The Murder of an Abolitionist

11/2/2020 Jacob K. Friefeld

Elijah Lovejoy, editor of the Alton Observer, accepted delivery of his new printing press on November 7, 1837, at 3:00 A.M. This was Lovejoy’s third printing press since arriving in Alton in 1836, and it would cost him his life.

In the 1820s, Lovejoy was a reform-minded northeastern transplant to the Midwest. Americans who were uncomfortable with the transformation wrought by the Market Revolution turned to various reform movements in the early 1800s. The temperance movement emerged alongside a host of others, including women’s rights, mental health reform, and Transcendentalism. At the same time, other Americans formed utopian communities that challenged mainstream views, like individual property ownership and monogamy. All were trying to come to terms with life in a modern industrial society, and Lovejoy was no different.

Lovejoy had grown up in Maine and moved west to St. Louis as part of a New England reform movement that hoped to improve the morality and culture in the Union’s newest states and territories. He edited a newspaper in St. Louis and founded a school that provided classical education. After five years running his school, Lovejoy’s life changed.

Many of these reform movements were fed or inspired by a new religious enthusiasm sweeping across the United States. During this Second Great Awakening preachers, also anxious over changes wrought by the Market Revolution, offered hope that individuals could choose between right and wrong and impact the world for good. In the North, much of this religious fervor condemned slavery. Lovejoy was swept up in this religious fervor and left the Midwest to enter the Princeton Theological Seminary. In 1833, he returned to St. Louis, now a devout Presbyterian and abolitionist, to edit the St. Louis Observer.

Lovejoy used his paper to preach against slavery and argue for its abolition. He almost immediately faced death threats from the city’s pro-slavery residents and opted to move his family out of slaveholding Missouri to the freer and supposedly safer streets of Alton, Illinois.

Lovejoy assured the people of Alton that he’d operate the Alton Observer with less space dedicated to the subject of slavery, since he was now in a free state. However, in the Observer’s first issue Lovejoy insisted that the institution of slavery “is an awful evil and sin.” From there his paper became only more anti-slavery.

Though Illinois was a free state, it was hardly a friendly place for abolitionists. Most Illinoisans thought abolitionism was a form of New England extremism. In 1837, the Illinois General Assembly even denounced abolitionism (with Abraham Lincoln as only one of six dissenters to the resolution in the state House of Representatives).

On August 7, 1837, a mob gathered at the Observer’s office and destroyed Lovejoy’s printing press. Lovejoy was able to purchase a new press with the help of donations from sympathizers back East. Opponents seized this press almost immediately and dumped it into the Mississippi River.

When the third press arrived on November 7, Lovejoy was ready to defend it. A pro-slavery mob formed at the warehouse where the press was being stored and one of the rioters climbed a ladder and tried to light the roof on fire. Lovejoy emerged from the warehouse and shot at the man. Gunfire rang-out from the mob as well, leaving Lovejoy dead, shot five times.

Depiction of the attack on Lovejoy’s warehouse (Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum)

Lovejoy’s murder galvanized the abolitionist community and shocked others. During his Lyceum Address in 1838 that responded to the murder of a Black man in St. Louis, Lincoln, no doubt referencing Lovejoy as well, warned his listeners:

"Whenever the vicious portion of population shall be permitted to gather in bands of hundreds and thousands, and burn churches, ravage and rob provision stores, throw printing presses into rivers, shoot editors, and hang and burn obnoxious persons at pleasure, and with impunity; depend on it, this Government cannot last."

(You can read an annotated transcription of the speech at our Papers of Abraham Lincoln site, here:


A monument to Elijah Lovejoy, built in 1897, towers above the Alton Cemetery as a monument to a martyr in the causes of abolition, free speech, and freedom of the press.

The Elijah Lovejoy Monument in Alton, Illinois (Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum)

Also this month in Illinois History…

  • November 20, 1817: Daniel Pope Cook began the push for Illinois statehood with an editorial in the Western Intelligencer.
  • November 13, 1909: A fire at the Cherry Coal Mine in Bureau County killed over 200 mine workers. This was Illinois’s worst coal-mining disaster and prompted the passage of the state Workmen’s Compensation Act.
  • November 3, 1992: Carol Moseley-Braun of Illinois won the first United States Senate seat held by an African American woman.
  • November 2, 2016: The Chicago Cubs won the World Series in seven games, ending the longest championship drought in the history of U.S. sports.

Jacob K. Friefeld
Research Historian


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