, October 13, 1838:
In his first murder case, which was prosecuted by Stephen A. Douglas, the defense faces the daunting task of trying to neutralize an almost open-and-shut case for the prosecution. Lincoln is trusted by his far more experienced co-counsel to give the summation for the defense. He talks the jury into acquitting.

CH. 2: PEOPLE versus WILLIAM FRAIM, April 23, 1839:
William Fraim stabs a man to death because the man blew cigar smoke in his face. Lincoln is appointed to represent him, loses the case, and Fraim is hanged despite Lincoln's efforts to have the case dismissed on a technicality.

CH. 3: PEOPLE versus SPENCER TURNER, May 23, 1840:
Lincoln teams with Stephen A. Douglas to successfully defend a man on a charge of murder and has to sue him to collect his attorney’s fee.

In a case which remains a mystery to this day, Lincoln defends two brothers accused of murder and proves they are not guilty by proving (much to his clients’ surprise) that the victim is not dead. Lincoln again has to sue to collect his fee. He later writes an article about the case entitled “Remarkable Case of Arrest for Murder.”

Discusses a number of cases for which very little evidence has survived.

CH. 6: PEOPLE versus JAMES AND GEORGE DENTON, June 12, 1846:
Lincoln is retained to assist the prosecution in an axe murder. The first trial results in a hung jury, and the second results in an acquittal. This trial is cited as evidence of Lincoln’s inability to prosecute. The chapter investigates whether this case really supports the claim that Lincoln was not a good prosecutor.

Discussion of more cases for which very little evidence survives.

CH. 8: PEOPLE versus MOSES LOE, May 19, 1853:
Loe waylays Gray, knocks him to the ground with a club, and then stabs him in the throat. It’s an open and shut case of murder. Through some adroit pretrial maneuvering and skillful trial work Lincoln is able to obtain a manslaughter conviction, which courtroom observers count as a loss for the prosecution.

CH. 9: PEOPLE versus DAVID LONGNECKER, June 3, 1856:
Longnecker, a lawyer, stabs a former client to death in an argument over unpaid legal fees. He is indicted and tried for murder, and the jury hangs. When the case comes up for retrial, Lincoln has joined the defense team. The jury hangs again. Lincoln writes and circulates a petition asking the prosecutor to drop the charges. It is signed by 14 members of the bar. The prosecutor dismisses the case.

Discusses Lincoln’s very active and successful practice in obtaining pardons for his clients. Pays particular attention to the case of George High, where Lincoln obtained a pardon for the leader of the Redwood Gang, a gang of horse thieves which engaged in interstate trafficking in stolen horses and used classic organized crime tactics. Attempts to understand how Lincoln could have associated himself with efforts to pardon such an unrepentant and unworthy person as George High.

CH. 11: PEOPLE versus JANE AND THEODORE ANDERSON, November 28, 1856:
Lincoln turns down an offer of $200 to prosecute a poisoning case and accepts a $75 fee to defend it. In a sensational, high-profile case Lincoln obtains an acquittal.

CH. 12: PEOPLE versus ISAAC WYANT, April 4, 1857:
Lincoln prosecutes one of the first cases in U.S. jurisprudence where the insanity defense is successfully interposed. This is another case cited as authority for the proposition that he was not a good prosecutor. We investigate the validity of charges that Lincoln botched the prosecution.

CH. 13: PEOPLE versus JOHN BANTZHOUSE, October 2, 1857:
Lincoln's client is freed when a murder indictment is dismissed on a technicality, and he flees the jurisdiction before the prosecutor can obtain another indictment. This case is often cited as an example of Lincoln's use of underhanded tactics. We investigate whether Lincoln engaged in improper conduct in the case.

CH. 14: PEOPLE versus MELISSA GOINGS, October 10, 1857:
Lincoln defends a woman charged with killing her husband. She disappears from the courthouse during a recess in the proceedings. When asked where she was, Lincoln is supposed to have said “She asked me where she could get a drink of water, and I told her there was some mighty good water in Tennessee.” Did he advise his client to flee the jurisdiction? Could this possibly have happened? We investigate the likelihood of this incident actually happening. If it did happen, what does this say about Lincoln’s ethics?

CH. 15: PEOPLE versus DUFF ARMSTRONG, May 7, 1858:
We give an outline sketch of Lincoln’s famous Almanac Trial, discussing certain aspects of the case not covered in Lincoln’s Most Famous Case. We foreshadow a comparison between how Lincoln handled this case, where he was paid nothing, with the case of People v. Harrison, where he was very well compensated.

CH. 16: PEOPLE versus TOM PATTERSON, April 21, 1859:
This is the case which is most often cited for the proposition that Lincoln could not defend a guilty client. Lincoln supposedly decided midway through the trial that his client was guilty and refused to participate further in the defense. We examine the evidence that Lincoln quit in the middle of the case and weigh it against conflicting evidence that he did no such thing.

CH. 17: PEOPLE versus PEACHY QUINN HARRISON, September 3, 1859:
Lincoln defends the grandson of his old political rival Peter Cartwright against a charge of murdering a former law student of Lincoln’s. Some suggestion has been made that Lincoln used questionable tactics to introduce inadmissible evidence and free a murderer. We investigate this charge to determine its merits.

We assess the Lincoln shown by the historical record against the Lincoln of the Lincolnolators and the Lincoln of the Lincolnoclasts.