The mob assaults the Godfrey-Gilman warehouse on the Alton riverfront, where Lovejoy’s final printing press had been stored.

An Eyewitness Account of the Murder of the abolitionist newspaper editor Elijah Lovejoy


John J. Dunphy

This article consists of my columns that were published in the 7 -11- 20 and 7–18–20 editions The Telegraph of Alton, IL. I have combined them to create a complete account of Elijah Lovejoy’s murder as recalled by Thaddeus Hurlbut, his best friend and loyal ally.

Abolitionism triumphed in the Unted States when the Thirteenth Amendment ended slavery in 1865. America’s aging abolitionists held a reunion in Chicago in 1874 to recognize distinguished members of their movement as well as to record a history of the anti-slavery cause for future generations. The June 10, 1874 edition of the Chicago Daily Tribune carried an account of this event.

Thaddeus Hurlbut of Upper Alton attended the reunion to deliver an address devoted to his dear friend and fellow abolitionist Elijah Lovejoy. His speech comprises the most dramatic and detailed account of Lovejoy’s murder on November 7, 1837 while defending his last printing press.

At that time, Upper Alton and Alton were separate communities about three miles apart. Hurlbut recalled that the area between the two towns “was then covered with large forest trees.” Lovejoy and Hurlbut enjoyed a pleasant walk “through forests and ravines, and along the bluffs.”

When Hurlbut bade farewell to Lovejoy and was about to begin the long walk back to Upper Alton, the abolitionist editor asked him to return to Alton that night. “We do not know what might come to pass,” Lovejoy said. Perhaps he had a premonition that this would be the last night of his life, and he wanted his dear friend to be with him.

Hurlbut walked back to Alton around sunset and met Lovejoy, who was on his way to the Godfrey-Gilman warehouse. Lovejoy told him that a number of men were already gathered inside the building to defend the Alton Observer’s new printing press from possible mob assault.

“ As we entered the warehouse at the northeast corner,” Hurlbut told the Chicago audience, “Mr. Lovejoy in a very pleasant, cheerful mood said, ‘As you and I are equal to seven men, we are to have charge of this room and this door, for should an attack to be made, it will be at this point. And as I shall have to be moving about in different parts of the building, I give this door unto your charge. You are to keep it and to trust it to no other person, till we know the result.’ “

According to Hurlbut, the act of killing another person was “a very serious matter” to the defenders of the printing press, and they vowed not to fire a single shot unless they believed their lives were endangered or mob members actually entered the warehouse. Later, a mob indeed assaulted the warehouse and hurled rocks that shattered every window. The door that Hurlbut guarded was partially forced open before the mob retreated.

In his account, he referred to mob as “rabble” that had been “maddened by filthy whiskey and even more filthy harangues.” Having “renewed their courage at the whiskey-tubs standing in the streets,” he contemptuously noted, “they returned with the same howling as at first, again dashing rocks against the building.” The defenders refrained from discharging their weapons until the besieging mob fired on the warehouse.

Mob members then placed a ladder against the building and began an ascent to set fire to the roof. Lovejoy and several other defenders ran from the warehouse, knocked over the ladder and fired shots at the mob. A short time later, the mob again raised the ladder to reach the roof. According to Hurlbut’s account: “At length, when all our men were inside the building, two or three of the mob secreted themselves behind a pile of lumber on the riverbank, but a little distance from the door whence the defenders issued to clear the ladder. When next they went out, having no suspicion that the assassins were in such near ambush, one of those hiding behind the lumber discharged a double-barrel gun loaded with buckshot, lodging its contents in the breast of Mr. Lovejoy.”

This challenges the belief that Lovejoy was killed by a volley of shots fired by several mob members. During the ensuing years, several Alton men — including Dr. Thomas Hope, who later became the city’s mayor — claimed to have fired the fatal shot that killed Lovejoy, which lent credibility to the multiple assassins theory. The simultaneous discharge of both barrels of a shotgun loaded with buckshot, however, could easily have inflicted five wounds on Lovejoy’s body. Hurlbut remembered his friend incurring all five wounds in the chest. Paul Simon, however, wrote in his biography of Lovejoy that the newspaper editor suffered three chest wounds as well as one in his abdomen and another in his left arm.

Lovejoy died with Hurlbut at his side. “I went to him instantly, as there was no other person near at the time” Hurlbut told the abolitionists. “I took his pulse — there was a faint lickering — but in less than a minute the heart ceased to throb. He died without a struggle.”

Dispirited by Lovejoy’s murder, the small band of defenders agreed to abandon the warehouse and its printing press. Lovejoy’s body had been placed on a cot. “I decided from the first to remain in the building,” Hurlbut stated. “I took a seat by his [Lovejoy’s] side, determined to see for myself what the end might be.” Members of the mob entered the warehouse, smashed the press and carried off the pieces to dump into the Mississippi. They also offered their opinion of Lovejoy. “As they came near in going up to the press, some of them stopped and looked in at Mr. Lovejoy,” Hurlbut recalled. “As they turned away, I heard them say, ‘Good enough for him. He shouldn’t have set himself up against the people.’ “

Hurlbut remained alone in the warehouse with Lovejoy’s corpse until he was visited at 3am by two city officials who assured him that order had been restored in Alton. Winthrop Gilman, co-owner of the warehouse, had told the city officials that he wanted to “close the building and see that everything was made safe.” Hurlbut replied that he must be assured that Lovejoy’s body would not be disturbed. If such a pledge couldn’t be made, he told the city officials, he would refuse to leave and “they might lock me in.” Finally satisfied that his friend’s corpse wouldn’t be defiled by the townspeople of Alton, Hurlbut agreed to leave the warehouse.

He walked back to his Upper Alton home, which at that time was the Old Rock House. Hurlbut’s friends later told him that he had demonstrated considerable courage walking alone when pro-slavery townspeople had already slain one abolitionist and might be inclined to kill another. In his address, Hurlbut stated that “my nerves had become wrought up to such a tension that I had no fear and but little feeling. But when I broke the news of Mr. Lovejoy’s death to my wife, a tide of feeling rushed in upon me and threw me into uncontrollable weeping and sobbing.”

Hurlbut journeyed to the Lovejoy home the following day to offer what comfort he could to the grieving family. While walking to Alton, he passed a group of men that included the postmaster of Upper Alton. The postmaster said in a loud voice, “As for my part, I wish they had burnt up the building and every damn abolitionist with it.” The postmaster obviously knew that Hurlbut had been one of Lovejoy’s allies, and the remark had been intended for his ears.

John J. Dunphy is the author of Abolitionism and the Civil War in Southwestern Illinois, Unsung Heroes of the Dachau Trials: The Investigative Work of the U.S. Army 7708 War Crimes Group, 1945–1947, Lewis and Clark’s Illinois Volunteers.