Lincoln Legal Briefs

January - March 1998, Number 45

A Betrayal of Trust

Early in March legal authorities announced charges of document theft against a former project employee, Sean Brown. This news culminated an intensive investigation prompted by staff discovery of the theft in November. While inspecting antebellum court records purchased at auction last summer by the Illinois State Historical Library, project researchers found that some documents already had been identified and photocopied several years earlier, during our search of county holdings at the University of Illinois at Springfield regional archive facility.

At this time it is not known how many records were removed from at least three central Illinois repositories, but estimates exceed 200. Many of the documents have been returned, but recovery and restitution efforts continue.

Mr. Brown, who had a graduate degree in history and archival experience, was employed as a research associate in 1993, and resigned in 1996. He allegedly took most if not all of the documents while on his own time, but he enjoyed privileged access by virtue of his project affiliation. At the press announcement, director Cullom Davis commented, "My colleagues and I are deeply distressed and angry over what has happened. We feel both embarrassed and betrayed. . . But I am very proud of their exemplary conduct throughout. They quickly and definitively uncovered the theft, immediately reported it to the proper authorities, and assisted the investigation while continuing to perform their assigned duties. Most of them are friends of their former associate, but without hesitation they put integrity, professionalism, and the project's welfare ahead of personal ties."

Readers seeking additional information may call or write project offices.



Annual grant support for scholarly editions is available from the National Historical Publications and Records Commission, an office of the National Archives. The Lincoln Legal Papers currently is in its eighth year of NHPRC assistance, a vital funding component. In February we received gratifying news of a substantial grant increase for next year, to $88,040. The award is doubly important, both as a major funding source and as an expression of confidence in our work. One special condition, or challenge, is that we must raise an additional $15,000 in donations by September 30 in order to receive the final $20,000 portion of the grant. The next six months ordinarily is a slack fund raising season, so we will have to make a special effort this year.

Readers continue answering our annual appeal for support. We acknowledge with deep appreciation the generosity of the following recent donors: Mr. & Mrs. Charles W. Adams, Paul Bargren, Winifred Barringer, Glenn Burton, Mr. & Mrs. Sheldon S. Cohen, George Craig, Mr. & Mrs. Walter Dallow, Mr. & Mrs. John E. Daly, Mr. & Mrs. Robert Dickerman, Dr. Lenore Farmer, Tom Forgue, French Fraker, Mr. & Mrs. Jeffrey Gaynes, Joseph R. George, Jr., Harold Gross, Ginger Harmon, Janine Harris, Mr. & Mrs. Bruce Hart, Hart, Southworth & Witsman Law Firm, Patricia Henry, Hon. Lynn Hughes, T. Willard Hunter, Mr. & Mrs. Kurt Kausler, Charles W. Keaton, Dr. & Mrs. Victor Lary, Harvey E. Lemmen, J. M. Lloyd, James McCarthy, Virginia McConnell, Mrs. Peter McEnteggart, Meyer Boswell Books, Inc., Mr. & Mrs. Larry Morris, Mr. & Mrs. J.B. Nolan, Frederick Olson, Phillip Paludan, Gregory Perry, Esq., Mr. & Mrs. Donald G. Raymer, Donald A. Rydgren, Mrs. Molly Schlich, Dr. John Schmale, Richard Teeple, Don Tracy, Mr. & Mrs. Frederic S. Ury, Mr. & Mrs. John Widdowson, The Honorable & Mrs. Harlington Wood, Jr., Michael Zecher, Zeta Psi Fraternity (University of Illinois). Virginia Fehrenbacher in memory of Don E. Fehrenbacher.  


A. Lincoln, Divorce Lawyer

Divorce was a viable, legal option for antebellum Illinois women. They had greater access to divorce than their counterparts in some southern and eastern states and experienced few legal problems obtaining divorces. Illinois women of all economic backgrounds had more access to divorce in the antebellum period than ever before. They sued their husbands for divorce on a variety of grounds, the circuit courts granted them divorces, and they frequently retained custody of their children.

The divorce cases in Abraham Lincoln's law practice reflect that access to divorce and the relatively liberal attitudes of Illinois circuit courts in granting divorces. Between 1837 and 1861, Lincoln and his law partners handled 131 divorce cases in seventeen Illinois county circuit courts across the state. Women brought eighty-two (63 percent) of those cases. The courts granted divorces to women plaintiffs in those cases 79 percent of the time, whereas male plaintiffs obtained divorces only 69 percent of the time.

Illinois law at statehood in 1818 provided for divorce on the grounds of adultery, bigamy, and impotence. In 1824, the Illinois General Assembly added willful desertion and, in 1827, included extreme and repeated cruelty and habitual drunkenness for two years. The legislature added conviction of a felony in 1845. Illinois law stated very specifically that divorce did not affect the legitimacy of children and gave the circuit courts power to settle questions of alimony and child custody.

The divorce cases that Lincoln and his partners handled offer evidence that women plaintiffs sued their husbands for divorce on all the grounds for which the statutes provided, but impotence, fraud and bigamy were far less common grounds than desertion, adultery, cruelty, and drunkenness. In divorce cases that Lincoln and his partners handled, plaintiffs cited desertion as at least one of the grounds 48 percent of the time and adultery 26 percent of the time. Women cited cruelty and drunkenness in combination as the grounds for requesting a divorce in 9 percent of the cases. Women were most successful when they cited cruelty and drunkenness as the grounds, obtaining divorces 100 percent of the time. When women cited desertion, the courts granted them divorces 82 percent of the time; and when they cited adultery, the courts decreed divorces 72 percent of the time. By contrast, men were most successful when they cited adultery as the grounds, obtaining divorces in 75 percent of those cases. In cases in which they cited desertion, the court granted them divorces only 72 percent of the time.

Although the documentation for child custody, alimony, and child support is spotty, there is enough evidence reflected in Lincoln's practice to suggest that women often obtained custody of their children when they sued their husbands for divorce, especially when they cited either cruelty and drunkenness in combination or desertion as grounds. Commonly, women were the recipients of regular alimony and child support payments and/or lump sum settlements in money or land. It is clear that antebellum Illinois women successfully sued their husbands for divorce, obtained custody of their children, and received some level of post-nuptial support. Throughout the mid-nineteenth century, Illinois was granting more divorces per capita than Connecticut, Maine, Massachusetts, Missouri, or Ohio. By 1857, Illinois was leading the nation in granting divorces.

Two important factors probably contributed to Illinois's high rate of divorce. As an early frontier state, Illinois experienced the social disruption associated with the frontier and contained an extremely mobile population. Rapid industrialization and railroad development throughout the state increased that mobility. Illinois had a legislature that was more liberal in providing women access to divorce than other states, circuit courts that were more comfortable in granting divorces, and a mobile population more willing to view divorce as a possible solution to marital difficulties.

Staff member Stacy Pratt McDermott based this summary of Lincoln's divorce cases on her ongoing research on women and divorce in antebellum Illinois.

Following are some of the 131 divorce cases in Lincoln's practice.

Hill v. Hill (Macon County Circuit Court, March Term 1843)

Sarah Hill sued William Hill for divorce on the grounds of cruelty and impotence. Sarah Hill claimed that William Hill allowed his family members to abuse her physically and that he was "not a natural and perfect man." William Hill retained Lincoln and denied the allegations, but he later withdrew his answer. William Hill failed to appear, and the court granted Sarah Hill a divorce.

Philbrick v. Philbrick (Menard County Circuit Court, May Term 1847)

Laura Philbrick sued Samuel Philbrick for divorce on the grounds of bigamy and extreme and repeated cruelty. Samuel Philbrick retained Lincoln and answered that he did not beat his wife, but he did refuse to sleep or have sexual relations with her because health and opium addiction made her "so filthy, loathsome, and disgusting in her person, as to render such connection impossible." The jury granted the divorce after discovering that Samuel Philbrick had a wife living in New Hampshire. The court continued and later dismissed the assessment of alimony.

Chapman v. Chapman (Sangamon County Circuit Court, August Term 1851)

Maria Chapman sued George Chapman in an action for divorce on the grounds of adultery. George Chapman retained Lincoln and Herndon. Maria Chapman charged that her husband maintained a bakery business in Waverly, Illinois, and later in Alton, Illinois, but insisted that she and their five children remain in Sangamon County. Maria Chapman contended that while he was absent from their home, he maintained adulterous relationships with a Mrs. Briggs, a Miss Hart, and a Mrs. Vansyckle. Maria Chapman asked the court for a divorce, alimony, and custody of their children. The defendant confessed judgment, and the court granted the divorce, $600 in alimony per year, and custody of the children, including the return of their daughter Elisa.

Stewardson v. Stewardson (Shelby County Circuit Court, November Term 1852)

Mary Jane Stewardson and William Stewardson were married in 1848. William Stewardson allegedly deserted Mary Jane Stewardson after two years of marriage. Mary Jane Stewardson retained Lincoln and sued for divorce and alimony. William Stewardson answered that he deserted her because she verbally abused him. The jury found for Mary Jane Stewardson and awarded the divorce and alimony of $50 per year.

Beerup v. Beerup (Sangamon County Circuit Court, June Term 1853)

Caroline Beerup retained Herndon and sued Stephen Beerup in an action of divorce. She sued on the grounds that he deserted her by moving to California in 1850, that he treated her with extreme cruelty and tortured her, and that he had committed adultery and become diseased. The defendant defaulted, and the court granted Caroline Beerup a divorce and custody of the six children.

Berry v. Berry (Sangamon County Circuit Court, October Term 1859)

Benjamin Berry pleaded guilty in a forgery case, and the court sentenced him to three years in the penitentiary. Sarah Berry retained Herndon and sued Benjamin Berry for divorce on the grounds that he was a convicted felon. Benjamin Berry failed to appear, and the court granted the divorce.

Duhamel v. Duhamel (Sangamon County Circuit Court, October Term 1860)

Desiree Duhamel retained Herndon and sued Edmund Duhamel for a divorce on the grounds of habitual drunkenness and cruelty. She claimed that her husband would have shot her if neighbors had not intervened. Edmund Duhamel denied all of the allegations, but witnesses confirmed that Edmund Duhamel was a drunkard and was cruel to his wife. The court granted the divorce.

Illinois Historic Preservation Agency
Springfield, Illinois