Home  »  A Library of American Literature  »  Abraham Lincoln’s Defence of Tom Grayson

Stedman and Hutchinson, comps. A Library of American Literature:
An Anthology in Eleven Volumes. 1891.
Vols. IX–XI: Literature of the Republic, Part IV., 1861–1889

Abraham Lincoln’s Defence of Tom Grayson

By Edward Eggleston (1837–1902)

[Born in Vevay, Ind., 1837. Died in Lake George, N. Y., 1902. The Graysons. 1888.]

THE PEOPLE who had seats in the court-room were, for the most part, too wise in their generation to vacate them during the noon recess. Jake Hogan clambered down from his uncomfortable window-roost for a little while, and Bob McCord took a plunge into the grateful fresh air, but both got back in time to secure their old points of observation. The lawyers came back early, and long before the judge returned the ruddy-faced Magill was seated behind his little desk, facing the crowd and pretending to write. He was ill at ease; the heart of the man had gone out to Tom. He never for a moment doubted that Tom killed Lockwood, but then a sneak like Lockwood “richly desarved it,” in Magill’s estimation. Judge Watkins’s austere face assumed a yet more severe expression; for though pity never interfered with justice in his nature, it often rendered the old man unhappy, and therefore more than usually irascible.

There was a painful pause after the judge had taken his seat and ordered the prisoner brought in. It was like a wait before a funeral service, but rendered ten times more distressing by the element of suspense. The judge’s quill pen could be heard scratching on the paper as he noted points for his charge to the jury. To Hiram Mason the whole trial was unendurable. The law had the aspect of a relentless boa-constrictor, slowly winding itself about Tom, while all these spectators, with merely a curious interest in the horrible, watched the process. The deadly creature had now to make but one more coil, and then, in its cruel and deliberate fashion, it would proceed to tighten its twists until the poor boy should be done to death. Barbara and the mother were entwined by this fate as well, while Hiram had not a little finger of help for them. He watched Lincoln as he took seat in moody silence. Why had the lawyer not done anything to help Tom? Any other lawyer with a desperate case would have had a stack of law-books in front of him, as a sort of dam against the flood. But Lincoln had neither law-books nor so much as a scrap of paper.

The prosecuting attorney, with a taste for climaxes, reserved his chief witness to the last. Even now he was not ready to call Sovine. He would add one more stone to the pyramid of presumptive proof before he capped it all with certainty. Markham was therefore put up to identify the old pistol which he had found in Tom’s room. Lincoln again waived cross-examination. Blackman felt certain that he himself could have done better. He mentally constructed the questions that should have been put to the deputy sheriff. Was the pistol hot when you found it? Did it smell of powder? Did the family make any objection to your search? Even if the judge had ruled out such questions the jury would have heard the questions, and a question often has weight in spite of rulings from the bench. The prosecuting attorney began to feel sure of his own case; he had come to his last witness and his great stroke.

“Call David Sovine,” he said, wiping his brow and looking relieved.

“David Sovine! David Sovine! David Sovine!” cried the sheriff in due and ancient form, though David sat almost within whispering distance of him.

The witness stood up.

“Howld up your roight hand,” said the clerk.

Then when Dave’s right hand was up Magill rattled off the form of the oath in the most approved and clerkly style, only adding to its effect by the mild brogue of his pronunciation.

“Do sol’m swear ’t yull tell th’ truth, th’ ’ole truth, en nuthin’ b’ th’ truth, s’ yilpye God,” said the clerk, without once pausing for breath.

Sovine ducked his head and dropped his hand, and the solemnity was over.

Dave, who was evidently not accustomed to stand before such a crowd, appeared embarrassed. He had deteriorated in appearance lately. His patent-leather shoes were bright as ever, his trousers were trimly held down by straps, his hair was well kept in place with bear’s oil or what was sold for bear’s oil, but there was a nervousness in his expression and carriage that gave him the air of a man who has been drinking to excess. Tom looked at him with defiance, but Dave was standing at the right of the judge, while the prisoner’s dock was on the left, and the witness did not regard Tom at all, but told his story with clearness. Something of the bold assurance which he displayed at the inquest was lacking. His coarse face twitched and quivered, and this appeared to annoy him; he sought to hide it by an affectation of nonchalance, as he rested his weight now on one foot and now on the other.

“Do you know the prisoner?” asked the prosecutor, with a motion of his head toward the dock.

“Yes, well enough”; but in saying this Dave did not look toward Tom, but out of the window.

“You’ve played cards with him, haven’t you?”


“Tell his Honor and the jury when and where you played with him.”

“We played one night last July, in Wooden & Snyder’s store.”

“Who proposed to Tom to play with you?”

“George Lockwood. He hollered up the stove-pipe for Tom to come down an’ take a game or two with me.”

“What did you win that night from Tom?”

“Thirteen dollars, an’ his hat an’ coat an’ boots an’ his han’ke’chi’f an’ knife.”

“Who, if anybody, lent him the money to get back his things which you had won?”

“George Lockwood.”

Here the counsel paused a moment, laid down a memorandum he had been using, and looked about his table until he found another; then he resumed his questions.

“Tell the jury whether you were at the Timber Creek camp-meeting on the 9th of August.”

“Yes; I was.”

“What did you see there? Tell about the shooting.”

Dave told the story, with a little prompting in the way of questions from the lawyer, substantially as he had told it at the coroner’s inquest. He related his parting from Lockwood, Tom’s appearance on the scene, Tom’s threatening speech, Lockwood’s entreaty that Tom would not shoot him, and then Tom’s shooting. In making these statements Dave looked at the stairway in the corner of the court-room with an air of entire indifference, and he even made one or two efforts to yawn, as though the case was a rather dull affair to him.

“How far away from Mason and Lockwood were you when the shooting took place?” asked the prosecutor.

“Twenty foot or more.”

“What did Tom shoot with?”

“A pistol.”

“What kind of a pistol?”

“One of the ole-fashion’ sort—flint-lock, weth a ruther long barrel.”

The prosecuting lawyer now beckoned to the sheriff, who handed down to him, from off his high desk, Tom’s pistol.

“Tell the jury whether this looks like the pistol.”

“’Twas just such a one as that. I can’t say it was that, but it was hung to the stock like that, an’ about as long in the barrel.”

“What did Grayson do when he had shot George, and what did you do?”

“Tom run off as fast as his feet could carry him, an’ I went up towards George, who’d fell over. He was dead ag’inst I could get there. Then purty soon the crowd come a-runnin’ up to see what the fracas was.”

After bringing out some further details Allen turned to his opponent with an air of confidence and said:

“You can have the witness, Mr. Lincoln.”

There was a brief pause, during which the jurymen changed their positions on the hard seats, making a little rustle as they took their right legs from off their left and hung their left legs over their right knees, or vice versa. In making these changes they looked inquiringly at one another, and it was clear that their minds were so well made up that even a judge’s charge in favor of the prisoner, if such a thing had been conceivable, would have gone for nothing. Lincoln at length rose slowly from his chair, and stood awhile in silence, regarding Sovine, who seemed excited and nervous, and who visibly paled a little as his eyes sought to escape from the lawyer’s gaze.

“You said you were with Lockwood just before the shooting?” the counsel asked.

“Yes.” Dave was all alert and answered promptly.

“Were you not pretty close to him when he was shot?”

“No, I wasn’t,” said Dave, his suspicions excited by this mode of attack. It appeared that the lawyer, for some reason, wanted to make him confess to having been nearer to the scene and perhaps implicated, and he therefore resolved to fight off.

“Are you sure you were as much as ten feet away?”

“I was more than twenty,” said Dave, huskily.

“What had you and George Lockwood been doing together?”

“We’d been—talking.” Manifestly Dave took fresh alarm at this line of questioning.

“Oh, you had?”


“In a friendly way?”

“Yes, tubby shore; we never had any fuss.”

“You parted from him as a friend?”

“Yes, of course.”

“By the time Tom came up you’d got—how far away? Be careful now.”

“I’ve told you twiste. More than twenty feet.”

“You might have been mistaken about its being Tom then?”

“No, I wasn’t.”

“Did you know it was Tom before he fired?”

“Tubby shore, I did.”

“What time of night was it?”

“Long towards 10, I sh’d think.”

“It might have been 11?”

“No, ’t wus n’t later ’n about 10.” This was said doggedly.

“Nor before 9?”

“No, ’t wus nigh onto 10, I said.” And the witness showed some irritation, and spoke louder than before.

“How far away were you from the pulpit and meeting-place?”

“’Twixt a half a mile an’ a mile.”

“Not over a mile?”

“No, skiercely a mile.”

“But don’t you think it might have been a little less than half a mile?”

“No, it’s nigh onto a mile. I didn’t measure it, but it’s a mighty big three-quarters.”

The witness answered combatively, and in this mood he made a better impression than he did on his direct examination. The prosecuting attorney looked relieved. Tom listened with an attention painful to see, his eyes moving anxiously from Lincoln to Dave as he wondered what point in Dave’s armor the lawyer could be driving at. He saw plainly that his salvation was staked on some last throw.

“You didn’t have any candle in your hand, did you, at any time during the evening?”

“No!” said Dave, positively. For some reason this question disconcerted him and awakened his suspicion. “What should we have a candle for?” he added.

“Did either George Lockwood or Tom have a candle?”

“No, of course not! What ’d they have candles for?”

“Where were the lights on the camp-ground?”

“Closte by the preachers’ tent.”

“More than three-quarters of a mile away from the place where the murder took place?”

“Anyway as much as three-quarters,” said Dave, who began to wish that he could modify his previous statement of the distance.

“How far away were you from Lockwood when the murder took place?”

“Twenty feet.”

“You said ‘or more’ awhile ago.”

“Well, ’t wus n’t no less, p’r’aps,” said Dave, showing signs of worry. “You don’t think I measured it, do yeh?”

“There were no lights nearer than three-quarters of a mile?”

“No,” said the witness, the cold perspiration beading on his face as he saw Lincoln’s trap opening to receive him.

“You don’t mean to say that the platform torches up by the preachers’ tent gave any light three-quarters of a mile away and in the woods?”

“No, of course not.”

“How could you see Tom and know that it was he that fired, when the only light was nearly a mile away, and inside a circle of tents?”

“Saw by moonlight,” said Sovine, snappishly, disposed to dash at any gap that offered a possible way of escape.

“What sort of trees were there on the ground?”


“Beech-leaves are pretty thick in August?” asked Lincoln.

“Ye-es, ruther,” gasped the witness, seeing a new pitfall yawning just ahead of him.

“And yet light enough from the moon came through these thick beech-trees to let you know Tom Grayson?”


“And you could see him shoot?”


“And you full twenty feet away?”

“Well, about that; nearly twenty, anyhow.” Dave shifted his weight to his right foot.

“And you pretend to say to this court that by the moonlight that you got through the beech-trees in August you could even see that it was a pistol that Tom had?”

“Ye-es.” Dave now stood on his left foot.

“And you could see what kind of a pistol it was?” This was said with a little laugh very exasperating to the witness.

“Yes, I could,” answered Dave, with dogged resolution not to be faced down.

“And just how the barrel was hung to the stock?” There was a positive sneer in Lincoln’s voice now.

“Yes.” This was spoken feebly.

“And you twenty feet or more away?”

“I’ve got awful good eyes, an’ I know what I see,” whined the witness apologetically.

Here Lincoln paused and looked at Sovine, whose extreme distress was only made the more apparent by his feeble endeavor to conceal his agitation. The counsel, after regarding his uneasy victim for a quarter of a minute, thrust his hand into the tail-pocket of his blue coat, and after a little needless fumbling drew forth a small pamphlet in green covers. He turned the leaves of this with extreme deliberation, while the court-room was utterly silent. The members of the bar had as by general consent put their chairs down on all-fours, and were intently watching the struggle between the counsel and the witness. The sallow-faced judge had stopped the scratching of his quill, and had lowered his spectacles on his nose, that he might study the distressed face of the tormented Sovine. Mrs. Grayson’s hands were on her lap, palms downward; her eyes were fixed on Abra’m, and her mouth was half open, as though she were going to speak….

Lincoln appeared to be the only perfectly deliberate person in the room. He seemed disposed to protract the situation as long as possible. He held his victim on the rack and he let him suffer. He would turn a leaf or two in his pamphlet and then look up at the demoralized witness, as though to fathom the depth of his torture and to measure the result. At last he fixed his thumb firmly at a certain place on a page and turned his eyes to the judge.

“Now, your Honor,” he said to the court, “this witness,” with a half-contemptuous gesture of his awkward left hand toward Sovine, “has sworn over and over that he recognized the accused as the person who shot George Lockwood, near the Union camp-meeting on the night of the 9th of last August, and that he, the witness, was standing at the time twenty feet or more away, while the scene of the shooting was nearly a mile distant from the torches inside the circle of tents. So remarkably sharp are this witness’s eyes that he even saw what kind of a pistol the prisoner held in his hands, and how the barrel was hung to the stock, and he is able to identify this pistol of Grayson’s as precisely like and probably the identical weapon.” Here Lincoln paused and scrutinized Sovine. “All these details he saw and observed in the brief space of time preceding the fatal shot—saw and observed them at 10 o’clock at night, by means of moonlight shining through the trees—beech-trees in full leaf. That is a pretty hard story. How much light does even a full moon shed in a beech woods like that on the Union camp-ground? Not enough to see your way by, as everybody knows who has had to stumble through such woods.” Lincoln paused here, that the words he had spoken might have time to produce their due effect on the judge, and especially on the slower wits of some of the jury. Meanwhile he turned the leaves of his pamphlet. Then he began once more: “But, may it please the court, before proceeding with the witness I would like to have the jury look at the almanac which I hold in my hand. They will here see that on the night of the 9th of last August, when this extraordinary witness”—with a sneer at Dave, who had sunk down on a chair in exhaustion—“saw the shape of a pistol at twenty feet away, at 10 o’clock, by moonlight, the moon did not rise until half-past 1 in the morning.”

Sovine had been gasping like a fish newly taken from the water while Lincoln uttered these words, and he now began to mutter something.

“You may have a chance to explain when the jury get done looking at the almanac,” said the lawyer to him. “For the present you’d better keep silence.”

There was a rustle of excitement in the court-room, but at a word from the judge the sheriff’s gavel fell and all was still. Lincoln walked slowly toward the jury-box and gave the almanac to the foreman, an intelligent farmer. Countrymen in that day were used to consulting almanacs, and one group after another of the jurymen satisfied themselves that on the night of the 9th, that is, on the morning of the 10th, the moon came up at half-past 1 o’clock. When all had examined the page, the counsel recovered his little book.

“Will you let me look at it?” asked the judge.

“Certainly, your Honor”; and the little witness was handed up to the judge, who with habitual caution looked it all over, outside and in, even examining the title-page to make sure that the book was genuine and belonged to the current year. Then he took note on a slip of paper of the moon’s rising on the night of August 9 and 10, and handed back the almanac to Lincoln, who slowly laid it face downward on the table in front of him, open at the place of its testimony. The audience in the court-room was utterly silent and expectant. The prosecuting attorney got half-way to his feet to object to Lincoln’s course, but he thought better of it and sat down again.

“Now, may it please the court,” Lincoln went on, “I wish at this point to make a motion. I think the court will not regard it as out of order, as the case is very exceptional—a matter of life and death. This witness has solemnly sworn to a story that has manifestly not one word of truth in it. It is one unbroken falsehood. In order to take away the life of an innocent man he has invented this atrocious web of lies, to the falsity of which the very heavens above bear witness, as this almanac shows you. Now why does David Sovine go to all this trouble to perjure himself? Why does he wish to swear away the life of that young man who never did him any harm?” Lincoln stood still a moment, and looked at the witness, who had grown ghastly pale about the lips. Then he went on, very slowly. “Because that witness shot and killed George Lockwood himself. I move, your Honor, that David Sovine be arrested at once for murder.”

These words, spoken with extreme deliberation and careful emphasis, shook the audience like an explosion.

The prosecutor got to his feet, probably to suggest that the motion was not in order, since he had yet a right to a redirect examination of Sovine, but, as the attorney for the State, his duty was now a divided one as regarded two men charged with the same crime. So he waved his hand irresolutely, stammered inarticulately, and sat down.

“This is at least a case of extraordinary perjury,” said the judge. “Sheriff, arrest David Sovine! This matter will have to be looked into.”

The sheriff came down from his seat, and went up to the now stunned and bewildered Sovine.

“I arrest you,” he said, taking him by the arm.

The day-and-night fear of detection in which Dave had lived for all these weeks had wrecked his self-control at last.

“God!” he muttered, dropping his head with a sort of shudder. “’Tain’t any use keepin’ it back any longer. I—didn’t mean to shoot him, an’ I wouldn’t ’a’ come here ag’inst Tom if I could ’a’ got away.”

The words appeared to be wrung from him by some internal agony too strong for him to master; they were the involuntary result of the breaking down of his forces under prolonged suffering and terror, culminating in the slow torture inflicted by his cross-examination. A minute later, when his spasm of irresolution had passed off, he would have retracted his confession if he could. But the sheriff’s deputy, with the assistance of a constable, was already leading him through the swaying crowd in the aisle, while many people got up and stood on the benches to watch the exit of the new prisoner. When at length Sovine had disappeared out of the door the spectators turned and looked at Tom, sitting yet in the dock, but with the certainty of speedy release before him. The whole result of Lincoln’s masterful stroke was now for the first time realized, and the excitement bade fair to break over bounds. McCord doubled himself up once or twice in the effort to repress his feelings out of respect for the court, but his emotions were too much for him; his big fist, grasping his rugged hat, appeared above his head.

“Goshamity! Hooray!” he burst out with a stentorian voice, stamping his foot as he waved his hat.

At this the whole court-roomful of people burst into cheers, laughter, cries, and waving of hats and handkerchiefs, in spite of the sheriffs sharp rapping and shouts of “Order in court!” And when at length the people were quieted a little, Mrs. Grayson spoke up, with a choking voice:

“Jedge, ain’t you a-goin’ to let him go now?”

There was a new movement of feeling, and the judge called out: “Sheriff, order in court!” But his voice was husky and tremulous. He took off his spectacles to wipe them, and he looked out of the window behind him, and put his handkerchief first to one eye, then to the other, before he put his glasses back.

“May it please the court,” said the tall lawyer, who had remained standing, waiting for the tempest to subside, and who now spoke in a subdued voice, “I move, your Honor, that the jury be instructed to render a verdict of ‘Not guilty.’” The judge turned to the prosecuting attorney.

“I don’t think, your Honor,” stammered Allen, “that I ought to object to the motion of my learned brother, under the peculiar circumstances of this case.”

“I don’t think you ought,” said the judge promptly, and he proceeded to give the jury instructions to render the desired verdict. As soon as the jury, nothing loath, had gone through the formality of a verdict, the sheriff came and opened the door of the box to allow Tom to come out.

“O Tom! they are letting you out,” cried Janet, running forward to meet him as he came from the dock. She had not quite understood the drift of these last proceedings until this moment.

This greeting by little Janet induced another burst of excitement. It was no longer of any use for the judge to keep on saying “Sheriff, command order in court!” All the sheriff’s rapping was in vain; it was impossible to arrest and fine everybody. The judge was compelled to avail himself of the only means of saving the court’s dignity by adjourning for the day, while Mrs. Grayson was already embracing her Tommy under his very eyes….

The lawyers presently congratulated Lincoln, Barbara tried to thank him, and Judge Watkins felt that Impartial Justice herself, as represented in his own person, could afford to praise the young man for his conduct of the case.

“Abr’am,” said Mrs. Grayson, “d’ yeh know I kind uv lost confidence in you when you sot there so long without doin’ anything.” Then, after a moment of pause: “Abr’am, I’m thinkin’ I’d ort to deed you my farm. You’ve ’arned it, my son; the good Lord A’mighty knows you have.”

“I’ll never take one cent, Aunt Marthy—not a single red cent”; and the lawyer turned away to grasp Tom’s hand. But the poor fellow who had so recently felt the halter about his neck could not yet speak his gratitude. “Tom here,” said Lincoln, “will be a help in your old days, Aunt Marthy, and then I’ll be paid a hundred times. You see it’ll tickle me to think that when you talk about this you’ll say: ‘That’s the same Abe Lincoln that I used to knit stockings for when he was a poor little fellow, with his bare toes sticking out of ragged shoes in the snow.’”