The Time Abraham Lincoln Stopped a Murder Trial in its Tracks

Abraham Lincoln as a lawyer, circa 1847
Abraham Lincoln as a lawyer, circa 1847

One day at the end of May, 1841, William Trailor hopped into a one-horse buggy and began the long journey to Springfield, Illinois, where he planned to reunite with his brothers Henry and Archibald. Joining him was his friend and housemate, a handyman named Archibald Fisher.

In Springfield, the men decided to go for a walk after lunch. But as the afternoon wore on, the brothers somehow lost sight of Fisher. When they returned to Archibald's Springfield home for supper, Fisher wasn't there. The brothers looked briefly for Fischer, but may have assumed he was still out enjoying himself.

But when Fisher failed to show up the next morning, the brothers began to feel uneasy. They spent the day in a fruitless search for the missing man. The same was true of the following day. William eventually left Springfield without him.

According to the local postmaster, rumors circulated that Fisher had died and left William with a large sum of money. True or not, the local postmaster knew about William's trip to Springfield and alerted the postmaster in that city of a possible crime. News of the missing man (and William’s supposed financial windfall) quickly spread.

Within days, all of the Trailor brothers would be arrested—charged with the disappearance and murder of Archibald Fisher.

 

Nobody could find the body. “Examinations were made of cellars, wells, and pits of all descriptions, where it was thought possible the body might be concealed,” wrote Abraham Lincoln, then a young defense lawyer in Springfield. “All the fresh, or tolerably fresh, graves at the grave-yard were pried into, and dead horses and dead dogs were disinterred.”

As locals searched for Fisher’s corpse, both Springfield’s mayor and the Illinois state attorney general ruthlessly interrogated Henry Trailor. For three days, Henry maintained his innocence. But he also began to show signs of cracking. “The prosecutors reminded him that the evidence against him and his two brothers was overwhelming, that they would certainly be hanged,” William H. Townsend wrote in the American Bar Association Journal in 1933, “and that the only chance to save his own life was to become a witness for the State.”

With that bait, Henry confessed: He claimed that his brothers, Archibald and William, had clubbed Fisher to death and had taken all of his money. Henry insisted that he had taken no part in the murder. Rather, he had simply helped his brothers dump the body in the woods.

News of Henry’s confession ignited the public's curiosity, prompting hundreds of people to rush to the forest where Fisher’s body was reportedly hidden. “The story related by Henry Trailor aroused the most intense public indignation, and the murder became almost the sole topic of conversation,” Townsend wrote. “Business was practically suspended as searching parties and amateur detectives scoured the woods and by-ways.”

There, in a dense thicket, investigators found buggy tracks and signs that something large had been dragged through the grass. A nearby pond was partially drained and a dam destroyed, despite protests from the dam's owner. Yet the body continued to elude investigators. The public became antsy.

“It was generally conceded that only a speedy trial and swift punishment could allay the clamor of the populace for the blood of the prisoners and avert the disgrace of a lynching,” Townsend wrote. By June 18, the murder trial had already begun—and a conviction seemed assured.

The courtroom, muggy from the summer humidity, was packed with spectators. Called to the stand, Henry Trailor repeated his confession, claiming that he had helped dispose of Fisher's body. Additional evidence was provided by a local woman who had seen two of the Trailor boys walk into the woods with Fisher—only to see them return alone. Furthermore, investigators claimed they had found human hair in the area near the buggy tracks. The tracks themselves, they noted, had led suspiciously to the pond, as if somebody had tried to dump something.

When the prosecutor rested his case, it seemed like there was no hope for the Trailor brothers.

But the defense had a secret weapon—a 32-year-old lawyer named Abraham Lincoln. The future president calmly stood up and called his one and only witness to the stand.

 

Dr. Robert Gilmore was a widely respected physician in those parts of Illinois. Sitting in the sauna-like courtroom, the doctor patiently explained that he knew Archibald Fisher well—the man had twice lived in his home. Years ago, Gilmore explained, Fisher had suffered a serious head injury from a gun-related accident and had never fully recovered his wits. The poor man was prone to spells of amnesia, blackouts, and derangement. It was very possible that Fisher had just wandered off.

Dr. Gilmore then calmly told the court that he had proof to back up his theory, and proceeded to drop a bombshell: Archibald Fisher was alive and staying in his home.

The courtroom murmured in shock.

Dr. Gilmore continued. Fisher had suffered from a terrible bout of memory loss and had no recollection of his time in Springfield. In fact, Fisher had wandered all the way to Peoria before regaining his senses. The only reason the man had failed to show up to the courtroom today was because his health prevented it.

Lincoln scanned the crowd with glee. “When the doctor’s story was first made public, it was amusing to scan and contemplate the countenances and hear the remarks of those who had been actively engaged in the search for the dead body,” he would later write in a letter, “some looked quizzical, some melancholy, and some furiously angry.”

At first, many were skeptical of the doctor’s claims, but officials were quick to confirm that Fisher was indeed alive. He’d eventually show up to court, later explaining how, indeed, he had no memory of ever visiting Springfield.

To the prosecution's great embarrassment, much of the evidence was proven bunk: It was soon discovered that the controversial path in the forest was, in fact, created by children who had been building a rope swing; meanwhile, the hairs in the woods belonged to a cow. It also became awfully clear that Henry Trailor had been coerced into making a false confession—when the officers had threatened Henry's life, Henry told them what they wanted to hear instead.

All of the charges would be dropped and the men's lives spared. “We have had the highest state of excitement here for a week past that our community has ever witnessed,” Lincoln would write after the trial.

In fact, the case enchanted Lincoln so much that he tried to immortalize the events in a short story written in the style of the true-crime genre. The future president, of course, was justifiably proud of the outcome: It wasn't every day that a single surprise witness helps solve a mystery and saves two people from the hangman's noose.

 

To read Lincoln's own account, check out this excerpt at Smithsonian.

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The 20 Best Docuseries You Can Stream Right Now

Chef David Chang stars in Netflix's Ugly Delicious.
Chef David Chang stars in Netflix's Ugly Delicious.
Gabriele Stabile/Netflix

If your main interests are true crime and cooking, you’re in the middle of a Renaissance Age. The Michelangelos of nonfiction are consistently bringing stellar storytelling to twisty tales of murder and mayhem as well as luxurious shots of food prepared by the most creative culinary minds.

But these aren’t the only genres that documentary series are tackling. There’s a host of history, arts, travel, and more at your streaming fingertips. When you want to take a break from puzzling out who’s been wrongfully imprisoned, that is.

Here are the 20 best docuseries to watch right now, so start streaming.

1. Tiger King (2020)

The seedy underbelly of the exotic animal trade is juxtaposed against some of the most outrageous non-fictional characters you're ever likely to encounter in this series that just keeps escalating. Follow Joe Exotic as he juggles polyamory, tigers, and a bitter feud with animal activist Carole Baskin.

Where to watch it: Netflix

2. The Confession Tapes (2019)

A spare room. One or two detectives. A weary suspect. That's the set-up for this series that lets archival footage of police interrogations tell its own arresting stories.

Where to watch it: Netflix

3. Our Planet (2019)

Be amazed at the sensational vistas and eclectic wildlife with this beautifully-photographed trek through some of nature's most astounding sights—and the environmental perils that affect them. David Attenborough narrates.

Where to watch it: Netflix

4. The Devil Next Door (2019)

In 1980s Cleveland, John Demjanjuk was living a quiet life as a grandfather and auto worker. Suddenly, he was being extradited to Israel over accusations he was once notorious Nazi concentration camp monster Ivan the Terrible. As Demjanjuk mounts a defense, the trial captivates a country—but was he really the monster? This riveting series will have you guessing until the very end.

Where to watch it: Netflix

5. Ugly Delicious (2018-)

David Chang, the host of the first season of The Mind of a Chef, has returned with a cultural mash-up disguised as a foodie show. What does it mean for pizza to be “authentic”? What do Korea and the American South have in common? With his casual charm in tow, Chang and a variety of special guests explore people the food we love to eat as an artifact that brings us all together.

Where to watch it: Netflix

6. Bobby Kennedy for President (2018)

This four-part series utilizes a wealth of footage, including unseen personal videos, to share the tragic story of Robert F. Kennedy’s run for president in the context of an era riven by racial strife. Watching this socio-political memorial told by many who were there (including Marian Wright and Congressman John Lewis), it will be impossible not to draw connections to the current day and wonder: What if?

Where to watch it: Netflix

7. Evil Genius (2018)

At approximately 2:20 p.m. on August 28, 2003, Brian Wells—a pizza deliveryman—walked into a PNC Bank in Erie, Pennsylvania, and handed a note to a teller demanding $250,000 in cash. Wells had a bomb, which was strapped to his body via a metal neck collar, and a loaded shotgun that was fashioned to look like a walking cane. Approximately 12 minutes later, Wells strolled out of the bank with $8702 in cash, then made his way to the McDonald’s next door, where he retrieved a detailed note that told him where to go and what to do next. Within 15 minutes, Wells would be arrested. At 3:18 p.m.—less than an hour after he first entered the bank—the bomb locked around Wells’s neck detonated as police watched (and waited for the bomb squad), killing the 46-year-old in broad daylight. The bizarre incident was just the beginning of Evil Genius, which documents the peculiar case that would eventually entangle a range of unusual suspects, including Marjorie Diehl-Armstrong, and has had armchair detectives—and the FBI—questioning whether Wells was in on the bank robbery, or a genuine victim, for more than a decade.

Where to watch it: Netflix

8. Wild Wild Country (2018)

What happens when an Indian guru with thousands of American followers sets up shop near a small town in Oregon with the intent to create a commune? Incredibly sourced, this documentary touches on every major civic issue—from religious liberty to voting rights. When you choose a side, be prepared to switch. Multiple times.

Where to watch it: Netflix

9. Flint Town (2018)

If your heart is broken by what’s going on in Flint, Michigan, be prepared to have that pain magnified and complicated. The filmmakers behind this provocative series were embedded with police in Flint to offer us a glimpse at the area’s local struggles and national attention from November 2015 through early 2017.

Where to watch it: Netflix

10. The Innocent Man (2018)

After two brutal murders in 1980s Oklahoma, four men are convicted of the crimes. All of them maintain their innocence, causing observers to question whether they were guilty or themselves victims of police coercion. This drama is based on John Grisham's 2006 book of the same name; Grisham executive produces.

Where to watch it: Netflix

11. The Staircase (2004-2018)

In 2001, author Michael Peterson reported to police that his wife, Kathleen, had died after falling down a set of stairs, but police didn’t buy the story and charged him with her murder. Before the current true crime boom, before Serial and all the rest, there was The StaircaseJean-Xavier de Lestrade’s Peabody Award-winning docuseries following Peterson’s winding court case. The mystery at the heart of the trial and the unparalleled access Lestrade had to Peterson’s defense make this a must-see. And Netflix's addition of new episodes in 2018 led to a resurgence in interest in this mind-boggling case (with armchair detectives even positing that an owl was the real killer).

Where to watch it: Netflix

12. The Toys That Made Us (2017-)

Who knew the origin of classic toy lines could be so dramatic? This series puts the spotlight on the creative friction that led to some of the most iconic playthings of the 20th century, from Transformers to the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles.

Where to watch it: Netflix

13. Wormwood (2017)

Documentary titan Errol Morris turns his keen eye to a CIA project that’s as famous as it is unknown—MKUltra. A Cold War-era mind control experiment. LSD and hypnosis. The mysterious death of a scientist. His son’s 60-year search for answers. Morris brings his incisive eye to the hunt.

Where to watch it: Netflix

14. Five Came Back (2017)

Based on Mark Harris’s superlative book, this historical doc features filmmakers like Steven Spielberg and Guillermo del Toro discussing the WWII-era work of predecessors John Ford, William Wyler, John Huston, Frank Capra, and George Stevens. Also narrated by Meryl Streep, it looks at how the war shaped the directors and how they shaped the war. As a bonus, Netflix has the war-time documentaries featured in the film available to stream.

Where to watch it: Netflix

15. Last Chance U (2016-)

Far more than a sports documentary, the story of the players at East Mississippi Community College will have you rooting for personal victories as much as the points on the scoreboard. Many of the outstanding players on the squad lost spots at Division I schools because of disciplinary infractions or failing academics, so they’re seeking redemption in a program that wants them to return to the big-name schools. Later seasons switch focus to a team out of Independence Community College in Independence, Kansas.

Where to watch it: Netflix

16. Making a Murderer (2015-)

One of the major true crime phenomenons of 2015 was 10 years in the making. Laura Ricciardi and Moira Demos uncovered the unthinkable story of Steven Avery, a man wrongfully convicted of sexual assault who was later convicted of murdering a different woman, Teresa Halbach. Not just a magnifying glass on the justice system and a potential small town conspiracy, it’s also a display of how stories can successfully get our blood boiling. Three years after the docuseries became a surprise hit for Netflix, it returned for a second season in 2018.

Where to watch it: Netflix

17. Chef's Table (2015-)

From David Gelb, the documentarian behind Jiro Dreams of Sushi, this doc series is a backstage pass to the kitchens of the world’s most elite chefs. The teams at Osteria Francescana, Blue Hill, Alinea, Pujol, and more open their doors to share their process, culinary creativity, and, of course, dozens of delicious courses. There's no shame in licking your screen.

Where to watch it: Netflix

18. The Jinx (2015)

After the massive success of Serial in 2014, a one-two punch of true crime docuseries landed the following year. The first was the immensely captivating study of power, The Jinx: The Life and Deaths of Robert Durst, which chronicled the bizarre, tangled web of the real estate mogul who was suspected of several murders. The show, which could be measured in jaw-drops per hour, both registered real life and uniquely affected it.

Where to watch it: HBO Now

19. Vice (2013-)

The series is known for asking tough questions that need immediate answers and giving viewers a street-level view of everything from killing cancer to juvenile justice reform. Its confrontational style of gonzo provocation won’t be everyone’s cup of spiked tea, but it’s filling an important gap that used to be filled by major network investigative journalists. When they let their subjects—from child soldiers suffering PTSD after fighting for ISIS to coal miners in Appalachia—tell their stories, nonfiction magic happens. The first six seasons are available on HBO, with a seventh airing on Showtime in 2020.

Where to watch it: HBO Go

20. The National Parks: America's Best Idea (2009)

The cheapest way to visit Yosemite, Yellowstone, Muir Woods, and more. This Emmy-winning, six-part series is both a travelogue and a history lesson in conservation that takes up the argument of why these beautiful places should be preserved: to quote President Theodore Roosevelt, “for the benefit and enjoyment of the people.”

Where to watch it: Amazon Prime