Many U.S. presidents came from a military background. Abraham Lincoln was no exception. His brief service as both a captain and a spy in the Black Hawk War was unusual. But it offered some training for his future political life. As far as I know, Lincoln was the only president who had worked in an official capacity as a spy.
How the Black Hawk War Interrupted Abraham Lincoln’s First Campaign
In early 1832, Lincoln announced his first candidacy ever – for the Illinois House of Representatives. His platform focused on river navigation, education, and limiting usury rates. But an Indian chief interrupted Lincoln’s campaign. When Black Hawk crossed into Northern Illinois in April 1832 to repossess tribal lands earlier ceded to the U.S., he sparked a brief conflict known as the Black Hawk War.
Lincoln was already a member of the state militia. Just two days after the Black Hawk War started, perhaps even before news of Black Hawk’s raid reached him, Lincoln attended the spring muster of the 31st Regiment. His company elected him captain. When Governor John Reynolds called up the militia to fight the Black Hawk War a few days later, Lincoln volunteered. He had three short tours of duty.
Lincoln’s Company Elected Him a Captain in the Black Hawk War
The recruits at New Salem formed a mounted company, and for the second time that month, Lincoln was elected captain. He didn’t want to run for captain, but friends grabbed him and pushed him forward. That victory, Lincoln later said, was “a success which gave me more pleasure than any I have had since.”
Lincoln’s company never experienced combat. But twice it came across casualties. On May 15, his company found the scalped corpses of eleven soldiers at Stillman’s run. One week later, the company found mutilated bodies of women and children – also scalped. Lincoln had more burial work than combat work.
How Abraham Lincoln Saved an Indian in the Black Hawk War
In the company’s one encounter with an Indian, Lincoln opposed his own men. An old man entered the camp. He is thought to have been a Potawatomi, and the Potawatomi tried to remain neutral in the war. Lincoln’s men took the Indian for a spy and wanted to kill him. But he was carrying a note of safe passage signed by the Secretary of War. Lincoln jumped between his men and the Indian, saying, “Men, this must not be done – he must not be shot and killed by us.” When his company threatened to fight their own captain, Lincoln told it to choose its weapons. His men backed down. One of them later said Lincoln would do justice to all.
When Lincoln’s company was mustered out of service at the end of May, he immediately enlisted in another mounted company. The man who mustered him in was none other than Lt. Robert Anderson, the commander of Fort Sumter at the outbreak of the Civil War. Lincoln’s work consisted of scouting and burying more victims of an Indiana massacre at Galena.
Abraham Lincoln as a Spy
On June 20, Lincoln officially became a spy in the services of the United States government. He enlisted as a private in Dr. Jacob Early’s Independent Spy Company. His duties involved scouting and carrying messages. When a battle broke out at Kellogg’s Grove on June 25, the spy company was dispatched there the same day. It arrived at sunrise the next morning. Once again, the men in Lincoln’s company encountered victims of the Black Hawk War and buried them. Lincoln described the scene: “The red light of the morning sun was streaming upon them as they law, heads towards us, on the ground, and every man had a round red spot on the top of his head, about as big as a dollar, where the redskins had taken his scalp. It was frightful, but it was grotesque, and the red sunlight seemed to paint everything all over.”
Lincoln was discharged in July and returned home to continue campaigning for the state legislature. He lost the election, but would run again. In three short months he had made friends in the Black Hawk War who would support his future political career. He learned a little about leadership and his election as captain gave him a foretaste for politics.
What signs of the future president do you see in the captain, private, and spy?
Literature on point
Michael Burlingame, Abraham Lincoln: A Life, vol. 1 (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2008); quotes on pp. 67-69.
Lincoln Sesquicentennial Commission, The Lincoln Log: A Daily Chronology of the Life of Abraham LincolnRead More
A scorpion sting in the night
Pain wrenched me out of my sleep. It was around 2:00 am in the old stone house we were renting in an alpine Italian village, and my left knee burned with such intensity that sleep was out of the question. The whole knee hurt, it was slightly swollen, and moving it to various positions gave me no relief. In the dark, I rummaged through my nightstand drawer, found some pain gel, and slapped it on. And in half an hour, the pain disappeared again, never to return.
It didn’t make sense. I hadn’t injured my knee that day. And arthritis doesn’t come on with a pain level from zero to a hundred overnight and then disappear just as fast. I had no idea what happened to me.
It was a couple of days later that I first thought of the scorpions. It was too late to check for the pinpoint prick where the stinger entered the skin, but I think that’s what happened to me.
We had found several scorpions in the house, inch-long little black creatures we handled like spiders, catching them in paper and setting them outdoors. A quick Google search confirmed that the Italian species is toxic but not deadly. They like to come into houses in August and most scorpions stings occur in that month (my misadventure was on September 2). The pain feels like a bee or wasp sting – a good description of what I experienced – accompanied by swelling, and often disappears within an hour. And scorpions love warm, moist places like bedding and shoes.
Animals as weapons as a TV and movie trope
My Italian scorpion encounters got me wondering about a popular trope in crime films: animals as weapons. A typical movie assassin trains a poisonous animal and drops it into a the victim’s home or hotel room to do the assassin’s job for him. Remember the snake stalking James Bond in his bathroom in Live and Let Die? Or the probe droid that let killer centipedes in Padmé Amidala’s room in the second Star Wars film? For me, the most memorable scene from the Get Smart series was when someone let a killer tarantula into Maxwell’s room. He killed it by turning over a glass full of horseradish on top of the spider and suffocating it.
Another James Bond movie features a scorpion as a murder weapon. An assassin dropped a deadly scorpion down the back of someone’s shirt in Diamonds are Forever. All those examples made me wonder: Has anyone really used a scorpion as a murder weapon? Are there any court cases involving animals as murder weapons?
Animals as weapons in real cases
I’ve found only one book suggesting the possibility of a scorpion as a murder weapon, and that was in the case of Pope John Paul I’s mysterious death. The lethal sting of a Golden Scorpion, an Asian species, can cause a sudden death that would look like the pope’s. But even the author dismisses the possibility as unlikely.
In reality, scorpions, spiders and snakes make lousy murder weapons. Any assassin who lets an animal into a room can’t be assured it will actually attack. It might just crawl off into another room or out a window. Exotic and toxic pets have to be registered in many countries, making them easier for the police to track than a garrote or a knife. And if the killer really wants to play it safe, he or she would have to catch the animal after the murder and remove it from the crime scene so that law enforcement won’t suspect it. The image of assassins running around the pope’s bedroom, at night, trying to recapture a lethal scorpion without anyone in the Papal Palace noticing it is too ridiculous to be plausible.
But there are cases of killers using animals as weapons. Criminal justice instructor Carmen M. Cusack includes a chapter on animals as weapons in her book, Animals and Criminal Justice. Although an animal is more likely to be used as a weapon in war or in self defense – guard dogs are an example – she does list cases in which people used animals to assault another person.
Dogs are the most frequently used animal weapons. A New York Times article points out that courts are increasingly likely to uphold a conviction for assault with a deadly weapon if a dog attacks someone or the owner orders it to attack.
But Cusack does list one case of a snake as a weapon. The defendant didn’t let it into his girlfriend’s room, James Bond-style. Instead, he beat his girlfriend with his pet python while she sat in the bathtub. The girlfriend survived, bruised, but the snake died. And the man did face charges.
Which of these animals would scare you the most if it snuck into your room?
Can you add any more examples of exotic animals as weapons, either from fiction or real life?
Literature on point
Carmen M. Cusack, Animals and Criminal Justice (New Brunswick, New Jersey: Transaction Publishers, 2015).
Lucien Gregoire, Murder by the Grace of God (Bloomington, Indiana: AuthorHouse, 2013) 249-251.
David Goodman, “Instruments of Danger in Weapons Case Were Dogs, Authorities Say,” New York Times, October 6, 2013.
Associated Press, “Police: Massachusetts man used pet python to attack woman,” Fox News, November 3, 2012.Read More
As a subgenre of true crime, historical true crime is gaining popularity. Last week we looked at some of the reasons why. This week we’ll look at some of my favorite historical true crime books, sorted by time period. Some of them are the vanguards of the subgenre. Others are obscure and might surprise you.
I haven’t read them all and am open to suggestions, so please leave a comment below if you want to recommend any historical true crime books! I’d love suggestions dealing with pre-WWII crimes.
Criminal Motivated by Lost Honor: A True Story, by Friedrich Schiller. Schiller, author of William Tell and the Ode to Joy, is considered a father of the true crime genre. This is his debut story. It wasn’t the first true crime tale ever written, but Schiller’s fame helped launch the genre.
Duel with the Devil: The True Story of How Alexander Hamilton and Aaron Burr Teamed Up to Take on America’s First Sensational Murder Mystery by Paul Collins. Founding fathers and bitter enemies, Alexander Hamilton and Aaron Burr teamed up to defend a murder suspect in a sensational New York murder case. Burr later killed Hamilton in a duel. The author claims to have discovered a new clue as to the identity of the real killer in the case they both defended.
Early 19th century
A Remarkable Case of Arrest for Murder by Abraham Lincoln. Did you know Abraham Lincoln wrote true crime? In fact, he might be the most famous true crime author ever. This story, also called the Trailor Murder Mystery, is based on one of Lincoln’s own cases. His prose doesn’t yet reach the heights of the Gettysburg Address, but the read is worth it for the ending, which has one of the best twists I’ve ever seen. Lincoln’s story is in the public domain and I’ve reproduced the entire text in my blog. Just click on the link to read it.
Civil War era
True Crime in the Civil War: Cases of Murder, Treason, Counterfeiting, Massacre, Plunder & Abuse by Tobin T. Buhk. A fascinating anthology of crimes associated with the war.
American Brutus: John Wilkes Booth and the Lincoln Conspiracies by Michael W. Kauffman. Kauffman used modern data processing to analyze the evidence in the Lincoln assassination and uncovered some interesting facts. Click here for my interview of the author.
Liar, Temptress, Soldier, Spy: Four Women Undercover in the Civil War by Karen Abbott. A well written, exciting narrative of four women who stepped outside the usual roles for 19th century women in order to defend their countries. Whether they were heroes or criminals depends on your perspective.
The Notorious “Bull” Nelson: Murdered Civil War General by Donald A. Clark. A scholarly portrait of one of the war’s most famous murder victims. You can read my interview of the author here.
Late 19th century
The Suspicions of Mr. Whicher: A Shocking Murder and the Undoing of a Great Victorian Detective by Kate Summerscale. Deliciously Victorian, this story covers an 1860 English murder investigation during the birthing throes of forensic science.
Fiend: The Shocking True Story Of America’s Youngest Serial Killer by Harold Schechter. Set in Massachussets in the 1870s, this book covers a string of beatings and murders that were eventually traced back to a boy. Well written and disturbing.
The Fall of the House of Walworth: A Tale of Madness and Murder in Gilded Age America by Geoffrey O’Brien. You know the house of Walworth even if you don’t recognize the name. Ellen Hardin Walworth was the daughter of one of Abraham Lincoln’s friends and one of the founders of the Daughters of the American Revolution. When her son killed her estranged husband, Ellen became a lawyer to help defend her son.
We Is Got Him: The Kidnapping that Changed America by Carrie Hagen. The gripping story of America’s first kidnapping for ransom, set against the background of 1876 Philadelphia and its preparations for the country’s centennial celebrations.
The Killer of Little Shepherds: A True Crime Story and the Birth of Forensic Science by Douglas Starr. This one is my favorite! Set in France in the 1890s, Starr narrates the birth of forensic science against the backdrop of France’s “Jack the Ripper.” Starr’s writing is both suspenseful and informative.
The Devil in the White City: Murder, Magic, and Madness at the Fair That Changed America by Erik Larson. A classic – and quite possibly the book that made historical true crime books so popular. Larson chronicles one of the country’s most prolific serial killers and the history of the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair. This is a story you won’t soon forget.
Early 20th century
Famous Crimes the World Forgot: Ten Vintage True Crime Stories Rescued from Obscurity (Volume 1) by Jason Lucky Morrow. The author resurrects crime cases that were big news at the time but are forgotten now. A seasoned journalist, Morrow does an excellent job of breathing life into cases moldering in the archives.
Hauptmann’s Ladder: A Step-by-Step Analysis of the Lindbergh Kidnapping by Richard T. Cahill. The author is a criminal trial lawyer and offers fresh insights into one of the country’s most famous cases. You can read my interview with Richard Cahill here.
Do you have any titles you’d recommend? Please leave a comment and let me know. I’ll add them to my list.