Elijah Lovejoy, Abolitionist, Murdered 1837

Above: “The mob attacking the warehouse of Godfrey Gilman, Alton, Illinois, on the night of 7th November 1837”

The Alton riots, culminating in the death of Rev. Elijah P. Lovejoy, November 7th, 1837.

 Henry Tanner

I read this first-hand account of Lovejoy’s murder for the 61st Volume of the Nonfiction Collection.

In 1833, St. Louis, Missouri, was a “slave city in a slave state.” The young editor of the St. Louis Dispatch, Elijah Lovejoy, a northerner by birth, was not an abolitionist, but he favored a “bold and fearless” editorial style, which brought him to grief when he denounced the murder-by-mob of a black man, McIntosh, who was a deck hand on a steamer lying at the levee. “In retaliation for abuse which he could no longer endure, McIntosh stabbed and killed a white man. For this high-handed offense, the black man was chained to tree or stump and burned to death by the mob.” Lovejoy spared “neither language nor energy” in denouncing the lynching. In turn, the city mob denounced Lovejoy as an abolitionist, and destroyed his office.”

Lovejoy decided to move shop across the Mississippi to Alton, a town in Illinois, which was a free state. He still did not see himself as an abolitionist, but he made clear he believed in a free press. “To discuss the subject of slavery is not the object of my paper except as a great moral subject in connection with others… As to the subjects I shall discuss, and the manner of doing them, I shall ever claim the right of determining for myself, always accepting counsel from other with thankfulness.”

The citizens of Alton were divided on the subject of slavery, and of two opinions about Lovejoy. The pro-slavery men in Alton took it upon themselves to destroy Lovejoy’s printing press. A second press was ordered. The second press was destroyed by an Alton mob in August, 1837, with the acquiescence of the Alton mayor. “The act of the mob and the supineness of those in authority” jolted Lovejoy to the core. “It brought him to the front as an avowed Abolitionist, immediate and unconditional.” Lovejoy issued a call for the organization of an Illinois Anti-Slavery Society in October 1837.

Lovejoy ordered a third printing press, which was brought up river to Alton in November 1837. By this time, Alton was a divided and armed camp. The pro-slavery faction vowed to destroy the press before it left the docks. A group of 60 anti-slavery men formed a militia to protect the press. The boxes containing the press were transferred intact to a warehouse near the docks and guarded by the militia. But during the night, a group of pro-slavery men attacked the warehouse. They informed the warehouse owner “that unless the press were given up … the building would be burned and every man inside killed.” While the anti-slavery men inside the warehouse threw crockery out the upper windows down on the attackers outside, the pro-slavery men approached the building with a long ladder and material to set the building on fire. When volunteers were called for to shoot the man off the ladder, Lovejoy stepped out a door of the warehouse and was gunned down. One pro-slavery man was also killed during the night. Lovejoy’s murder was a catalyst to the Abolitionist movement.

You can also read this account for yourself here.


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