Everyone remembers Abraham Lincoln as the president who abolished slavery and led the U.S. through the Civil War. But did you know that he also dabbled as a murder-mystery writer before arriving in the White House? In fact, there was one inspired-by-real-events story in particular that baffled his readers more than 150 years ago.
Abraham Lincoln was born on February 12, 1809, in Hardin County, Kentucky. A studious child, he preferred to bury himself in books rather than engage in the hard work that defined life on the frontier.
By 1832 Lincoln was a young man living in New Salem, Illinois. And after serving as a captain in the Black Hawk War between the U.S. and a band of Native Americans, he subsequently decided to pursue a career in law.
Lincoln’s considerable legal skills were largely self-taught, and in 1836 he passed the bar. Moving to the Illinois state capital of Springfield, then, he quickly developed a reputation as a force to be reckoned with in the courtroom. However, it was there that the future president encountered a mystery so strange that he decided to fictionalize it.
On May 31, 1841, brothers William and Henry Trailor arrived in Springfield to stay with a third sibling, Archibald, at a boarding house. William had traveled from the home he shared with his children in Greenbush, Illinois, some 100 miles to the north. He had collected Henry along the way, with the pair having completed their journey together.
Accompanying them was another Archibald named Fisher, who was a part-time carpenter and teacher in his 50s. A bachelor, he had been lodging with William in Greenbush. It appeared, on the surface, to be an ordinary trip between brothers and friends. But on June 10, 1841, Springfield postmaster James Keyes received the first indication that something had gone terribly awry.
Postmaster Tice, from Greenfield, had written to him to report that Fisher, one of his neighbors, had not been heard of since visiting the state capital. William Trailor, meanwhile, had returned to his hometown alone.
Suspicions were aroused when William began spending more money than usual, sometimes giving payment in gold. By way of explanation, he later claimed that Fisher had died on their trip to Springfield and had left him his money.
Tice, however, was unsatisfied with William’s somewhat convenient explanation, and so he wrote to Keyes in order to ascertain the truth behind the story. The Springfield postmaster released the letter to the public, and an investigation was subsequently launched.
Officials later determined that the four men left the boarding house to go sightseeing on May 31, but that Fisher did not return. The three Trailor brothers claimed that the group had separated during the afternoon, and that they had joined the boarders in search of the missing man.
However, when their hunt turned up nothing, William and Henry departed for their homes. Archibald, meanwhile, returned to Springfield two days later to continue looking for Fisher. And although there was little interest at first, the publication of Tice’s letter soon inspired crowds to start searching for the missing man.
Officials eventually decided to bring in William and Henry for questioning. Henry seemingly cracked under the pressure by implicating his brothers Archibald and William in Fisher’s apparent murder – and by suggesting that the man’s body could be found in nearby Spring Creek.
When a search of the location revealed signs of a struggle and tracks leading into the creek, it seemed an open-and-shut-case – even though no actual body was recovered. What later happened in the courtroom, however, would baffle everyone involved.
On June 18 William and Archibald stood trial for the murder of Fisher. Henry was in court as a witness, with several other witnesses having corroborated elements of his story. Things looked bleak for the pair – until, that is, Dr. Gilmore from Warren County, Illinois, took to the stand.
He claimed that Fisher, who he had previously treated for a head injury and who was known to exhibit erratic behavior, had appeared at his home on June 15 with no knowledge of how he had arrived there from Springfield. Consequently, despite Henry claiming that he had seen Fisher’s dead body, the other Trailors were discharged.
Furthermore, on June 21 Dr. Gilmore confirmed his version of events by bringing Fisher, very much alive, to Springfield. No official explanation was offered as to why Henry had accused his brothers of a non-existent murder, nor why witnesses had reported the brothers taking a detour to Spring Creek instead of heading directly home.
The mysterious story captured the imagination of Lincoln, who worked as a defense lawyer on the case. Inspired by his love of mystery authors like Edgar Allan Poe, then, he decided to write a fictionalized account entitled The Trailor Murder Mystery. And on April 15, 1846, it was published by local paper the Quincy Whig.
Some suspected that Lincoln slightly altered events to reflect well on his clients, such as describing Henry’s confession as coming after repeated interrogation – something news reports actually said was “immediate.” Lincoln also ended his story by remarking how the Trailors’ innocence had been proved beyond doubt – although some commentators have since implied that the pair might have been guilty after all.
One theory is that Fisher suffered a fit that left him in a catatonic state. The brothers, panicking about how things would look, disposed of his body in the creek where, unknown to them, the cold water revived him. Others have suggested that the Trailors did indeed attempt to murder Fisher for his money, but that the man regained consciousness after being left for dead.
Although Lincoln never won any critical acclaim for his story, and never pursued a career as a fiction writer, the tale remains an engaging and mysterious one to this day. Indeed, as the future president himself succinctly put it, “It may well be doubted whether a stranger affair ever really occurred.”