Abraham Lincoln sat behind the counsel table in the Springfield, Illinois courthouse. Beside him, his clients, Archibald and William Trailor, waited anxiously. They would soon, according to all observers, be convicted and hung for the murder of Archibald Fisher.
The prosecution’s case was straightforward. William Trailor lived in Warren County, Illinois. In May 1841 he traveled to Springfield to visit his brothers Archibald and Henry. All three brothers were described as “sober, retiring and industrious” men. Accompanying William on the journey was his housemate, Archibald Fisher. Fisher worked as a handyman, performing odd jobs and, by means of a frugal lifestyle, was rumored to have saved a great amount of money.
The men arrived in Springfield, where William’s brother, Archibald Trailor, worked as a carpenter. After lunch, the four men went for a walk about town. The three brothers became separated from Fisher. After dinner that night, when Fisher had not returned, they searched briefly for him.
The next day, they searched again without success. They looked again the following day. Fruitless, in their searches, William returned home, without his housemate.
The story circulated through Warren County that Fisher had died and willed his fortune to William. The local postmaster notified Springfield of the suspicious circumstances. Within days, all three Trailor brothers were arrested.
Henry Trailor confessed, after interrogation by Springfield’s mayor and the Illinois state attorney general. He claimed that his brothers had killed Fisher and stolen his money. Henry admitted to helping hide the body. The entire town looked for Archibald Fisher’s remains without success. Abraham Lincoln later wrote, “[e]xaminations were made of cellars, wells, and pits of all descriptions, where it was thought possible the body might be concealed. All the fresh or tolerably fresh, graves at the grave-yard were pried into, and dead horses and dead dogs were disinterred.”
The mood of the public darkened. Even though the body had not been recovered, it seemed clear that only a speedy trial followed by prompt punishment might avoid a lynching. During pretrial hearings, Henry Trailor repeated his confession. Investigators testified that in the woods they found deep buggy tracks and signs that something had been drug through the grass. The tracks, they reported, ended near a pond, a perfect place to hide a body. Investigators further claimed they found human whiskers on a club near the tracks. Finally, a responsible local woman testified that she had seen two of the Trailor brothers walk into the woods with Fisher. Later, she saw them return from the thicket alone.
The crowded courtroom felt hot on the cusp of summer, 1841. The heat must have felt even more oppressive for the defendants who felt the weight of the evidence and the townspeople pressing down upon them.
Then, Abraham Lincoln called his lone witness, Dr. Robert Gilmore. A physician respected in the area; Gilmore ascended the witness stand. Following the oath, he testified that Archibald Fisher had lived with him in the past and he knew the man well. Fisher, the doctor swore, had suffered a head injury in his youth and had never fully recovered his senses. Prone to forgetfulness, the doctor opined, Fisher had likely wandered off and lost track of where he was.
The doctor offered proof to support his theory: Archibald Fisher was still alive and recovering from illness at the doctor’s house. The ailing man had no memory of his time in Springfield and had journeyed all the way to Peoria before recovering his mind.
In a letter to Joshua Speed written the day after the trial, Lincoln said that “[w]hen the doctor’s statement was first made public, it was amusing to scan and contemplate the countenances and hear the remarks of those who had been actively in search of the dead body: some looked quizzical, some melancholy, and some furiously angry.”
The charges were dropped and the Trailors released.
I have stretched the definition of the “Trial-of-the-Month”. The investigation began in May, although the case itself did not commence until June. The Trailor trial offers the opportunity to consider the limits of the criminal justice system from one of several perspectives. Henry’s damming testimony came after three days of interrogation by investigators. He had likely been coerced into a false confession. The case, from an era before Miranda rights, reminds citizens of the constitutional protections we assume today. Psychologists reading the story might see the confirmation bias: the mayor and Attorney General, certain of their rectitude, allowed their conclusions to drive the facts. Finally, we might focus on “junk science”: the whiskers on the club turned out to be hairs from a cow, while the grass by the pond had been matted by children attempting to hang a rope swing.
As a writer’s blog, however, I’d like to focus on the story. Abraham Lincoln penned a fictional tale about the murder trial and published it in The Quincy Whig on April 15, 1846 under the title, “A Remarkable Case of Arrest for Murder”. Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine republished that story in March 1952 as “The Trailor Murder Mystery”. Finally, Otto Penzler included it The Best American Mystery Stories of the Nineteenth Century (albeit labeling it a curiosity rather than an example of compelling storytelling or distinguished literary style).
Abraham Lincoln, therefore, can rightfully claim to be America’s most famous mystery author. To the list of his accomplishments: rail splitter, lawyer, politician, president, please add “crime writer”.
For more information, see “Logan and Lincoln” by William Townsend in The American Bar Journal, February 1933.