Lovejoy Died With Hurlbut by His Side
John J. Dunphy
Originally published in the 7/18/20 edition of The Telegraph of Alton, IL.
My column last week covered the first half of Thaddeus Hurlbut’s eyewitness account of Elijah Lovejoy 1837 murder in Alton, which he shared at a reunion of abolitionists held in Chicago in 1874. We concluded with Hurlbut’s contention that Lovejoy was killed by the discharge of a mob member’s “double-barrel gun loaded with buckshot.” 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 ib Southwestern Illinois and Unsung Heroes of the Dachau Trials: The Investigative Work of the U.S. Army 7708 War Crimes Group.