On November 7, 1837, Henry West – a shop owner in Alton, Ill. – needed a peaceful solution to an armed standoff in his small town. Elijah Lovejoy, a Maine man, was holed up in a warehouse with a gang of armed men. Outside, Dr. Horace Beal, a Marylander, had his own gang armed and assembled.
In the smallest sense, the two sides were literally fighting over a printing press. But in the larger sense, they fought the same fight that would finally erupt into the U.S. Civil War more than 20 years later.
Elijah Lovejoy started out life in Albion, Maine, in 1802. Educated at Waterville College (now Colby), he trained as a newspaperman. He was also ordained as a minister at Princeton Theological Seminary. He traveled to the Midwest in search of opportunity and won the job of editor of the St. Louis Observer. Here, Lovejoy began taking on what he saw as the evils of the day: alcohol, smoking, Catholicism and slavery.
Slavery and the treatment of black people were the hottest issues of the day in St. Louis. In 1836, the issue came dramatically to a head in the lynching of Francis McIntosh. McIntosh , a biracial porter on a steamboat, had gotten swept up in a police matter.
Two police officers had asked him to help them arrest two sailors they were chasing. When he did not help, they arrested him for hindering apprehension. As they put McIntosh in jail, a fight broke out. The two officers were stabbed, one of them killed.
A mob broke into the jail that held McIntosh, carried him to the outer edges of the city and killed him. They burned him alive, tied to a tree. Among the lynch mob was a city alderman.
The horror of the event infuriated abolitionists. Abraham Lincoln, then a young Illinois legislator, condemned the lynching. Lovejoy lashed out in the Observer against the lynching and the failure of the courts to convict anyone for the crime.
Already unpopular, Lovejoy’s articles on the McIntosh lynching made the Observer even more despised. Lovejoy decided to relocate the newspaper up the river to Alton, Ill. But the reception in Alton was hardly any better.
Lovejoy had become even more radical (for the times), promoting the formation of an anti-slavery society and openly discussing emancipation of slaves. Hard economic times had come to Illinois. Businessmen in Alton began worrying that an abolitionist newspaper would make their town unpopular and further depress its economy.
Dr. Horace Beal was older than Lovejoy and a long-standing, vocal supporter of slavery. He and a committee of businessmen began a campaign to silence Lovejoy. First they wrote letters – to Lovejoy and the town mayor – asking that he moderate his views. They then stepped up their harassment. They accosted him in the street and threatened to tar and feather him.
Then, they broke into his offices and destroyed his printing press – three times. Refusing to yield, Lovejoy ordered another press. When it arrived in Alton on Nov. 7, 1837, it was taken to the warehouse of Winthrop Gilman.
Lovejoy had given a speech in town announcing his intention to continue publishing. Beal assembled his pro-slavery band and went to the warehouse, intent on destroying yet another press. This time, Lovejoy and his supporters were at the warehouse, prepared to defend their property.
Shopkeeper Henry West, it was agreed, would make one last stab at peacefully resolving the issue. West entered the warehouse and heard shots fired. Both Lovejoy’s men and Beal’s had fired a volley, injuring one of Beal’s men. West told Lovejoy the crowd had come for the press. West could get the men out safely if they would surrender it.
Martyrdom of Elijah Lovejoy
Lovejoy refused, arguing he had a right to defend his property. West relayed the message to Beal, but the hot-headed doctor had no intention of backing down. The mob placed a ladder against the wall of the warehouse. Lovejoy’s men pushed it over. When the mob put the ladder back, Lovejoy again tried to push it down. He was shot and killed.
Chased from the warehouse, Lovejoy’s men retreated. The mob found the press and destroyed it. In the North, Lovejoy became an instant martyr. Abolitionists from his native Maine and throughout the country mourned his death, while in Alton no memorial service was held for fear of inciting another riot. Historians would later declare him the first casualty of the Civil War, and an inspiration to anti-slavery advocates.
Among those he inspired: His own brother Owen. Owen Lovejoy entered politics and became the leader of the Illinois abolitionists. He conducted people to freedom on the Underground Railroad and won election to Congress to lead the fight against slavery.
This story was updated in 2023.