NPR from Illinois State University
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
Available On Air Stations

McLean County Museum of History Unveils 'Invaluable' Lincoln Document

Breanna Grow
Retired Bloomington attorney and Lincoln scholar Guy Fraker speaks Saturday at the unveiling of a Lincoln pleading he donated to the McLean County Museum of History.

The McLean County Museum of History has announced the donation of what staff call an “invaluable” Lincoln document by Lincoln collector and scholar Guy Fraker.

Fraker spoke about the document, one-and-a-half page legal pleading written in Lincoln’s own hand, at a public unveiling Saturday morning at the museum.

Fraker admitted he’s a bit of a Lincoln nut.

He recalled one incident on a trip with wife Ruth Ann to Italy:

“And on the trip she said, well at least I won’t have to hear anything about Abraham Lincoln. So we’re touring this beautiful square in Sorrento, and the guide said ‘And over there is the hotel where Mary Todd Lincoln stayed when she came to town.”

Legal document
Credit Breanna Grow / WGLT
The one-and-a-half page legal pleading written in Lincoln’s own hand.

But Fraker hadn’t heard of this particular case Lincoln argued - Funk v. Rutledge - until a friend showed him the document in 2008. 

In the pleading Lincoln summarizes the case, in which he defended Robert H. Rutledge against a complaint by Jesse Funk that Rutledge reneged on a real estate deal. 

Fraker set out to authenticate the document, but historians in Springfield were also unfamiliar with the case. Despite fears any proof of the case would have been destroyed in the Great Bloomington Fire of 1900, Fraker was able to verify the document using McLean County Circuit Court records. The pleading dates to the fall of 1851.

Judge David Davis presided over the case, ruling in the fall of 1853 in favor of Funk and ordering Rutledge to sell 80 of the disputed 160 acres of land on the southern edge of Downs Township. 

Fraker said its personal nature is one reason he was so struck by the pleading when he first laid eyes on it.

“It was because it’s such a beautiful piece of almost art, because it’s written in Lincoln’s hand,” he said. “Because it’s a pleading, I think he had to have written it while standing in the courthouse to read the document he was responding to. So it shows even more of his thought even, I mean it’s not the same depth of thought as the Gettysberg address, but the Gettysberg address that we know, that we see, is one after many drafts that he threw away. Whereas this document you can see corrections on it, and it showed his thought process on it as he worked.”

A retired Bloomington attorney himself, Fraker touted the document as a testament to the nature of Lincoln’s law career. 

“He was in fact a working lawyer, not a cause lawyer,” he said. 

It also represents the real estate cases that made up a significant portion of Lincoln’s work: around 1,700 of 5,000 cases, Fraker said.

Fraker acquired the document from Marilyn Townley, widow of Judge Wayne Townley, Jr., who inherited it from his father, Bloomington attorney and Lincoln collector Wayne, Sr. Fraker said no one knows how Wayne Sr. got a hold of it, but he would have acquired it well before World War II.

Fraker said Townley told him she felt comfortable passing the document along to him because he’d “know what to do with it.”

“Well I figured that out over the years, and this is the right way to do it, so that’s why it’s coming to the museum,” said Fraker, a longtime supporter of the museum. 

Museum Librarian Bill Kemp called the donation “invaluable” as a testament to Lincoln’s connections to the people and places of McLean County.

“And I’m not speaking from a monetary perspective, because it has been appraised, we do know its rough appraisal cost, but that is really inconsequential to us,” he said. “We’re here to preserve and protect objects, items, legal pleadings like this in perpetuity. So it will be around for generations to come. So in many ways, yes, we have ownership of this pleading, but it is really a document for the community as a whole.”

Kemp said the museum will honor Fraker’s request to publicly display the Lincoln pleading at least once a year, on or around the time of Lincoln’s birthday. Museum visitors can also request to view the document. 

“So the public will have ample opportunities in the coming years to view the document,” Kemp said.

People like you value experienced, knowledgeable and award-winning journalism that covers meaningful stories in Bloomington-Normal. To support more stories and interviews like this one, please consider making a contribution.

Breanna Grow is a correspondent for GLT. She joined the station in September 2018.