Exactly 150 years ago tonight, a Southern sympathizer named John Wilkes Booth fired one shot from a .44-caliber derringer into the back of Abraham Lincoln’s head as the president watched a play at Ford’s Theater in Washington. Lincoln died early the next morning, just six days after the leading Confederate commander, Robert E. Lee, had surrendered at Appatomatox.
As we pause to honor America’s greatest president, remember that though Illinois has usurped the Lincoln legend, he spent most of his formative years in southern Indiana.
In 1816, when Lincoln was 7, he and his sister and parents moved to what is now Spencer County from Kentucky. Though his mother died two years later, Lincoln, along with his father, Thomas, and his sister, Sarah, lived there until their move to Illinois when the future president was 21.
An 1886 volume by Francis F. Browne called "The Every-day Life of Abraham Lincoln by Those Who Knew Him" included a contemporary recollection by his cousin, Dennis Hanks, who lived down the road from the Lincolns and moved in with them after his parents died.
Roughspoken and raw, it may be the closest we can get, two centuries later, to a snapshot of the boisterous young Lincoln as he grew up a Hoosier:
"I was 10 years older, but I couldn’t rassle him down. His legs was too long for me to throw him. ... My how he would chop! His axe would flash and bite into a sugar-tree or sycamore, and down it would come. If you heard him fellin’ trees in a clearin’, you would say there were three men at work by the way the trees fell. But he never was sassy or quarrelsome. I’ve seen him walk into a crowd of sawin’ rowdies and tell some droll yarn and bust them all up. It was the same when he was a lawyer; all eyes whenever he riz were on him; there was suthing perculiarsome about him."
Lincoln visited Fort Wayne only twice – once during the early-morning hours of Feb. 23, 1860, when he changed trains at the Pittsburgh, Fort Wayne and Chicago Railroad Station south of East Baker Street. A year from becoming president, Lincoln was on his way to New York City’s Cooper Union college to deliver a speech in which he outlined his opposition to the expansion of slavery. His second visit was another quick train change on his way back to Illinois a few days later.
At least two local institutions owe their existence, or at least their identity, to Lincoln. One was the Lincoln National Life Insurance Co., which was headquartered here until 2008. When Lincoln National was founded in 1905, it received written permission from the late president’s son, Robert Todd Lincoln, to use Lincoln’s image as its logo.
The other is The Journal Gazette, founded in 1863 to provide an editorial voice in support of Abraham Lincoln and the ideals for which he stood.