Part I – Abraham Lincoln’s Murder Case Mystery

Lincoln Tomb Postcard Souvenir Folder
A 1929 postcard image of Lincoln the Circuit Rider – Fred M. Torrey, sculptor. The statue is located in Lincoln’s Tomb

On Saturday, June 19, 1841, in a letter to his friend Joshua Speed, Abraham Lincoln feverishly wrote about a ‘curious affair’ the week before that held Springfield [Illinois] entranced. [1]

Dear Speed;
We have had the highest state of excitement here for a week past that our community has ever witnessed; and, although the public feeling is now somewhat allayed, the curious affair which aroused it, is verry far from being, even yet, cleared of mystery. It would take a quire of paper [formerly 24 sheets of paper] to give you any thing like a full account of it; and I therefore only propose a brief outline.

Lincoln served as one of the three defense attorneys on this case. He told his friend the facts of the case well – with humor, drama, and comedy – which makes it easy to understand why everyone enjoyed a “Lincoln story.”

But there’s something different about this one.

[Please note: I took the liberty of putting this in paragraph form and adding headings and brackets of information/names – sometimes in a very repetitious sequence – to bring some clarity to Lincoln’s EXTENSIVE use of pronouns, but I left the spelling and grammar errors alone. Also, any bolding is mine for your attention.]

So settle back with a cuppa, and enjoy this strange mystery of a murder – narrated by Lincoln!

The Facts

The chief personages in the drama, are Archibald Fisher, supposed to be murdered; and Archibald Trailor, Henry Trailor, and William Trailor, supposed to have murdered him. The three Trailors are brothers; the first, Arch: as you know, lives in town [Springfield, IL]; the second, Henry, in Clary’s Grove [IL], and the third, Wm., in Warren county [IL]; and Fisher, the supposed murderee, being without a family, had made his home with William.

On saturday evening, being the 29th. of May, Fisher and William [Trailor]

This old single-horse drawn wagon is similar to the Dearborn wagon.

came to Henry’s [Trailor] in a one horse dearborn [type of wagon], and there staid over sunday; and on monday [May 31] all three came to Springfield, Henry [Trailor] on horseback, and joined Archibald [Trailor] at Myers’ the dutch carpenter.

That evening at supper Fisher was missing, and so next morning. Some ineffectual search was made for him; and on tuesday [June 1] at 1 o’clock PM. Wm. & Henry [Trailor] started home without him. In a day or so Henry [Trailor] and one or two of his Clary Grove neighbours came back and searched for him again, and advertised his disappearance in the paper.

The Postmaster’s Letter

The knowledge of the matter thus far, had not been general; and here it dropped entirely till about the 10th. [June] when Keys [Postmaster in Springfield] received a letter from the Post Master in Warren [County], stating that Wm. [Trailor] had arrived at home, and was telling a verry mysterious and improbable story about the disappearance of Fisher, which induced the community there to suppose that he [Fisher] had been disposed of unfairly.

Key’s made this letter public, which immediately set the whole town and adjoining country agog; and so it has continued until yesterday. The mass of the People commenced a systematic search for the dead body, while Wickersham [deputy sheriff] was dispatched to arrest Henry Trailor at the Grove; and Jim Maxey [deputy sheriff], to Warren [County] to arrest William [Trailor].

Henry Creates Havoc

On monday last [June 14] Henry was brought in, and showed an evident inclination to insinuate that he knew Fisher to be dead, and that Arch.[Trailor] & Wm.[Trailor] had killed him. He said he guessed the body could be found in Spring Creek between the Beardstown road bridge and Hickoxes’ mill.

Away the People swept like a herd of buffaloes, and cut down Hickoxes’ mill dam nolens volens [Latin for whether a person wants or likes something or not], to draw the water out of the pond; and then went up and down, and down and up the creek, fishing and raking, and ducking and diving for two days, and after all, no dead body found.

In the mean time, a sort of scuffling ground had been found in the brush in the angle or point where the road leading into the woods past the brewery, and the one leading in past the brick-yard join. From this scuffle ground, was the sign of something about the size of a man having been dragged to the edge of the thicket, where it joined the track of some small wheeled carriage which was drawn by one horse, as shown by the horse tracks. The carriage track led off towards Spring Creek.

Near this drag trail, Dr. Merryman found two hairs, which after a long scientific examination, he pronounced to be triangular human hairs, which term, he says includes within it, the whiskers, the hairs growing under the arms and on other parts of the body; and he judged that these two were of the whiskers, because the ends were cut, showing that they had flourished in the neighbourhood of the razor’s opperations.

The Trial

On thursday last [June 17], Jim Maxey brought in William Trailor from Warren [County]. On the same day Arch. [Trailor] was arrested and put in jail. Yesterday (friday [June 18]) William [Trailor] was put upon his examining trial before May [the Mayor] and Lavely [Justice of the Peace]. Archibald [Trailor] and Henry [Trailor] were both present.

Lincoln the lawyer on the 8th Judicial Circuit.

Lamborn prossecuted, and Logan, Baker, and your humble servant, [Lincoln] defended.

A great many witnesses were introduced and examined; but I shall only mention those whose testimony seemed to be the most important.

The first of these was Capt. Ransdell [tavern keeper]. He swore, that when William and Henry [Trailor] left Springfield for home on the tuesday before mentioned, they did not take the direct route, which, you know, leads by the butcher shop, but that they followed the street North untill they got opposite, or nearly opposite May’s new house, after which he could not see them from where he stood; and it was afterwards proven than in about an hour after they started, they came into the street by the butcher’s shop from towards the brick yard.

Dr. Merryman & others swore to what is before stated about the scuffle-ground, drag-trail, whiskers, and carriage tracks.

Henry’s Testimony

Henry [Trailor] was then introduced by the prossecution. He swore, that when they started for home, they went out North as Ransdell stated, and turned down West by the brick yard into the woods, and there met Archibald [Trailor]; that they proceeded a small distance further, where he [Henry Trailor] was placed as a sentinel to watch for, and announce the approach of any one that might happen that way;

that William and Arch [Trailor] took the dearborn out of the road a small distance to the edge of the thicket, where they stopped, and he [Henry Trailor] saw them lift the body of a man into it; that they then moved off with the carriage in the direction of Hickoxes mill, and he [Henry Trailor] loitered about for something like an hour, when William [Trailor] returned with the carriage, but without Arch [Trailor] and said that they had put him [Fisher] in a safe place; that they [Arch & Wm.Trailor] then went some how, he [Henry] did not know exactly how, into the road close to the brewery, and proceeded on to Clary’s Grove.

He [Henry Trailor] also stated that sometime during the day, William told him, that he and Arch [Trailor] had killed Fisher the evening before; that the way they did it was by him (William) knocking him down with a club, and Arch: then choking him to death.

Dr. Gilmore’s Surprise

An old man from Warren [County], called Dr. Gilmore, was then introduced on the part of the defence. He swore that he had known Fisher for several years; that Fisher had resided at his house a long time at each of two different spells; once while he built a barn for him, and once while he was doctored for some chronic disease; that two or three years ago,

Fisher had a serious hurt in his head by the bursting of a gun, since which he has been subject to continual bad health, and occasional abberations of mind. He also stated that on last tuesday, being the same day that Maxey arrested William Trailor, he (the Dr) was from home in the early part of the day, and on his return about 11 o’clock, found Fisher at his house in bed, and apparantly verry unwell; [1]

To recap: Three brothers murdered a friend of theirs. One brother squealed on the other two. Suddenly a Dr Gilmore showed up and testified that the murderee Fisher is NOT dead but ‘verry unwell.’

Food for thought.

The rest of this weird case and the uncomfortable mystery it left are in the next post:

Part II of Abraham Lincoln’s Murder Case Mystery


Works Cited

[1] “To Joshua Speed – June 14, 1841.” Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln. v.I:pp. 255-259.

[2] The image of the statue at the top of the post is of “Lincoln the Lawyer” from Souvenir Folder of Lincoln’s Tomb Springfield, Illinois – 1929: p.8. Retrieved July 27, 2017 from


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