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The Anti-Slavery Newspaper Editor Murdered By a Mob

Elijah Lovejoy was a newspaper editor and abolitionist whose death at the hands of a mob in 1837 became the subject of national controversy. Lovejoy became a martyr of the anti-slavery cause and was also cited as a symbol of freedom of the press.

On Capitol Hill, John Quincy Adams, serving in Congress after his term as president, wrote passionately about Lovejoy's death. And in Illinois, a young aspiring politician, Abraham Lincoln, gave a lyceum address partly inspired by his revulsion at the mob violence which took place only 85 miles away.

The murder of Lovejoy helped draw attention to the abolitionist cause. And he became a symbol of free speech and courage in the face of mob violence. Yet his killers went unpunished. And slavery continued in America for another quarter century, until it was ended with the Civil War.

Background of Elijah Lovejoy

Elijah Parish Lovejoy was born the son of a Presbyterian clergyman in Albion, Maine, on November 9, 1802. He graduated from Waterville College (present day Colby College) in Maine in 1826 and worked as a schoolteacher and journalist in St. Louis, Missouri. He also studied to be a preacher and began editing a Presbyterian journal.

Writing editorials denouncing slavery, Lovejoy found himself a controversial character. In the 1830s the abolitionist movement was far from mainstream, and even talk of the gradual abolition of slavery could be considered incendiary.

In 1835 a group of St. Louis citizens urged Lovejoy to cease his abolitionist writing, but he refused. 

Controversial Writings

In 1836 Lovejoy wrote an account of the brutal lynching of a free black man in Missouri.

He was denounced and threatened, and moved across the Mississippi River to Illinois. His printing press was seized from the dock in Alton, Illinois, and thrown into the river.

Lovejoy's abolitionist editorials continued, and he remained defiant in the face of threats. When it seemed that a new printing press of Lovejoy's was to be attacked, the mayor of Alton urged him to place it in a warehouse for safekeeping.

Though supporters of Lovejoy guarded the printing press, a mob arrived on the night of November 7, 1837, intent on destroying the press. Gunfire broke out. It was never determined who fired the first shot, but a member of the attacking mob was killed.

In the melee that followed, Lovejoy was shot five times. He died with an hour.

Lovejoy's Martyrdom

News of Lovejoy's murder at the hands of a mob spread quickly. Within a week newspapers in the East were printing accounts of the riot and Lovejoy's death.

Notable abolitionists, including William Lloyd Garrison and Wendell Philips, were inspired by Garrison's death to continue to spread the abolitionist message. And many ordinary Americans who had regarded the abolitionist movement as a small and inconsequential fringe began to take it more seriously.

Lovejoy's own younger brother, Owen Lovejoy, became an ardent abolitionist and would become a political ally of President Abraham Lincoln while serving in Congress during the Civil War.

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