If the Christmas season has put partridges on your pear tree, parse the pairs below. Even in small towns, common surnames can lead you up a tree.
Springfield, Illinois, in the early 1840s was home to about 3,000 people. If you owned a shop or took the Whig newspaper or ever showed up in court, Abraham Lincoln probably knew you by face or name.
From amidst such a small, tight-knit community, Lincolnophiles today might assume that they can pick out those names from the simplest of references. And they would be wrong.
Case in point: William H. Herndon, born 1818, was Lincoln’s junior law partner from 1844 to 1861. William D. Herndon was older, born we know not where, and shows up as chair of a public meeting in June 1841 to discuss the astonishing Trailor Murder case (which A. Lincoln argued, and about which wrote a detective story in 1846.) A patron on the East Coast asked us how Lincoln’s soon-to-be-partner could ethically lead a meeting about a legal case? The answer is that William D. led that meeting.
We might assume that the two WH’s were related, but how? Richard Lawrence Miller’s vast new 4-volume study Lincoln and His World (1809-1860) states twice that William D. was a relative of William H., but Miller does not state how. Nor do the old county histories. William D. was a Whig, served as a commissioner of the new State Capitol in Springfield in 1837 (he may have been a brick mason), was an elected state representative in 1844, and like A. Lincoln later on, had to fight off charges from Democrats that he was a nativist, contending that he merely thought foreign-born persons should reside permanently in their new land and actually register before voting.
Our ‘Billy’ was the son of Archer and Rebecca Herndon. Billy’s younger brother was Elliott B. Herndon, U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of Illinois (based in Springfield), and editor of a Democratic newspaper in 1857-60 that supported the Buchanan side against the Douglas side. Elliott voted for pro-slavery man John C. Breckinridge for president in 1860. The two brothers were not close.
Amusingly enough, William D. once hired the firm of Stuart and Lincoln to defend him against a charge of gambling for money in a card game called farrow. He was acquitted.
Another case in point: Josiah N. Francis was the secretary of that public meeting in 1841, when people gathered to express dismay at a murder charge against friend and neighbor A. Trailor. Francis was qualified enough to take the minutes: he had founded the Whig newspaper in town in 1831, and edited it until 1835. But he gave up the paper that year to Simeon Francis, probably his older brother, in order to go into the cabinet-making business with brother Charles. Evidently a cabinet-maker of 6 years’ duration can still take minutes, seated next to a brick mason. So if you see reference to ‘editor Francis’ you need to find out which date to know which man. Little brother Allen also worked there.
Thanks be to Simeon and his wife Eliza, at any rate: their front parlor served as the secret courting room for A. Lincoln and M. Todd in 1842. (The exact location of that front parlor is now the entryway to the Presidential Library, 6th and Jefferson Sts.) But for that parlor, we might not today have a Library in which to puzzle out these threads.
And did you catch the name of that young belle? It was Mary Todd. On 4 November 1842 she became Mary Lincoln, and never again used the maiden name ‘Todd’ or the initial ‘T.’ She had practice at name-dropping: christened ‘Mary Ann Todd’ in 1818, she dropped the ‘Ann’ when her little sister was christened, like an invasive species, ‘Ann Marie Todd.’ And yet … we have seen a finely printed calling card with the name ‘Mary Ann Todd’ from about 1840. She was staying in Boston, a city our Mary never saw till 1848, with her husband.
By the way, who was Lincoln’s boss as Deputy Surveyor of Sangamon County? John C. Calhoun. No, not the pro-slavery senator of the same name from South Carolina. Even in the 1830s and 1840s, it was a big country, especially in small towns.