Some authors create fantastical worlds out of nothing, but others, like Jonathan F. Putnam, base their novels on actual events from history, infusing them with their own flair. Here, Putnam delves into the true story of Elijah Lovejoy and his quest to keep writing and publishing his anti-slavery newspapers. Putnam shares how this historical event served as the inspiration behind Perish from the Earth, the second Lincoln & Speed mystery.
My latest Lincoln & Speed Mystery, Perish from the Earth, is based on the shocking real-life murder of the abolitionist publisher Elijah Lovejoy, one of the most infamous crimes of the 19th century. This month marks the 180th anniversary of Lovejoy’s death. While Lovejoy’s story has faded into obscurity, it deserves to be remembered, for it has important continuing lessons for our society today.
On the morning of Tuesday, November 7, 1837, the publisher Elijah Lovejoy bade farewell to his wife Celia Ann, five months pregnant with their second child, and went off to defend his newspaper press against the threats of a pro-slavery mob in Alton, Illinois. He would be murdered before the sun rose again.
By most reckonings, Lovejoy was the first journalist to be killed for practicing his profession in the United States.
Lovejoy never intended to be a publisher. Born in Maine in 1802, the oldest son of a preacher, he planned to follow his father’s footsteps into the ministry. But a visit as a young man to the slave city of St. Louis changed his life. Outraged by the brutal treatment of enslaved African-Americans, he decided that his true calling was to become a vocal opponent of slavery.
Many white people in the country in the 1830s opposed slavery—the abolitionist movement was just beginning to organize—but they tended to reside in the Northeast. Lovejoy decided to oppose the beast from within its very belly. After he finished his education at Princeton, Lovejoy moved back to St. Louis and worked as an editor of a newspaper, the St. Louis Observer. With the rise of the steamboat, St. Louis had become a major port on the Mississippi, and its economy largely depended, directly and indirectly, on the slave trade and slave labor. Lovejoy filled his paper with anti-slavery articles and editorials. The people of St. Louis were outraged. At one point, a mob broke into his newspaper office and threw his printing press into the river.
Fearing for the safety of his young family, Lovejoy moved across the river to Alton, Illinois, and started up a new newspaper, which he called the Alton Observer. But while Illinois was a free state, it was strongly pro-slavery. Lovejoy’s editorializing against slavery in Alton drew just as much public opprobrium as it had in St. Louis. Twice more his press was broken by mobs. When Lovejoy remained undeterred, the town fathers called a public meeting to seek his expulsion from the city. Lovejoy stood and spoke at length in his own defense.
“As long as I am an American citizen,” Lovejoy proclaimed, “and as long as American blood runs in these veins, I shall hold myself at liberty to speak, to write, to publish whatever I please on any subject—being amenable to the laws of my country for the same. I can die at my post, but I cannot desert it.”
Unmoved, the town leaders voted unanimously to require him to either cease publication or leave town.
Lovejoy refused. Instead, he acquired yet another printing press—his fourth!—and secured it in a warehouse along the river owned by a sympathetic businessman. As word spread through town that Lovejoy had disobeyed the directives of the town fathers, popular fervor grew to enforce the edict by violence. On the night of November 7, 1837, a mob of more than 100 men, many of them armed, attacked the warehouse to seize Lovejoy’s new press. Several times they charged the warehouse, and several times Lovejoy’s allies repelled the charge. At first Lovejoy was hidden inside, but he resolved to meet the mob himself. He emerged, unarmed, and was shot five times in the chest. He died instantaneously. The mob proceeded to break apart the new press, hurl it into the river piece by piece, and burn the warehouse to the ground.
A grand jury in Alton later indicted eight members of the mob that had killed Lovejoy for “violent riot” as well as twelve defenders of Lovejoy’s press for “violent resistance to riot.” In a series of trials, no one on either side was found guilty.
Lovejoy’s murder shocked the nation and made headlines from coast to coast. One of the persons most affected was a young Illinois state legislator and lawyer named Abraham Lincoln, who was living scarcely seventy-five miles away at the time, in Springfield.
Lincoln was already opposed to slavery. Earlier in 1837, he had been one of only six state legislators, out of 83, to vote in opposition to a resolution supporting slavery. But Lovejoy’s murder galvanized Lincoln, illustrating for him the evils of the unchecked mob. Lincoln’s strong condemnation of the mob violence that killed Lovejoy, delivered to the Young Men’s Lyceum in Springfield two months after the murder, in January 1838, was his first speech to attract nationwide attention.
“Lovejoy’s tragic death for freedom,” as Lincoln later referred to it, is now widely cited by historians as the first salvo of the coming civil war.
Yet Lovejoy’s story retains significance today far beyond its role in the history books. While the battle against slavery in America was long ago won, the battle for the rights of a free press to publish without personal peril remains on the knife’s edge. The Committee to Protect Journalists (“CPJ”) has counted more than 20 journalists killed worldwide for doing their jobs in each year since their count began in 1992. As calculated by the CPJ, the most common beat of the murdered journalists over that time has been “politics,” far more than “corruption,” “crime,” and “business” put together. As with Lovejoy, these are journalists killed for pursuing the public weal. The most recent high-profile victim, sadly, conforms to these norms. In mid-October the Maltese journalist Daphne Caruana Galizia, called by Politico a “one-woman Wikileaks,” was killed when a remote-controlled bomb exploded in her car as she drove near her home.
Lovejoy’s murder in defense of his physical printing press—the sine qua non of publishing in the 19th century—may seem almost quaint in the 21st, where the Internet has made everyone a potential publisher. And yet, the very fact that everyone is able to publish his or her views on matters of public conscience underlines our individual and collective responsibility as citizens.
This point was anticipated on the cusp of the Internet age by the late Senator (and longtime journalist) Paul Simon in his classic 1994 biography of Elijah Lovejoy. “The people who really killed Lovejoy,” argued Simon in his conclusion, “were not those who fired the bullets but rather ‘middle of the road’ straddlers, most of them honorable people of the community. They were all the clean, decent, honest people who stayed neutral between the two opposing forces and who were too timid to stand and be counted.” The civic duty to stand in support of your beliefs—whichever way you lean—has never been more pertinent than it is today.
Less momentously, Lovejoy’s story also inspired my own. My Lincoln & Speed Mystery series retells the life of the young Abraham Lincoln and his real-life best friend Joshua Speed. Each mystery in the series is inspired by Lincoln’s life and times and the actual legal cases Lincoln handled as a trial lawyer in Springfield in the 1830s. My idea is that Lincoln and Speed act as a kind of Holmes and Watson on the American frontier. When I started digging into Lovejoy’s story as part of my original research for my series, I realized it was the perfect basis for a historical mystery. In Perish from the Earth, Lincoln and Speed must solve a murder that takes place aboard a steamboat after a young planter loses his fortune to a crooked gambler. Lincoln faces a momentous choice on which the fate of the nation may hang, if his own client doesn’t hang first.
Jonathan F. Putnam is a writer and attorney. His most recent historical novel, Perish from the Earth (Crooked Lane Books, 2017), centers on the murder of Elijah Lovejoy and the fight for justice by a brand-new new lawyer named Abraham Lincoln.