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The Martyrdom of Elijah Lovejoy, Abolitionist and Constitutionalist

Elijah Parish Lovejoy was murdered by a pro-slavery mob on the night of November 7, 1837 in the small Illinois town of Alton, across the Mississippi River from St. Louis, Missouri. Rather than silencing the abolitionist movement, it had the opposite effect, solidifying it, and even radicalizing those who might have otherwise stayed silent. The murder’s reverberations rippled through the decades, even to the Civil War.

The Life of Lovejoy

Elijah Lovejoy was born November 9, 1802, the oldest of nine children. Raised in Maine, he longed to move westward. After graduating from Waterville College, he moved to St. Louis, where he became involved in an abolitionist newspaper and found religion. To nurture both, he returned to the east to attend Princeton Theological Seminary. By 1834, he was back in St. Louis to again take up publishing, and to open a Presbyterian Church.

Silhouette of Elijah P. Lovejoy.
Silhouette of Elijah P. Lovejoy.

At this point in his life, Lovejoy favored a gradual emancipation. While seen as a radical among the enslavers of Missouri, the movement for immediate abolition was growing around him. He even expressed sympathy for enslavers born into the institution.

He was far from radical in his views, explaining that it was not through “base motives for his opposition” that would convince others, but by “cool and temperate argument, supported by facts.” 1The bulk of the research for this piece came from The Martyrdom of Lovejoy by Henry Tanner, himself a witness to many of the events. It was published in 1881 and can be read here.

But the summer of 1835 found St. Louis to have little stomach for even moderate views favoring gradual emancipation. So great was the tension that the owners of the paper for which he edited, the St. Louis Observer advised that any pieces about slavery should be suspended. Lovejoy refused.

This refusal, however, made him a target. He was accused of distributing boxes of abolitionist newspapers in Jefferson City, Missouri. At a public meeting, pro-slavery advocates resolved that while “the right of free discussion and freedom of speech exists under the Constitution,” this right did “not imply a moral right on the part of Abolitionists to freely discuss the question of Slavery, either orally or through the medium of the press.”

Lovejoy replied to these accusations and demands to curtail his freedom of speech not long after. He explained, “had I desired to send a copy of the Emancipator, or of any other newspaper to Jefferson City, I should not have taken the pains to box it up. I am not aware that any law of my country forbids my sending what document I please to a friend or citizen.” He did, however, understand that “mob law has decided otherwise.”

He also understood that his life was now in danger. The aforementioned meeting also resolved to appoint a “committee of vigilance” consisting of eight-three men “whose duty it shall be to report to the mayor, or other civil authorities, all persons suspected of preaching Abolition doctrines.” If the civil authorities failed to take action, the vigilance committee would act in their stead – “in other words,” Lovejoy responded, “to lynch the suspected persons.”

The destruction of one of Lovejoy's presses.
The destruction of one of Lovejoy’s presses.

It was around this time that a mob had been formed to attack the offices of the Observer. Just prior to the assault, however, cooler heads prevailed and the night had remained one of calmness. Likely, this was due to the owners of the paper calling for Lovejoy’s resignation. Before he could give his answer, they decided to sell the paper to a gentleman who insisted upon two things. First, that Lovejoy continue as editor, and second that the paper be removed to Alton, Illinois. He agreed to the first, and would eventually agree to the second, but before it could be moved, race relations completely broke down in St. Louis.

In April of 1836, Francis McIntosh, a mulatto porter and cook on a steamboat, was lynched. His crime was not assisting police officers in chasing down another sailor who had been involved in a brawl. Thus, he was charged with breach of the peace. When the police officers told him that he’d be in jail for at least five years, McIntosh allegedly procured a knife and stabbed both, killing one and wounding the other. Arrested again, he was taken to jail where a mob stormed in to take him away. Dragged to the edge of town, they chained him to a tree, piling dry wood around him over his pleas for them to shoot him instead. The fire took twenty long minutes to consume him before he died.

The following day, Lovejoy visited the scene of the lynching. “We stood and gazed for a moment or two upon the blacked and mutilated trunk – for that was all which remained – of McIntosh before us, and as we turned away, in bitterness of heart, we prayed that we might not live. … For so fearful are our anticipations of the calamities that are to come upon this nation (and which, unless averted by a speedy and thorough repentance, we have no more doubt will fall upon us, than we have that a God of holiness and justice is our supreme governor), that were our work done, and were it His will, we would gladly be ‘taken away from the evil to come.'”

Though hundreds had attended the lynching, nobody seemed to know who was there, and no charges were ever filed. Though this was hardly the first racially-motivated lynching, it was most certainly a preview of “the evil to come.”

Lovejoy openly wrote about the case, condemning the “judges” in no uncertain terms. The sight of the lynching radicalized him in ways that even slavery could not. It was in this mood and at this time, June of 1836, that he finally decided to remove the newspaper to Alton.

Just days after the announcement was made public, a mob was formed and broke into the Observer offices, destroying what they could. Fortunately, most of the press was left in tact, and its remains were shipped to Alton. Upon its arrival across the river, another mob (or perhaps the same) fell upon it once more, destroying it utterly and sinking it in the Mississippi.

The people of Alton raised the money for a new press, and Lovejoy vowed to continue his work.

“But, gentlemen, as long as I am an American citizen, and as long as American blood runs in these veins, I shall hold myself at liberty to speak, to write, and to publish whatever I please on any subject, being amenable to the laws of my country for the same.”


The new press arrived in September, and he immediately began to publish the Alton Observer. It ran, uninterrupted, until August of 1837, when a mob once again attacked it. In the month before this attack, Lovejoy had called for the formation of an Illinois Anti-Slavery Society. A committee was formed to oppose the society. The St. Louis Republican sided with the committee, imploring them that “something must be done,” and hoping “that the appeal will not be unheeded.”

Their appeal was indeed heeded. Their editorial of support ran on August 17, 1837, and four days later, on the 21st, a mob gathered in Alton to find Lovejoy. As he was leaving the downtown area, they recognized him, and a call went out: “It’s the damned Abolitionist, give him hell!” They rushed him with cries to tar and feather. Somehow or another, he was able to diffuse the situation by calling upon their Christian humanity, which must have calmed enough of them to let him go. His printing press, however, was not spared. They broke into the offices, destroying whatever they could.

This time, support poured in from across the country, and the money was soon raised to purchase another. It arrived in September, and naturally many questioned the logic of procuring this third press. Still, Lovejoy found support, not from only Abolitionists, but from those who appreciated their freedom of speech enough to not let it be stolen away by pro-slavery mobs.

Their apprehension was understandable – the third press was mobbed and destroyed as soon as it arrived. Undeterred, a fourth press was ordered. Shortly after, Lovejoy himself was attacked while visiting his mother-in-law in St. Louis. The mob stormed her house, accosting and beating him. All the while, his mother-in-law threw punches and clutched Lovejoy in the hope that he might not be dragged off. Other family members joined the fray and were able to convince the mob to let him go – though only for a short time. They came back, attacking him again while he held his infant child. Fortunately, this time a family friend stepped in and forced the mob back. The mob remained in the yard through the night, getting drunker by the hour. In their stupor, they did not notice that Lovejoy slipped out the back.

Through the month of October, another mob fell upon a church where Lovejoy was attending an anti-slavery meeting. This time, the abolitionists were prepared, and were able to defend themselves from the militants. In the beginning of November, a public meeting was held in Alton to discuss Lovejoy and the pro-slavery violence.

On November 2nd, after being implored to cease publication, he addressed the meeting, giving the last speech of his life. In it, he vowed to be uncompromising in defense of his rights as a citizen.

He addressed the Chairman of the meeting:

“You have, sir, made up, as the lawyers say, a false issue; there are not two parties between whom there can be a compromise. I plant myself, sir, down on my unquestionable rights, and the question to be decided is, whether I shall be protected in the exercise and enjoyment of those rights, – that is the question, sir; – whether my property shall be protected; whether I shall be suffered to go home to my family at night without being assailed, and threatened with tar and feathers, and assassination; whether my afflicted wife, whose life has been in jeopardy, from continued alarm and excitement, shall, night after night, be driven from sick-bed into the garret, to save her life from the brick-bats and violence of the mobs; that, sir, is the question.”

He then vowed “to remain in Alton,” insisting upon the protection of his rights. “If the civil authorities refuse to protect me, I must look to God; and if I die, I have determined to make my grave in Alton.”

Five days later, he would make that grave.



On the 7th, the pro-slavery mob had gathered to destroy the fourth press. Guarding it were nineteen armed abolitionists. They were led by Enoch Long, who ordered them not to fire unless the mob fired first. When a shot flew into the building from the street, it was returned, and one of the pro-slavery men was killed.

The mayor arrived, and attempted to disperse the mob, but they would not move. “Fire the building and shoot every damned Abolitionist” rang the call. A ladder was placed along side of the building, and a member of the mob, torch in hand, ascended to set fire to the place. A detachment of five men, including Lovejoy, went to put a stop to it.

A witness at the scene described it thus:

“As they emerged from the building into the brilliant calm moonlight, shots were fired from behind a shelter, and five balls were lodged in the body of Mr. Lovejoy, others wounding Mr. Roff and Mr. Weller. Mr. Lovejoy had strength enough to run back and up the stairs, crying out, as he went, “I am shot! I am shot! I am dead!”

When he reached the counting-room, he fell back into the arms of a bystander and was laid upon the floor, where he instantly passed away without a struggle and without speaking again.”

By this time, the roof was set ablaze and the whole thing was hopeless. If the survivors attempted to make their escape, they would have been gunned down. To save their lives, they surrendered the press and the body of Lovejoy on the condition that they be allowed to leave. To this, the mob agreed, but as soon as the abolitionists left the building, the mob again opened fire. Fortunately, the ground was such that the balls passed over the heads of the fleeing abolitionists.

The body of Elijah Lovejoy was taken to his house where his brother Owen received it. The funeral followed shortly, and he was buried in an unmarked grave. Decades later, his body was found by loved ones and given a proper memorial.

The Aftermath

Following the Lovejoy murder, news spread swiftly. Abolitionist newspapers understood its importance – “American blood has been shed, at last, by American hands, employed to maintain slavery and crush free discussion,” read the New York American.

The Cincinnati Journal dispelled the idea that the free states should have no say in the future of slavery. “Have we nothing to do with slavery in a free-state? Alas! slavery has something to do with us. Its fangs are upon us, rending our vitals. Talk of liberty in America? The poor privilege left us, in some parts of this land, is to be silent, to let the head, the heart, the tongue, the pen yield to the frantic spirit that riots unawed, unabashed. Silence or death.”

First known photograph of Lincoln - 1846.
First known photograph of Lincoln – 1846.

Lovejoy was the first white man killed in the fight against slavery. Abolitionists had been attacked before, but he was the first of their number to be murdered. This changed the very nature of the struggle. It was no longer one for simply the black American, but one for basic Constitutional rights.

Similar cries came from abolitionist papers across the North, and support came even from Kentucky, Tennessee and Missouri. Abolitionists such as Wendell Philips and William Lloyd Garrison took up Lovejoy’s name as a banner. And even a young Abraham Lincoln delivered a speech referencing the murder and mob justice.

“I hope I am over wary; but if I am not, there is, even now, something of ill-omen, amongst us. I mean the increasing disregard for law which pervades the country; the growing disposition to substitute the wild and furious passions, in lieu of the sober judgment of Courts; and the worse than savage mobs, for the executive ministers of justice. This disposition is awfully fearful in any community; and that it now exists in ours, though grating to our feelings to admit, it would be a violation of truth, and an insult to our intelligence, to deny. Accounts of outrages committed by mobs, form the every-day news of the times. They have pervaded the country, from New England to Louisiana;–they are neither peculiar to the eternal snows of the former, nor the burning suns of the latter;–they are not the creature of climate– neither are they confined to the slave-holding, or the non-slave- holding States. Alike, they spring up among the pleasure hunting masters of Southern slaves, and the order loving citizens of the land of steady habits.–Whatever, then, their cause may be, it is common to the whole country.”

Lincoln went on, speaking of the mob lynchings of black men, mentioning McIntosh by name. He had concluded, even at this early stage of his life, that slavery – whether the enslavers or slave-hunters – was the cause of this violence.

Elijah Lovejoy was murdered not in defending the cause of Abolitionism and Freedom of the Speech, but murdered because slavery was more important to his killers than his life.

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Has always had a love for history and the Civil War. During the 150th anniversary of the war, writing the Civil War Daily Gazette blog, which published daily for nearly five years. Wishing to continue the exploration, following the Charleston murders in 2015, and the activism around removing the Confederate Battle Flag, decided to dig a little deeper into the causes and repercussions of the War.