Lincoln's Failed Murder Case

Lincoln's Failed Murder Case (HM138U)

Location: Carthage, IL 62321 Hancock County
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Country: United States of America
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N 40° 24.792', W 91° 8.13'

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Abraham Lincoln lost a murder case here in April, 1839 A drunken Irish deckhand, William Fraim, killed a shipmate while their steamboat was docked at Frederick on the Illinois River in Schuyler County. When the shipmate blew cigar smoke in his face, Fraim attempted to knock the cigar from the smoker's mouth. Meeting resistance, Fraim drew "a long butcher knife from his side and drove it to the hilt" in the victim's chest. Local citizens were outraged. Fraim got his case moved to a supposedly more neutral setting here in Hancock County. He hired the young circuit-riding attorney Abraham Lincoln to defend him. The trial lasted one day. The jury found Fraim guilty. Lincoln tried to set the judgement aside, but he failed. Three weeks later Fraim was hung—-the only client that Lincoln lost to a hangman's noose. Among the jury members in this case was Daniel H. Wells, a prominent early Hancock County settler who later converted to Mormonism and became Brigham Young's counselor in the presidency of the Mormon Church.

The second Hancock County Courthouse completed just before the spring docket of 1839, was new when Lincoln lost his court case here. The Fraim murder case was one of the first trials to be held in the new building. Court and county offices were on the first floor and a well-lighted courtroom on the second. The courthouse was demolished to make room for the current courthouse, completed in 1908. (Right) Judge James H. Ralston, a Democrat from Quincy who occasionally provided legal counsel to Joseph Smith, presided over the Fraim trial.

Illinois juries usually acquitted defendants in murder trials in Lincoln's day—-which made the Fraim case even more remarkable. (Lincoln's clients escaped execution in twenty-five out of twenty-six murder cases where he was defense attorney.) The relative infrequency of public hangings made them memorable local events in frontier Illinois. The people of Carthage were typical of the time in their enthusiastic attendance. Officials constructed a special gallows in a kind of natural amphitheater in a field just southeast of town. School was dismissed for children to attend; many families treated the affair as a kind of picnic. Carthage did not experience another murder trial in its courthouse until six years later, when in May 1845 a local jury followed the usual pattern and acquitted all defendants accused of the murder of Joseph Smith, the Mormon prophet.

HM NumberHM138U
Series This marker is part of the Illinois: Looking for Lincoln series
Marker ConditionNo reports yet
Date Added Monday, September 15th, 2014 at 1:52pm PDT -07:00
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Locationbig map
UTM (WGS84 Datum)15T E 658194 N 4475289
Decimal Degrees40.41320000, -91.13550000
Degrees and Decimal MinutesN 40° 24.792', W 91° 8.13'
Degrees, Minutes and Seconds40° 24' 47.52" N, 91° 8' 7.80" W
Driving DirectionsGoogle Maps
Area Code(s)217
Closest Postal AddressAt or near 500-552 Main St, Carthage IL 62321, US
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