In the movie “Lincoln,” the town of Metamora is mentioned in a story told by the war-torn president about a murder trial he attended there. Lincoln is obviously as amused in recalling the humorous tale as his attentive audience is in hearing it. His final words - a punch line of sorts- gets uproarious laughter from the room. But is it true? As it turns out, Lincoln was in Metamora for a scandalous murder case. This is the rest of the story…
Roswell Goings had such a bad reputation in town that no one cared much when they learned the old man was no longer among the living. Perhaps they were relieved. They also weren’t surprised to find out Goings own wife of many years may have had something to do with it.
It all began on April 14, 1857 when the 77-year-old Goings and his 70-year-old wife Melissa argued over an open window. Although no one was there to witness it, Mrs. Goings claimed that her husband grabbed and began choking her. She managed to free herself of his grip and found a piece of stovewood on the floor. Raising it high above her head, she swung down sharply and struck her husband on the top of the head. Roswell Goings stumbled out of the house badly injured.
An acquaintance later testified that he saw the old man shortly after he was hit. “I expect she has killed me,” Goings told the man. “If I get over it, I will have revenge.” Goings never got the chance. After suffering through four miserable days, he eventually succumbed to his injuries.
The public sentiment was clearly on the side of the poor widow. Her dead husband was both “quarrelsome and bibulous,” as one writer put it, and testimonies showed the couple had been “rather disagreeable” for some time. Even Goings roots were dubious at best. Born in Virginia, the pioneer farmer came to Illinois in 1839 and bought 80 acres of prime farmland in Worth Township, then in Tazewell County, from a man with the appropriate name of Jacob Loose. Goings stole the land from Loose, some would say, since the large plot had been valued at $1500, far less than Goings purchase price of $150 (The land would eventually be cut off to form part of Woodford County). Then in 1843, Goings bought more property in Woodford County, 20 acres, this time for a down payment of one horse, a bay mare, valued at $60.
Goings may not have had many friends while alive, but as a dead man he had the law on his side. When it was time for justice, the coroner’s inquest came first. Already there was a snag. Goings body was buried so quickly that the coroner never got a chance to examine it. So a judge ordered the body removed from the ground. Two men were hired to do the grisly deed. They dug up the corpse and carried it back to the Goings house “where it lay” until the coroner could take a closer look. Sure enough, it was determined, a fractured skull had done him in.
Mrs. Goings was “summoned” on a coroners warrant to appear at a hearing and held on $1000 bail. She claimed self-defense and hired a lawyer from Peoria named Henry Grove. Grove then called on a friend for help: a tall lanky attorney from Springfield named Abraham Lincoln.
The case was headed to a courtroom in Metamora, the county seat at the time. On October 8, the grand jury handed down an indictment that claimed Melissa Goings did not “have the fear of God,” in her as she claimed, but “being moved by the instigation of the Devil” desired to “kill and murder” her husband. The stick of wood, the grand jury said, was an “an instrument of death.”
Judge James Harriett of Pekin was called to preside. With Grove and Lincoln by her side, the judge asked Mrs. Goings to enter a plea. “Not guilty”, was her reply.
The trial was set to start immediately, the same day of the arraignment. Obviously distraught by the swift proceedings, Mrs. Goings asked the judge for a conference with her attorney before the juror selection began. The judge granted her request and Lincoln and Mrs. Goings met briefly. Then Mrs. Goings stepped outside the courthouse and was never seen again; not in Metamora, Woodford County or anywhere else in Illinois.
Lincoln would jokingly admit that he gave the old woman some sage advice before disappearing. Robert T. Cassel, a justice and court bailiff who was holding Mrs. Goings on the murder charge, would later confirm Lincoln’s story:
“Mrs. Goings was brought into court that Lincoln might talk to her. After a while I was told by the State’s Attorney to bring her up for trial, but she could not be found. I asked Lincoln about her and she said she did not know where she was. I replied, ‘Confound you Abe, you have her run off?’”
“Oh no, Bob,” replied Lincoln. “I did not run her off. She wanted to know where to get a good drink of water and I told her there was mighty good water in Tennessee.”
Shortly after fleeing, Going’s son Joseph was accused of trying to bribe a justice “ten dollars” to strike down the murder charge. He skipped town just like his mother.
Afterwards, Lincoln represented the woman’s bondsmen which included a relative, Armstrong Goings, and another man named Beck. Both were asked to defend the woman’s actions in court, scire facias. Lincoln argued in favor of confession and avoidance and the charges were dismissed.
Years later, Mrs. Goings was spotted in California.
Whether Lincoln actually said the words to Mrs. Goings before she fled is up for debate. Earnest East, a reporter for the Peoria Star who revisited the case in 1953, put it this way: “Lincoln was a practical lawyer who was willing to lean towards public sentiment when it disagreed with the strict letter of the law.”
“In this course” East determined, “he appeared to have had the tacit approval of law enforcement officers.”
Perhaps a diary entry by Lincoln’s future secretary and longtime friend John Hay solves the mystery. Hay wrote: “He [Lincoln] told one devilish story about E.F. Linder (a lawyer) getting a fellow off who had stolen a hog by advising him to go get a drink and suggesting the water was better in Tennessee.”
In the Goings murder case, Lincoln may have just been repeating Linder’s story for effect. No one will ever know. But in numerous books, articles and now movies, the story is repeated as an example of the 16th president’s folksy humor. One he apparently put to good use when the situation presented itself.