Wednesday, July 14, 2010

The Lincoln Baseball Legend: Postville

A fire in 1857 destroyed Logan County's records, so little is known about the cases Lincoln handled at Postville. Once, when Lincoln was absent from a court session, Judge Treat sent the sheriff, Dr. Deskins, to find him. Deskins finally found Lincoln in Postville Park, "playing town ball with the boys."
-In Lincoln's Footsteps

Postville, Illinois was the county seat of Logan County and was part of the Eighth Judicial Circuit that Lincoln travelled while practicing law. Riding the circuit, Lincoln would have been in Postville twice a year from 1839 to 1847. Among all the Lincoln baseball stories that have been collected, the Postville reference was new to me and, considering that I found it in a book published in 2002, I was rather skeptical about it.

The earliest reference to Lincoln playing town ball in Postville that I've found occurs in a footnote in Honest Abe by Alonzo and John Rothschild, which was published in 1911. Supposedly, Lincoln was representing a client in Postville who, while testifying, was caught in lie. When his client was proven to have been untruthful, Lincoln got up and left the courtroom. When Judge Treat noticed Lincoln's absence, he sent the sheriff to go find him and bring him back. The sheriff, according to the main text of Honest Abe, found Lincoln in a tavern across the street from the courthouse, with his feet up on the stove. When informed that the judge wanted him back in the courtroom, Lincoln answered that he couldn't return. "My hands are dirty and I came over here to clean them," Lincoln was reported to have said.

This, of course, is an anecdote about Lincoln's character and honesty. The saintly Lincoln could not abide representing a client who would lie on the stand and he felt personally sullied by doing so. Another version of the story states that when Judge Treat heard what Lincoln had said, he exclaimed "Honest Abe" thus coining a nickname. The figure of speech that Lincoln used in responding to the sheriff may have been first attributed to Horace Binney, a prominent 19th century lawyer from Philadelphia, and then later incorporated into the Lincoln legend. In the notes, the story is attributed to Ward Lamon, one of Lincoln's law partners, and Francis F. Browne, whose Lincoln biography was published in 1914.

Also in the notes, however, it states that "According to [Stringer,] Lincoln was found, not at the tavern, but in the Postville Park, playing townball with the boys." "Stringer," although not mentioned in the bibliography, is most likely Lawrence Stringer, who wrote a history of Logan County that was published in 1911 and included a chapter on Lincoln. I haven't had an opportunity to check Stringer's history and can't say what his source is.

The Postville town ball story simply does not have the ring of truth about it. Abraham Lincoln walked out on a case because he was morally upset about his client's lack of veracity and then a short while later was found playing town ball. I don't buy it. The fact that there are multiple versions of the story that contradict each other also adds to my skepticism as does the fact that the entire story seems to have been constructed to support the image of the saintly Lincoln. The entire thing smells of Lincoln the legend rather than Lincoln the man.

However, I don't discount completely the possibility that Lincoln may have played town ball in Postville. It was not out of character for Lincoln, even after becoming a successful attorney, to do so. Tomorrow, I'll present some of the evidence that supports the idea that Lincoln played town ball. But as far as this specific Postville reference is concerned, I believe that it's a piece of myth-making.

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