Original Lincoln document donated to U-M library

By Jordan Poll
U-M Law

The 16th president of the United States, Abraham Lincoln, is famed not only for his towering height and top hat, but also for his efforts in preserving the Union during the American Civil War and bringing about the emancipation of slavery.

However, Lincoln previously made a name for himself as a silver-tongued Illinois attorney who could sway countless juries despite, as many believed in his time and continue to do so today, having never read a legal text from cover to cover.

In 1837, after completing his legal training while serving in the Illinois state legislature, Lincoln joined the law office of John Todd Stuart in Springfield, the newly minted capital of Illinois.

Nearly 20 years later, while a partner in the firm, Lincoln became involved in Illinois’s first malpractice suit, Fleming v. Rogers and Crothers, also famously known as the “Chicken Bone Case.”

An original document related to the case — and authentically signed by Lincoln — recently was donated by Robert Heltzel — a retired steel company executive from Warren, Ohio — to the University of Michigan’s William L. Clements Library in honor of 1972 University of Michigan Law School graduates Michael Hardy, Chip Dawson Jr., and Joseph Lonardo.

Heltzel, while not an alumnus, chose Michigan to house this item from his personal collection in appreciation for his longstanding friendships with the three Law School alumni and the education his grandson, Robert Ricotti, BS ’18, received here.

“I am deeply touched by Bob’s thoughtful gift,” said Dawson, whose sentiments were echoed by Hardy. “I first saw the manuscript when it was presented to the Clements Library. Bob had me read it aloud, which was a thrill. I was amazed to be reading an original document signed by the same country lawyer who would, a few years later, become president and author of the Gettysburg Address.”

The manuscript — an affidavit recording the first postponement of the Chicken Bone trial — is signed by John Stuart and Abraham Lincoln at the top and bottom of the page.

Additionally, within the text written by a civil servant are several revisions made by Lincoln in his own hand.

“It’s a marvelous piece,” said Cheney Schopieray, curator for the Clements Library. “We document the American experience the best we can through paper materials. For us, it is always a privilege to add materials like this to our collection, which then become accessible to scholars and other researchers all over the world.”

On March 28, 1856, Samuel Fleming — carpenter who suffered two broken thighs when a chimney collapsed on him — filed suit in McLean Circuit Court against Dr. Eli Crothers and Dr. Thomas Rogers.

He alleged that his attending physicians deliberately failed to use the proper care and due diligence to mend his legs.

Because of their negligence, Fleming claimed, his right limb remained misshapen and he continued to undergo unnecessary pain and discomfort.

John Stuart and Abraham Lincoln were hired to defend the doctors, and only had a week to prepare their case. Lincoln used this time to discuss the medical aspects of the case with Dr. Crothers, who used chicken bones to demonstrate the chemical and organic changes that bones undergo in the aging process.

Lincoln then used a similar demonstration in his summation to the jury.

He presented two chicken-leg bones — one from an old chicken and the other from a young chicken — which he used to demonstrate the resilience of a young, more supple, bone as compared to the older more brittle one.

The jury failed to reach a decision, forcing the judge to declare a retrial, which never took place as both sides agreed to a settlement by March 1858.

While the affidavit is a routine, one-page court document, it is worthwhile to study, particularly for law students, noted Hardy, a retired partner at Thompson Hine.

The manuscript is a lesson on the art of communication — how to properly present complex, technical evidence to a jury, he said.

“It’s also a reminder that there is a lot of routine, but critical work to be done in representing a client effectively, even if one is on their way to becoming the next Abraham Lincoln,” added Dawson, co-founder of Payroll 1.

The awe inspired by a piece of history such as this is not soon forgotten, said Hardy, fondly recalling his first time viewing the manuscript.

“When you learn about it, and read the document itself, you think about how important that case was as Abraham Lincoln was developing his skills on his way to being perhaps the best president of the United States. You just have to shake your head and say, ‘It’s amazing.’”

The original document will be on display at the Clements Library until Sept. 28.