Early Days of Greenbush

EARLY DAYS IN GREENBUSH

THE ARCHIE FISHER AFFAIR
SHOWING THE DANGER OF CIRCUMSTANTIAL EVIDENCE


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Archie Fisher, a native of Scotland, came to Warren county, Illinois, about the year 1836. He was a brother of Mrs. Lachlan McGowan, and an uncle of James McGowan, and Mrs. Oliver Crissey and Mrs. D. C. Woods, who now reside at Avon, Illinois.

Mr. Fisher was a carpenter by trade and built the first barn in Greenbush township. This barn was built for Wm. Trailor on the farm, a little west of the village of Greenbush, known as the Amos Seigler place. Mr. Fisher also built a barn for Col. John Butler on his farm near Greenbush.

In May, 1841, Archie Fisher, in company with Wm. Trailor, started in a buggy to Springfield, Illinois. Wm. Trailor then resided on his farm west of the village of Greenfield, now Greenbush. On the way to Springfield they were joined by Henry Trailor, a brother of William. They then went to Archibald Trailor‘s, who resided in Springfield and was also a brother of William.

Shortly after their arrival, Fisher was missing and was reported murdered. The Trailors were arrested, and at their preliminary trial Lamborn appeared for the prosecution and Logan Baker and Lincoln defended.

Ward H. Lamon, in his “Life of Abraham Lincoln,” says: “In the summer of 1841, Mr. Lincoln was engaged in a curious case. The circumstances impressed him very deeply with the insufficiency and danger of circumstantial evidence. So much so that he not only wrote the following account of it to Speed, but another more extended one which was printed in a newspaper published at Quincy, Illinois. His mind was full of it; he could think of nothing else. It is apparent that in his letter to Speed he made no pause to choose his words; there is nothing constrained and nothing studied or deliberate about it, but its simplicity, perspicuity, and artless grace make it a model of English composition.

What Goldsmith once said of Locke may better be said of this letter: ‘He never says more nor less than he ought and never makes use of a word that he could have changed for a better.’Springfield, June 19, 1841.

‘Dear Speed:
We have had the highest state of excitement here for a week past that our community has ever witnessed; and although the public feeling is somewhat allayed, the curious affair which aroused it is very far from being over, yet cleared of mystery. It would take a quire of paper to give you anything like a full account of it, and I therefore only propose a brief outline. The chief personages in the drama are Archibald Fisher, supposed to be murdered; and Archibald Trailor, Henry Trailor, and William Trailor, supposed to have murdered him. The three Trailors are brothers: the first, Arch, as you know, lives in town; the second, Henry, in Clary‘s Grove; and the third, William, in Warren county; and Fisher, the supposed murdered, being without a family, had made his home with William.

On Saturday evening, being the 29th of May, Fisher and William came to Henry’s in a one-horse dearborn and there staid over Sunday, and on Monday all three came to Springfield (Henry on horseback) and joined Archibald at Myres,’ the Dutch carpenter. That evening at supper Fisher was missing, and so next morning some ineffectual search was made for him; and on Tuesday at 1 o’clock p.m., William and Henry started home without him. In a day or two Henry and one or two of his Clary Grove neighbors came back for him again, and advertised his disappearance in the papers.

The knowledge of the matter thus far had not been general, and here it dropped entirely till about the 10th inst., when Keys received a letter from the postmaster in Warren county that William had arrived at home and was telling a very mysterious and improbable story about the disappearance of Fisher, which induced the community there to suppose he had been disposed of unfairly. Keys made this letter public, which immediately set the whole town and adjoining country agog. And so it has continued until yesterday. The mass of the people commenced a systematic search for the dead body, while Wickersham was dispatched to arrest Henry Trailor at the Grove and Jim Maxcy to Warren county, to arrest William.

On Monday last, Henry was brought in and showed an evident inclination to insinuate that he knew Fisher to be dead and that Arch and William had killed him. He said he guessed the body could be found in Spring creek between the Beardstown road and Hickox ‘s mill. Away the people swept like a herd of buffalo and cut down Hickox's ‘s mill-dam nolens volens to draw the water out of the pond, and then went up and down and down and up the creek fishing and raking and raking and ducking and diving for two days, and after all no dead body found. In the meantime a sort of scuffling ground bad been found in the brush, in the angle or point where the road leading into the woods past the brewery and the one leading in past the brick grove meets. From the scuffle ground was the sign of something about the size of a man having been dragged to the edge of the thicket where it joined the track of some small wheel carriage drawn by one horse, as shown by the road tracks. The carriage track led off toward Spring creek. Near this drag trail, Dr. Merryman found two hairs which, after a long scientific examination, he pronounced to be triangular human hair, which term he says includes within it the whiskers, the hair growing under the arms and on other parts of the body; and he judged that these two were of the whiskers, because the ends were cut, showing that they had flourished in the neighborhood of the razor’s operations.

On Thursday last, Jim Maxcy brought in William Trailor from Warren. On the same day Arch was arrested and put in jail. Yesterday (Friday) William was put upon his examining trial before May and Lavely. Archibald and Henry were both present. Lamborn prosecuted, and Logan and Baker and your humble servant defended.

A great many witnesses were introduced and examined, but I shall only mention those whose testimony seems most important. The first of these was Capt.. Ransdell.He swore that when William and Henry left Springfield for home, on Tuesday before mentioned, they did not take the direct route which you know leads by the butcher shop, but that they followed the street north until they got opposite or nearly opposite May’s new house, after which he could not see them from where he stood; and it was afterwards proved that in about an hour after they started, they came into the street by the butcher shop from towards the brickyard. Dr. Merryman and others swore to what is stated about the scuffle ground, drag trail, whiskers, and carriage tracks.

Henry was then introduced by the prosecution. He swore that when they started for home, they went out north, as Ransdell stated, and turned down west by the brickyard into the woods and then met Archibald; that they proceeded a small distance farther, when he was placed as a sentinel to watch for and announce the approach of any one that might happen that way; that William and Arch took the dearborn out of the road a small distance to the edge of the thicket, where they stopped and he saw them lift the body of a man into it; that they then moved off with the carriage in the direction of Hickox’s mill, and he loitered about for something like an hour, when William returned with the carriage but without Arch, and said they had put him in a safe place; that they went, somehow, he did not know exactly how, into the road close to the brewery and proceeded on to Clary’s Grove.

He also stated that some time during the day William told him that he and Arch had killed Fisher the evening before; that the way they did it was by him (William) knocking him down with a club and Arch then choking him to death.

An old man from Warren called Dr. Gillmore was then introduced on the part of the defence. He swore that he had known Fisher for several years; that Fisher had resided at his house a long time at each of two different spells once while he built a barn for him, and once while he was doctored for some chronic disease; that two or three years ago Fisher had a serious hurt in his head by the bursting of a gun, since which he had been subject to continued bad health and occasional aberration of mind. He also stated that on last Tuesday, being the same day that Maxey arrested William Trailor, he (the doctor) was from home in the early part of the day and on his return, about 11 o’clock, found Fisher at his house in bed and apparently very unwell; that he asked him how he had come from Springfield; that Fisher said he had come by Peoria and also told of several other places he had been at, more in the direction of Peoria, which showed that he at the time of speaking did not know where he had been wandering about in a state of derangement.

He further stated that in about two hours he received a note from one of Trailor‘s friends advising him of his arrest and requesting him to go on to Springfield as a witness to testify as to the state of Fisher’s health in former times; that he immediately set off, calling up two of his neighbors as company, and riding all evening and all night overtook Maxey and William at Lewiston, in Fulton county; that Maxcy refusing to discharge Trailor upon his statement, his two neighbors returned and he came on to Springfield.

Some question being made as to whether the doctor’s story was not a fabrication, several acquaintances of his (among whom was the same postmaster who wrote to Keys as before mentioned) were introduced as sort of compurgators, who swore that they knew the doctor to be of good character for truth and veracity and generally of good character in every way. Here the testimony ended and the Trailors were discharged, Arch and William expressing, both in word and manner their entire confidence that Fisher would be found alive at the doctor’s by Calloway, Mallory, and Myres, who a day before had been dispatched for that purpose; while Henry still protested that no power on earth could ever show Fisher alive.

Thus stands this curious affair. When the doctor's story was first made public, it was amusing to scan and contemplate the countenances and hear the remarks of those who had been actively engaged in the search for the dead body. Some looked quizzical, some melancholy, and some furiously angry. Porter, who had been very active, swore he always knew the man was not dead and that he had not stirred an inch to hunt for him. Langford, who had taken the lead in cutting down Hickox’s mill-dam and wanted to hang Hickox for objecting, looked most awfully woebegone; he seemed the ‘‘wictem of hunrequited affection,’’ as represented in the comic almanacs we used to laugh over. And Hart, the little drayman that hauled Molly home once, said it was too damned bad to have so much trouble and no hanging after all.

I commenced this letter on yesterday, since which I received yours of the 13th. I stick to my promise to come to Louisville. Nothing new here except what I have written. I have not seen - - - - since my last trip and I am going out there as soon as I mail this letter. Yours forever,-

Joshua Fry Speed, to whom the foregoing letter was addressed, was an intimate friend of Abraham Lincoln. He died at Louisville, Ky., May 29, 1882.

The postmaster mentioned in the letter was Charles Stice who kept the office in Greenfield (now Greenbush) at that time.

Archie Fisher had a large wooden chest which he kept at Wm. Trailor’s during the time he resided there. It was supposed by some that it contained considerable money; it was also alleged that it had a secret drawer in which the money was deposited. After leaving Dr. Gilmore ‘s, Mr. Fisher went to Col. John Butler’s, where he resided until his death which occurred August 9, 1845.

His property went to his sister, Mrs. Lachlan McGowan. The chest, about which so much has been said, became the property of Col. John Butler. After his death, it was given to his son Vincent W. Butler; after the death of Vincent, his son Manley took the chest. Abyram Roberts says that he had heard so much about the Archie Fisher chest that he became anxious to see it. So he called at the residence of Manley Butler, where it was shown to him. After examining it closely, he found where a hole had been bored in a portion of the inside of the chest and the hole had been plugged with a wooden pin. His curiosity was so aroused that he was determined to extract the wood pin and see what was in there. He finally procured a brace and bit and bored the pin out, and found a small roll of paper which, upon examination, proved to be a receipt given to Archie Fisher for money paid to some person in New York.

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