When Abraham Lincoln Tried His Hand at Being a True Crime Writer

Abraham Lincoln once penned a true crime tale.
Abraham Lincoln once penned a true crime tale. / Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

It’s not uncommon for presidents to put pen to paper after their time in office. While memoirs are the most common genre, Bill Clinton co-wrote the 2018 thriller The President Is Missing with James Patterson; and Theodore Roosevelt penned a number of books celebrating his love of the outdoors.

Prior to taking office and navigating the Civil War, Abraham Lincoln was trying his hand at something a little more unique—true crime. More accurately, he wrote a lightly fictionalized account of a case he took while working as a lawyer.

Lincoln, who was said to be an avid fan of Edgar Allan Poe, wrote a story in 1846 he based on a trial he was involved with back in 1841. The case concerned William Trailor, one of three brothers who was charged with the murder of Trailor’s friend Archibald Fisher in Springfield, Illinois. Under duress from police interrogators, Henry Trailor claimed his other two brothers, William and Archibald (not the victim), bashed Fisher over the head and stole his money.

Lincoln, who represented the Trailors, stunned the courtroom when he called Dr. Robert Gilmore to the stand. Gilmore, who knew Fisher well, said Fisher was prone to bouts of memory loss after suffering a head injury. What’s more, Fisher was no victim. He was alive and staying in Gilmore’s house. Fisher would later show up in court to prove it.

Lincoln, who was taken with the drama of the whole affair, chronicled the case—with a few creative liberties—and sent it off to The Quincy Whig, his local newspaper. You can read the entire story at Smithsonian, which largely relates the facts of the case and adds a coda from Lincoln that speculates on what might have happened if not for Gilmore’s testimony:

"It is not the object of the writer of this, to enter into the many curious speculations that might be indulged upon the facts of this narrative; yet he can scarcely forbear a remark upon what would, almost certainly have been the fate of William and Archibald, had Fisher not been found alive. It seems he had wandered away in mental derangement, and, had he died in this condition, and his body been found in the vicinity, it is difficult to conceive what could have saved the Trailors from the consequence of having murdered him. Or, if he had died, and his body never found, the case against them, would have been quite as bad, for, although it is a principle of law that a conviction for murder shall not be had, unless the body of the deceased be discovered, it is to be remembered, that Henry testified he saw Fisher’s dead body."

[h/t Smithsonian]