Justice Served

Abraham Lincoln and the Melissa Goings Case
by Jean Myers

This is an abridged version of Jean Myers’ original essay. Myers is curator of the Metamora Courthouse State Historic Site, chairperson of the Lincoln Statue Committee for the Woodford County Historical Society, and vice president of the Tri-County Lincoln Bicentennial Commission. He can be reached at metcourt@mtco.com.

Twenty-two years before the 16th president of the United States died of a gunshot to the head after restoring our broken Union, a disheveled, 34-year-old, self-taught country lawyer named Abraham Lincoln traveled on horseback through the counties that made up the Eighth Illinois Judicial Circuit Court—the 440-mile circuit that included Hanover, later named Metamora, in Woodford County. 

Lincoln actually started riding the newly-formed Eighth Judicial Circuit in 1837, four years before the founding of Woodford County. From 1843 to 1857, he spent about five months out of the year riding the circuit. During these years, Lincoln was re-elected as a Whig to the Illinois General Assembly (1840), won a seat in Congress (1846), became the only future president to earn a patent for his own invention (1849), publicly denounced slavery in his “Peoria Speech” (1854), helped to organize the new Republican Party (1856), and ran for a seat in the United States Senate (1858).

In 1858, less than two years before his election to the presidency, Lincoln visited the Woodford County Courthouse for the last time. Between debates with Stephen Douglas at Charleston and Galesburg, he gave a stump speech in Metamora that attracted thousands of spectators. He also completed work on his final case in Woodford County, one of the strangest and most notorious of his career, which would test both the letter and the spirit of the law. The following account of the Melissa Goings murder trial attempts to patch together various versions of that story.

Roswell Goings was a 77-year-old, well-to-do farmer, heavy drinker and known wife beater who lived in Worth Township in Woodford County. Melissa Goings was his 70-year-old wife who alleged that Roswell attempted to strangle her in their home on April 14, 1857. She later acknowledged that she found it necessary to defend herself by striking Roswell with a piece of firewood, knocking him unconscious.

Legend has it that Roswell’s friends were able to revive him that evening, and he supposedly said that Melissa attacked and struck him about the head several times, saying something about getting the house and farm. Unfortunately for Roswell, he lapsed back into unconsciousness and died four days later. A coroner’s inquest was held, and Sheriff Abiah Minor had no choice but to arrest Melissa when she was indicted for first-degree murder. She was allowed her freedom pending trial after bail was posted, and a trial date was set for October 10, 1857.
When Lincoln entered the courtroom of the Woodford County Courthouse in Metamora, he supposedly indicated that he needed more time to prepare his case and get to know his client, but Judge James Harriott would only grant him a recess to prepare a first-degree murder defense. There are two versions of what happened next: 1) that Lincoln and Mrs. Goings walked outside, and 2) that they sat in a downstairs office to talk privately.

The heritage and history of Metamora and Woodford County are strongly tied to Abraham Lincoln’s work, and an artistic portrayal of this slice of history is long overdue. The world-renowned Lincoln sculptor, John McClarey, has completed work on a life-sized bronze statue of Lincoln, which will stand side-by-side with a statue of Melissa Goings in the Metamora Square. The statues are scheduled to be unveiled in August.

The Woodford County Historical Society is sponsoring the statues in cooperation with the Village of Metamora and the Metamora Courthouse State Historic Site. Your tax-deductible contributions are still needed to pay for this great project. Please mail your check made out to “WCHS Statue” to:

WCHS-Lincoln Statue Committee
P.O. Box 1072, Metamora, IL 61548

Lincoln was in need of more information, but he also needed time to deal with the surprise revocation of Melissa’s bond, which may have alerted him to the judge’s possible predisposition to conduct the trial without much concern for the woman’s defense. In other words, she would be on trial before a possibly unsympathetic judge, and a conviction could result in her being hung. The town felt sorry for Melissa and didn’t want to prosecute, let alone hang her, and Lincoln must have been aware of these sentiments. He may also have been of the opinion that the judge didn’t much care about the town’s sentiments, which may have encouraged Lincoln or others to seek justice for a victim who might pay with her life for having defended it from a brutal attacker.

As her bond had been revoked, Melissa was technically the responsibility of the sheriff. At the end of the recess, the courtroom again began to fill up with officers of the court and the many spectators who enjoyed the entertainment that such a case provided—particularly one involving Lincoln, the skilled trial lawyer, and his well-known country wit.

Everyone returned from the recess—everyone, that is, except Melissa Goings, who was nowhere to be found. One person allegedly saw a foot going through an open window, but no one else could or would provide any additional information. Again, there appear to be different versions of what happened next. One version has Lincoln being accused by a bailiff of “running her off,” as he was the last one seen with her. The more popular version has Lincoln responding to the judge’s demand that he approach the bench and explain any part he may have played in his client’s disappearance. In the commotion of what must have been a confused courtroom, it is said that Lincoln told the judge, “Your honor, I did not chase her off. She simply asked me where she could get a good drink of water, and I said…Tennessee has mighty fine drinkin’ water.” Legend has it that this was received with uproarious laughter from a thoroughly entertained crowd.

Was it the need to lighten the seriousness of an abruptly truncated murder trial that appeared to be heading in a tragic direction for a woman who survived being beaten down by her husband only to be beaten down again by the letter of the law? Is it possible that “Honest Abe,” an officer of the court, was in cahoots with those who helped Melissa escape? And how, by the way, does a 70-year-old woman escape from the sheriff, if he is doing his job?

Much was muddy, but several things were clear. Lincoln was never sanctioned or held in contempt of court, and there is no evidence that he played any part in the escape. One theory is that the sheriff and state’s attorney, bowing to the will of the townspeople, turned a blind eye so that the spirit of the law, if not the letter, could carry the day. Lincoln’s funny remark may have been a distraction to take the pressure off the guilty but noble parties who helped the victimized Mrs. Goings.

The state’s attorney never did sign a warrant for Melissa’s arrest after she escaped—a highly unusual dereliction of duty. A year later, on October 4, 1858, when Lincoln returned to Metamora for the last time amidst debates for the Senate seat, he met with the state’s attorney, and Melissa Goings’ case of first-degree murder was dismissed!

If Lincoln had known of the escape plan, was it wrong or courageous—or both—for him to have played a part in preventing the letter of the law from victimizing the woman another time? Most agree that, regardless of who was responsible for what—a lackadaisical sheriff, a less-than-aggressive state’s attorney, a seemingly unmerciful judge, other parties unknown, or a defense attorney well aware of the people’s desire for compassion for this old woman—justice was served.

Would justice have been served if Lincoln had not been involved? We will likely never know. Many believe that Lincoln’s character and behavior as president were, to a large extent, formed while riding the circuit. He was not perfect then, as he was not perfect as president, yet he endures as a hero to most, combining courage, cunning and compassion, especially when pursuing an objective for the greater good—or for the good of an underdog.

Lincoln was a keen student of the Declaration of Independence and Constitution. Of the former, he said, “I have never had a feeling politically that did not spring from the sentiments embodied in the Declaration of Independence.” In the politically-charged atmosphere preceding his Senate run, it is hard to imagine that he would have risked his career by helping a murder defendant escape. After all, if the accusation that Lincoln “chased her off” had been pursued—a possible felony charge—his legal career could have been cut short, and he certainly would never have become our 16th president.

Yet the Declaration is all about the right to throw off the control of a tyrant responsible for abuses that jeopardize one’s security—such as Melissa’s right to defend her security from the abuses perpetrated by her tyrannical husband. And if the defendant’s right to defend her security was going to be punished by an unsympathetic judge and inflexible legal system, then could one interpretation of the Declaration—that if something is wrong, those who have the ability to take action also have the responsibility to take action—have been far from Lincoln’s mind?

There has been some debate as to whether the Goings murder case, a fairly minor legal footnote in history, is worthy of being cast in bronze to represent Lincoln’s ties with the Woodford County Courthouse. It would be far simpler to portray Lincoln at leisure—sitting on a bench, for instance—or doing something uncomplicated.

No doubt, he enjoyed leisure and the simpler things in Metamora, as he did anywhere he went. But this complicated man with the uncomplicated demeanor did not see the law as an unchanging monolith of black-and-white thinking. When confronted with overwhelming circumstances during the Civil War, did he abide by the letter of the Constitution by ordering a blockade of rebel ports without a declaration of war, by usurping the authority of Congress to build the Union Army and Navy, by ordering generals to ignore writs of habeas corpus, or by declaring martial law and suppressing a free press in New York?

Lincoln’s presidential actions carried consequences, but were they flawed if intended to save the Union—which he did? And where could such abilities have been honed, if not in his earlier law practice working the Eighth, taking on just about any case that came his way, thinking on his feet within a system that was not always as compassionate as he?

Lincoln’s involvement in the Goings case may have only been to come up with a funny quip to soothe the court at an awkward moment—there is no evidence to suggest more. But had he been more involved in Melissa’s disappearance, would it not have been to right a wrong and prevent further wrong from occurring? In either light, would he not have been responding to “the better angels of our nature”—which, is it not in these circumstances, just another way to say…justice? a&s