When people think about Abraham Lincoln, much of the focus is on the incredibly great things he did, things like keeping the Union together and emancipating the slaves in the Confederate States. Some will remember him for his great oratory, such as the two inaugural addresses, or the Gettysburg Address. In pre-Civil War Effingham County, many people would have had memories of his local law career.
For instance, in a 1980 Illinois Bar Association Journal article, the writer stated: “Several well-known lawyers and judges, including Abraham Lincoln and Sidney Breese, argued or presided at trials in the Effingham County Courthouse.” Another writer, this time for the Journal of the Illinois State Historical Society in 1917 wrote:
“An aristocrat in mien, deportment and bearing, commensurately financed, elegantly attired and possessing unusual ability with energy to use, young Thornton early took a leader’s position in the community. In December 1836, he traveled to Vandalia, then State capital, and was licensed by the Supreme Court to practice law in Illinois. On that visit, he attended sessions of the Legislature and became acquainted with such men as O.B. Ficklin, Usher F. Linder, Orville H. Browning — and Abraham Lincoln. Thereafter, while building his law practice in Shelbyville, Thornton frequently met Lincoln riding circuit in Bond, Montgomery, Fayette, Effingham, Shelby, Christian, Moultrie, Macon, Piatt, Coles and Edgar counties, a friendship, real, if not intimate, developed.”
Some Effingham County people had impersonal contacts with Lincoln. One such person was a member of one of 19th century Effingham’ s most prominent families. Her husband had been a doctor locally, as had been two of her sons. Her name was Catherine Goodell. Her memories were found in the contents of a letter of instruction which she left pinned to the flyleaf of one of her Bibles to tell her children how they should handle her affairs after her death: She described her faith: “Considering the long life I have lived and the uncertainty of the future, I write these few lines. When the Lord calls, I hope to be ready, with the help of Christ, to leave this world and go to a better one that Christ has prepared for us. I have tried to live a Christian life, and to teach my children Christianity, to love God above all others, to love each other, to live honestly, that integrity of character is the highest type of manhood and womanhood.”
Next, she gave instruction about how to divide her property, followed by an autobiographical sketch in which she recounted her educational life experiences, including this about Abraham Lincoln and other important personalities of the 19th century: “I have heard lectures from Agasis, Bayard Taylor, Barnum, Gough, etc. Heard Lincoln speak on politics. He and my husband had a discussion. Heard Douglas nearly the same time.”
But, Lincoln also was remembered for matters which reflect his very human qualities and his warm relationships with people whose names are not found in history books. In the 19th century, there were Effingham County residents who had fond memories about how the life of the great 16th President of the United States touched their own. There were at least four residents, contemporaries of Lincoln, whose family heritage was enriched by the stories passed on from those earlier generations.
Two of the descriptions of contact with the man who led the United States during its most difficult era deal with Lincoln’s early career as a legislator and lawyer when “The Railsplitter” was establishing the political reputation which would eventually lead him to the White House. The early settlers of this county did not, at the time of their contact with the future President, have any idea that they were conversing with a gentleman who would come to be regarded as possibly the greatest chief executive in United States’ history.
In her book, “Vandalia: Wilderness Capital of Lincoln’s Land,” avid local historian and former Effingham High School teacher, Mary Burtschi, wrote about an incident involving Abraham Lincoln and an early settler from Effingham County, Matilda Flack, wife of Milton Flack, one of the first surveyors in Illinois and the postmaster at Freemanton, the first town to be platted in early Effingham County.
“Accordingly, the Vandalia Hotel was a gay place when the General Assembly was in session. In the candle-lighted rooms of the inn, state officers, lawmakers, men of influence, and their ladies attended parties, cotillions, and banquets. Unquestionably Lincoln frequented the inn, but only one incident is actually recorded of his presence. The youthful legislator attended a party in the hotel one evening.
His shabby appearance and unbecoming manners according to feminine standards were major shortcomings that Vandalia belles could not easily overlook. Lincoln was aware that the local young ladies were avoiding him so he asked Matilda Flack, wife of Milton and a relative of the proprietor, to dance. During the frolic, Lincoln stepped on her dress and tore it. His great concern at the mishap counterbalanced his awkwardness. He was so personable and genuinely sorry about the unfortunate incident that Matilda Flack could not be disgruntled with the unhappy young man.”
The pages of the Teutopolis Press provided another description of Mr. Lincoln’s contact with Effingham County residents. In the January 28, 1904, edition, the Press presented the obituary of Joseph Horn, describing him as “the last one of the original settlers” of Teutopolis. After coming to America as a teenager, he had settled permanently in Effingham County when the German Land Company offered land for sale.
In his later years, Mr. Horn had quite a tale to tell about all the change he had seen as he witnessed the wilderness turn into a prosperous village, but the greatest pride showed when the elderly gentleman told about his contact with the famous lawyer from Sangamon County.
A journalist for the Press wrote: “The death of Uncle Joseph Horn I last week recalls to the mind of many an incident in his life of which the old gentleman was very proud, and one which he often related.”
In the early days of Teutopolis back in the 1840s , when the courthouse was still at Ewington, it was the custom for everybody to go to court whether he had any business there or not. They went to see the judges and hear the lawyers score one another. At the fall term of court in 1848, Abraham Lincoln and Judge Thornton attended court in this county, coming on horseback. Lincoln on the trip, had the misfortune to tear his coat and not wishing to appear in court in the garment made inquiry for a tailor upon his arrival at Ewington but the town could not supply one and he was directed to Joseph Horn, who was attending as a spectator and was a tailor at Teutopolis.
Lincoln was given a borrowed coat and Horn took his coat home and in several days returned it mended. Lincoln was at that time a young struggling lawyer and Horn had little thought that he was mending a coat for the greatest president the nation has ever had. In after years, he often told of how he patched the coat of Lincoln and many of the old settlers know of the circumstances.”
By the end of the 19th century, there were other Effingham County residents who had stories about their personal contacts with the “Great Emancipator,” but those are remembrances reserved for later articles. The above recollections of early settlers in the county suffice to indicate that Lincoln impacted on local people’s lives and left rich memories.