An essay: Abraham Lincoln and the Melissa Goings Case
By Jean Myers
Twenty-two years before the 16th President of the United States died of a gunshot to the head after restoring the Union of our broken country, a disheveled thirty-four year old self-taught country lawyer named Abraham Lincoln traveled on horseback through the prairie and wilderness between the counties that made up the Eighth Illinois Judicial Circuit Court – the four-hundred and forty mile circuit that included Hanover, later named Metamora, in Woodford County.
Lincoln actually started riding part of the newly formed Eighth Judicial Circuit in 1837 before there was a Woodford County, (founded 1841), but by 1843, he was riding most or all of the circuit once in the spring and again in the fall of most years through 1857. In 1842, Abraham married Mary Todd, and their first child, Robert, was born in 1843. By that time, Lincoln was spending about five months out of the year riding the circuit. Sons Edward (Eddie), William (Willie) and Thomas (Tad) were born in 1846, 1850 and 1853, respectively, and Eddie died in 1850.
During his circuit riding years, Lincoln was re-elected as a Whig to the Illinois General Assembly in 1840, won a seat in the United States Congress in 1846 where he opposed war with Mexico, became the only future president to earn a U.S. patent for his own invention in 1849, publicly denounced slavery in his 1854 “Peoria Speech,” helped to organize the new Republican party in 1856, spoke against the Dred Scott decision in 1857, and in 1858 ran for a seat in the United States Senate (for which he won the popular vote but lost to Stephen Douglas as a result of gerrymandering and the vote against him taken in the Illinois General Assembly).
Less than two years before he would be elected to the presidency, Mr. Lincoln visited the Woodford County Courthouse in Metamora for the last time, when in 1858, between debates with Judge Stephen Douglas at Charleston and Galesburg and while running for the senate seat from Illinois, he gave a stump speech at Page’s Grove, Metamora, on October 4th that attracted thousands of spectators. And he completed work on his last case in Woodford County – a case that would prove to be one of his strangest, if not the most notorious of his few criminal cases – a case that would test both the letter and the spirit of the law for Lincoln and others involved.
The following account attempts to patch folklore and various versions of that case into the story of the Melissa Goings murder trial:
Roswell Goings was a seventy-seven year old well-to-do farmer, heavy drinker and known wife beater who lived in Worth Township, Woodford County, Illinois. Melissa Goings was his seventy-year old wife who alleged that Roswell attacked her and attempted to strangle her in their home on April 14th, 1857. Melissa later acknowledged that it was necessary for her to use a piece of firewood to defend herself and strike Roswell on the head knocking him unconscious.
Local legend has it that friends of Roswell attended him that evening and were able to revive him briefly, when he is supposed to have said that Melissa attacked him and struck him about the head several times, saying something about getting the house and farm. Unfortunately for Roswell, he lapsed back into unconsciousness and died four days later.
A coroner’s inquest was held, and given the differing accounts, the sheriff, Abiah Minor, had no choice but to arrest Melissa after state’s attorney, Hugh Fullerton, indicted her for first degree murder. Melissa was then allowed her freedom pending trial after several people – including some of Roswell’s own kin – put up $1,000.00 bail. The case was continued until the fall session, and the trial date was set for Saturday, October 10th, 1857 before Judge James Harriott.
Lincoln and his co-counsel, Henry Grove, entered the courtroom on the second floor of the Woodford County Courthouse in Metamora, and Lincoln supposedly indicated that he needed more time to prepare his case and get to know his client better; whereupon, Judge Harriott granted a recess. There are two versions to what happened next – one, that Lincoln and Mrs. Goings walked outside and two, that they sat in a downstairs office to talk privately.
It is unlikely that Mr. Lincoln was in need of much additional information, but he may have needed some time to deal with the judge’s surprise revocation of Melissa’s bond, which may have alerted him to the judge’s possible predisposition to get the trial over with without much concern for the woman’s defense. In other words, Melissa was going to be on trial for her life before a possibly unsympathetic judge, as a conviction could result in her being hung. (From 1800 to 1857, twenty-eight women had been executed by hanging in this country.)
The town’s folklore is consistent in the telling of this story: Everyone felt sorry for Melissa; for even in a time when wife-beating was tolerated, most thought Roswell took it too far, too often. The town didn’t want to prosecute Melissa, let alone hang her, and Lincoln had to have been aware of these sentiments. He may also have been of the opinion that the judge didn’t much care about the town’s sentiments, which may have helped Lincoln, and/or others, seek justice for a victim who might pay with her life for having defended it in the first place from a brutal attacker, her husband.
As her bond had been revoked, technically, Melissa was the responsibility of the sheriff. At the end of the recess, the courtroom again began to fill up with the officers of the court and the many people who filled the spectator section to enjoy the entertainment that any case would provide – but, to particularly enjoy the entertainment that any case involving Abraham Lincoln, a skilled trial lawyer and his well known practice of throwing in jokes, stories and his country wit, would provide.
Everyone had returned from the recess – everyone, that is, except Melissa Goings, and she was nowhere to be found. One person is alleged to have said that a foot was seen going through an open window, but no one else could, or would, provide any additional information. It can be assumed that the judge was not amused.
Again, there appear to be different versions of what happened next. One version has Lincoln being accused by a bailiff of “running her off,” as Abe was the last one seen with her. But Lincoln said that he thought the sheriff was watching her after their talk. The more popular version, though, has Mr. Lincoln responding to the judge’s demand that he approach the bench and explain himself and any part he may have played in his client’s disappearance.
In the commotion of what must have been a confused courtroom, it is said that Lincoln told the judge, “Your honor, I did not chase her off. She simply asked me where she could get a good drink of water, and I said…Tennessee has mighty fine drinkin’ water.” Local legend has it that what he said was received with uproarious laughter from a possibly relieved and thoroughly entertained crowd.
Was it the need to lighten the seriousness of an abruptly truncated murder trial that appeared to be heading in a tragic direction for a woman who survived being beaten down by her husband only to be beaten down again by the letter of the law? Is it possible that “Honest Abe,” an officer of the court, was in cahoots with those who may have helped old Melissa escape?
Much was muddy, but a few things were clear. Whatever his part, Lincoln was never sanctioned or held in contempt of court, and there is no evidence that Lincoln had any part in the escape, about which he may have known nothing. There is a theory that the sheriff and the state’s attorney, bowing to the will of the townspeople, may have turned a blind eye to the shenanigans, so that the spirit of the law, if not the letter, could carry the day for this unfortunate woman – and that Lincoln’s funny line may have been a distraction to take the pressure off the guilty, but noble, parties who chose to risk helping the victimized Mrs. Goings.
The state’s attorney never did sign a warrant for Melissa’s arrest after she escaped – a highly unusual situation. A year later, October 4th, 1858, when Lincoln returned to Metamora for the last time in the midst of the debates for the Senate seat, he met with the state’s attorney, and Melissa Going’s case of first-degree murder was dismissed!
If Mr. Lincoln had known of the escape plan, was it wrong or courageous or both for him to have played a part in preventing the letter of the law from victimizing the woman another and, perhaps, final time?
Most seem to agree that, regardless of who was responsible for what, October 10th, 1857, both in and outside of court – whether a lackadaisical sheriff, a less than aggressive state’s attorney, a seemingly unmerciful judge, other parties unknown, or a defense attorney very aware of the people’s desire for compassion for this old woman – justice was served.
Would justice have been served if Lincoln had not been involved? We will likely never know. There are many who think that Lincoln’s character and behavior as president were, to a large extent, formed while riding the circuit. He was not perfect then, as he was not always perfect as president; yet, he endures as a hero to most.
As with many great heroes, he became such by combining courage, cunning and compassion – especially when pursuing an objective for the greater good or for the good of an underdog.
Lincoln was a keen student of both the Declaration of Independence and the U.S. Constitution. Of the former, he said, "I have never had a feeling politically that did not spring from the sentiments embodied in the Declaration of Independence." In the politically charged atmosphere preceding his run for the Senate, it is hard to imagine that he would have risked his political and legal career by helping a murder defendant run away.
Yet the Declaration is all about the right to throw off the control of a tyrant responsible for abuses that jeopardize one’s security – such as: Melissa’s unclear right to defend her security from the abuses perpetrated by her tyrannical husband. And if the defendant’s right to defend her security was possibly going to be punished by an unsympathetic judge and an inflexible legal system, then could an interpretation of the Declaration – that if there is something wrong, those who have the ability to take action also have the responsibility to take action – have been far from Lincoln’s mind or the minds of others?
There has been some debate as to whether the Goings murder case, a fairly minor legal footnote in America’s, Illinois’, and for that fact even Woodford County’s legal history, is worthy of, in some way, being cast in bronze for posterity to represent Lincoln’s ties with the Woodford County Courthouse at Metamora – an idea that is now being promoted by the Woodford County Historical Society and others. It would be far simpler to portray Abe, for instance, at leisure or sitting on a bench or doing something uncomplicated.
No doubt, he enjoyed leisure times and simpler things in Metamora, as he did anywhere else he went. But, this complicated man with the uncomplicated demeanor, in this writer’s opinion, did not see the law as merely an unchanging monolith to black and white thinking. When confronted with nearly overwhelming circumstances during the Civil War, did he abide by the letter of the Constitution by: ordering a blockade of rebel ports without a declaration of war, usurping the authority of Congress to build the Union Army and Navy, ordering commanding generals to ignore writs of habeas corpus, including one issued by the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court or by declaring martial law and suppressing a free press in New York?
Lincoln’s presidential actions carried consequences, but were they flawed if all were in an effort to save the Union, which he did? And where could such ability and determination have been honed, if not in his earlier law practice working the Eighth, taking on just about any case that came his way, thinking on his feet within a system that was not always as compassionate as he.
Lawyer Lincoln’s involvement in the Goings case may have been only to come up with a funny quip to soothe the court during a very awkward moment; there is no evidence to suggest more. But had he been more involved in Melissa’s disappearance, would it not have been to right a wrong and to keep further wrong from occurring? Would he not have been, in either light, responding to “the better angels of our nature” – which, is it not in the Melissa Goings situation, just another way to say…justice?
An artistic portrayal of this little slice of Woodford County history is long overdue. The world-renowned Lincoln-sculptor, John McClarey, has begun preliminary work on this ambitious project. Let us make it so before the 2008 sesquicentennial of Lincoln’s completion of the case or by the bicentennial of this great man’s birth in 2009.
Metamora’s heritage and history are strongly tied to Abraham Lincoln’s work. Both he and the village are more than worthy of the recognition that a bronze work of art would bring.
Woodford County – the Metamora Courthouse:
Where Lincoln Worked – Where History Lives!
An essay by Jean Myers, June 15th, 2007
Curator, Metamora Courthouse State Historic Site
Chairperson, Woodford County Historical Society, Lincoln Statue Committee
This may not be used in part or whole without the permission of the writer.
Mr. Myers is the past director of the Peoria Human Service Center’s Emergency Response Service, Central Illinois Center for the Treatment of Addictions, and the Whitman Medical Detoxification Center. Correspondence may be addressed to him at the Metamora Courthouse State Historic Site, P.O. Box 628, Metamora, IL 61548 or to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Sources include: Adams, Shirley and Kramer, Murllene. Metamora Courthouse. The Village of Metamora, 1995.Duff, John J. A. Lincoln, Prairie Lawyer. New York: Bramhall House, 1960.Spiegel, Alan D. A. Lincoln, Esquire. Macon, GA: Mercer University Press, 2002.Yates, William, editor. The Woodford County History. Woodford County, IL, 1968. Common Law (records of the Woodford County Courthouse at Metamora), 1857-1858, Eureka Courthouse.
Interviews with Metamora senior citizens, 2004-2005.
Melissa Goings and Abraham Lincoln Statuettes
Receipt for Conveyence of the Courthouse
from Woodford County
to Village of Metamora
Connie Wachtveitl & Randy Gibbs at one of the Civil War reenactments at the Metamora Courthouse
Autumn in the Metamora Square
Civil War Period Ball in Metamora