Answer Man: Did Lincoln practice law in Thebes?

News-DemocratNovember 6, 2013 

I read with interest the special insert in last Sunday's BND that listed places associated with Abraham Lincoln. I remember an old courthouse in Thebes, Ill., which claimed to be the site of cases argued by Lincoln when he practiced law. There was a small museum with a Lincoln mannequin and various documents and displays. There also was a jail cell or two on the lower level. Could you verify if those claims are true and if the building still stands? -- Marcia Mellone, of Belleville

People like to make fun of all the places that try to earn a buck by boasting that "George Washington slept here."

The common hustle even prompted Moss Hart and George Kaufman to write a 1940 play with that title, which was later turned into a movie with Jack Benny and Ann Sheridan. But ol' George probably would have had to live to 200 to sleep in all the places he is supposed to have rested his weary head.

Apparently in Illinois the same is true of Abraham Lincoln -- and even one of the most famous slaves in history, Dred Scott. In its article on Thebes, Wikipedia says flat out, "Abraham Lincoln practiced law here." Wikimapia.org goes even further: "(The Thebes courthouse) is where the Dread (sic) Scott case took place with Abraham Lincoln as the judge for the case."

More reasons not to believe everything you read on the Internet. Although legend has it that both Lincoln and Scott spent at least a day or two in the courthouse, even Thebes officials have said there is absolutely no evidence to back up those claims.

For those unfamiliar, Thebes is a tiny Mississippi River hamlet -- population 436 in 2010 -- roughly 10 miles southeast of Cape Girardeau. In the 1840s, it looked like it might become a happening place when the Alexander County seat was moved there from the more centralized dorf of Unity.

The first court session there was held outdoors in 1845 under the shade of a large elm tree, but, of course, that would never do for a growing metropolis. So from 1846 to 1848 Prussian immigrant Heinrich Barkhausen designed and built the courthouse that continues to draw visitors today. The cost: $4,000.

Its walls are hand-hewn timbers laid in mortar, according to the nomination form sent to the National Register of Historic Places. Shingles were split from native timber and hand-shaved. The plaster was mixed from lime burned from local limestone and binding hair secured locally.

As the story goes, Dred Scott, whose unsuccessful 11-year legal fight for freedom went all the way to U.S. Supreme Court, was imprisoned for one night in the courthouse's holding cells. Historians have found records that a black man spent one night there -- about the time Scott may have learned about the Supreme Court decision and turned himself in.

Experts, however, say that while people then were kept in courthouse dungeons if they were arrested or found to be runaway slaves, there is no evidence that the black man in question here was Scott.

"It has never been been proven he was here," Thebes treasurer Pat Knapp told the Southeast Missourian in 2007 despite a plaque that says otherwise. "There hasn't been any connection."

The same is true of a Lincoln appearance. Although Honest Abe may have stayed overnight at the home of Levi Lightner, the first judge to preside in the courthouse, there are no documents to suggest that he either campaigned or practiced law at the courthouse. In fact, the historic places nomination form submitted in 1972 makes no mention of Scott or Lincoln in a lengthy explanation of the site's significance.

By then, of course, the courthouse's heyday was long over. Already in 1859, voters approved moving the county seat to its current location, Cairo. Since then, the building has been used as a church, library, meeting hall and election polling place.

Still, Thebes continued to be a vital river port. In 1905, a railroad bridge opened for traffic and remains in use today. In literature, Thebes is reportedly the home port of Captain Andy Hawke in Edna Best's "Show Boat."

In 1972, the Thebes Historical Society received a slightly late Christmas present when, on Dec. 26, the courthouse was entered into the national register. Three years later, a federal grant of $30,300 was approved to refurbish the place, which opened to the public the next year.

Today, the historical society is hard at work raising money to maintain the site, which again is in need of paint and repairs. To view the courthouse on the hill, go to www.thebescourthouse.com -- or, next year, go see the Lincoln bust at the museum, which is open on weekend afternoons from March through October.

Today's trivia

Who recorded her first single, "Ringo, I Love You," under the name Bonnie Jo Mason?

Answer to Wednesday's trivia: In the 1990s, the British Royal Train started to reflect the monarchy's future generation as locomotives named the Prince William and Prince Henry began pulling the train. But they have since been withdrawn in favor of engines that celebrate Queen Elizabeth's long reign: the Queen's Messenger, the Royal Sovereign and, of course, the Diamond Jubilee -- in diamond jubilee silver -- to mark Elizabeth's 60 years on the throne. Trains have been transporting monarchs since June 13, 1842, when the engine Phlegethon took Queen Victoria on a 25-minute ride from Slough to Paddington.

Send your questions to Roger Schlueter, Belleville News-Democrat, 120 S. Illinois St., P.O. Box 427, Belleville, IL 62222-0427 or rschlueter@bnd.com or call 618-236-2465.

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