Elijah Lovejoy: An American Martyr

7, November 2017
Memorial card for Elijay Lovejoy featuring his silhouette in profile and his signature, plus birth and death dates and locationsElijah Lovejoy memorial card, ca. 1837. Missouri Historical Society Collections.

“Elijah Parish Lovejoy died in Alton, Illinois, on November 7, 1837. He died, so far as is known, as the only martyr in the United States of America to the cause of the Freedom of the Press.” So reads the legal motion to close the case of Lovejoy’s estate, 100 years after his death sparked new passion in the abolitionist movement.

Birth of the St. Louis Observer

After much soul searching, teacher-turned-editor Elijah Lovejoy joined the First Presbyterian Church in 1832. Soon afterward, the 30-year-old left the St. Louis Times newspaper to study at Princeton Theological Seminary in New Jersey. When he had earned his preaching license the next year, a group of his St. Louis friends put forth a tempting proposition: return to Missouri and run a new Presbyterian newspaper, which they would fund. Eager to proselytize via the written word, Lovejoy agreed.

The St. Louis Observer debuted on November 22, 1833. In it, Lovejoy railed against Catholicism—something that didn’t sit well with the city’s French Creole and Irish residents but that was regarded as free speech and rebuked in a similar fashion. Lovejoy’s next topic of focus proved far more inflammatory.

Black-and-white scan of masthead of the St. Louis Observer newspaperMasthead of the St. Louis Observer, July 24, 1836. Missouri Historical Society Collections.

Abolitionist Arguments and a Free Press

In 1834, Lovejoy began editorializing against slavery, making points such as this one, from April 1835:

[Slavery] is demonstrably evil. In every community where it exists, it presses like a night-mare on the body politic. Or, like the vampire, it slowly and imperceptibly sucks away the life-blood of society, leaving it faint and disheartened to stagger along the road of improvement. . . . It becomes us as a Christian people, as those who believe in the future retribution of a righteous Providence, to remove from our midst an institution, no less the cause of moral corruption to the master than to the slave.

Friends and financial supporters of the Observer wrote to their editor in October 1835, encouraging him to consider “the present temper of the times” and table his anti-slavery coverage so as to avoid violence. Lovejoy stayed his course.

Color photo of blue-and-white pitcher memorial pitcher for Elijah Lovejoy against a black backgroundCommemorative Staffordshire pitcher dedicated to the memory of Elijah Lovejoy, ca. 1840. Missouri Historical Society Collections.

Tensions came to a head six months later following the terrible lynching of a free black man in the city. The men on trial for the crime were acquitted in court, a result no doubt influenced by presiding judge Luke Lawless, who had told the jurors that if they believed the black man’s death was the result of numerous individuals, then the determination of guilt went “beyond the reach of human law.”

Lovejoy’s Observer quickly spoke out against Judge Lawless’s statement, noting that it essentially supported mob action. Popular opinion in the city disagreed with him, and the Observer’s office was broken into twice in the ensuing weeks.

Relocation to Alton

In the summer of 1836, Lovejoy announced that the Observer would be relocating from St. Louis to Alton, Illinois. His stated reason for the move was that “there is no doubt the paper will be better supported [in Alton] than it now is, or is likely to be, remaining in St. Louis.”

Black-and-white image of engraving of Elijah Lovejoy's printing office in Alton, IllinoisEngraving of Elijah Lovejoy's printing office in Alton, Illinois, date unknown. Missouri Historical Society Collections.

Shortly after the news was out, men broke into the Observer’s offices a third time, knocking over the printing press, breaking furniture, and ruining whatever else they could find. Lovejoy recovered the press and had it shipped to Alton, where it arrived without anyone to guard it and was promptly broken apart and tossed into the Mississippi River. Undeterred, Lovejoy acquired a new press courtesy of some well-to-do Alton residents and published the first issue of the Alton Observer on September 8, 1836.

He continued to condemn slavery in his writings, even more forcefully than before. For example, in May 1837, he wrote:

We have seen the traffic in human beings pursued by one portion of our fellow-citizens with an unfeeling and gloatingly avaricious eagerness, which would have made the early Spanish men-hunters of Cuba blush. Husbands and wives, and parents and children have been torn asunder with an utter recklessness of feeling, that equals, to say the least, any thing of cruelty that the annals of savagedom can furnish, and all to make these victims toil and sweat unthanked and unrewarded, in order to enrich their plunderers.

Black-and-white photograph of a piece of one of Elijay Lovejoy's printing presses that was recovered from the Mississippi RiverThis piece of one of Elijah Lovejoy's printing presses was recovered in 1915 and can now be seen in the offices of the Alton Telegraph newspaper. Photo by Cary Horton, 2005. Missouri Historical Society Collections.

Such anti-slavery editorials outraged many in Lovejoy’s new hometown who swore he’d promised to cease talk of abolition. But Lovejoy was firmly committed to writing about what moved him, as this statement attributed to him after his arrival in Alton illustrates:

. . . 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.

Those who didn’t support Lovejoy’s right to publish what he wanted set out to silence him. Twice, a mob broke into the Alton Observer’s office, destroyed the printing press, and dumped it in the Mississippi River. Twice, Lovejoy secured another press and continued publishing anti-slavery pieces.

A Fateful Night

On November 7, 1837, Lovejoy’s fourth printing press had arrived and been taken to the Godfrey, Gilman & Co. warehouse near the river. A mob soon formed outside and demanded the press be handed over. Lovejoy, warehouse owner Winthrop Gilman, and the 18 other men inside the building refused to comply.

Alton mayor John Krum (later mayor of St. Louis) arrived on the scene and attempted to urge the mob toward calm. When that failed, he tried to convince those in the warehouse to surrender. Upon realizing they would not, Mayor Krum authorized them to do what was needed to protect themselves and then left.

Sepia-toned image of woodcut illustrating the riot that took place the night Elijah Lovejoy diedWoodcut of the pro-slavery riot that occurred in Alton, Illinois, the night Elijah Lovejoy died, ca. 1838. Missouri Historical Society Collections.

As the mob placed a ladder against the building in the hopes of starting a fire, Lovejoy and two companions stepped out of the warehouse to get a better look at what was happening outside. Suddenly shots rang out from mob members hidden in a nearby lumber pile. Lovejoy, who had been hit five times, ran back inside, exclaimed “Oh God, I am shot,” and died moments later.

With Lovejoy deceased, the remaining 19 defenders quickly fled to safety. The mob then flooded into the warehouse and achieved what it came for: destroying and dumping Elijah Lovejoy’s printing press into the Mighty Mississippi once and for all.

Color photo of the Elijah P. Lovejoy Monument in Alton, Illinois The Elijah P. Lovejoy Monument, located at Monument and 5th Streets in Alton, Illinois, was erected in 1897. Photo by Cary Horton, 2017.

What those men couldn’t have known was that by making Lovejoy a martyr for publishing what he saw fit—support of abolition—their violence brought new voices and leadership to the abolitionist movement, including Wendell Phillips and John Brown. As a result, the ideals that so offended them spread, the divide between slavery supporters and abhorrers grew wider, and the nation moved ever closer toward civil war.

—Jen Tebbe, Editor

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