Once Upon a Time

Early lawyer known for hearing 'laughing cases' in court

This photo of Henry Asbury was taken about the time he wrote his history of Quincy. He was an early settler, a friend of Abraham Lincoln and a law partner of Abraham Jonas. | Photo courtesy of the Historical Society of Quincy and Adams County
Posted: Jul. 8, 2018 12:01 am Updated: Jul. 8, 2018 12:05 am

Calvin A. Warren was one of the earliest lawyers in Quincy. Born in Elizabethtown, N.Y., in 1807, he moved to Ohio in the early 1830s and married in 1835. He attended law school at Transylvania University in Lexington, Ky., "at that time the best school of the kind in the entire West."

The couple came to Quincy in 1836, moved to Hancock County for a year, then returned to Quincy in 1839, where he practiced law for many years.

Warren's friend Henry Asbury, also a Quincy lawyer, wrote of him, "As a natural humorist and wit, has never had his equal at our bar. His mind and mental habits seemed to make it impossible for him to keep back a flow of wit and humor as from an inexhaustible fountain. ... If it was a laughing case, he always had them from the start."

Asbury, too, seemed to have a gift for being present at "laughing cases."

From the beginning, local citizens had taken the law seriously. The election of county officers on July 2, 1825, was the final step in organizing Adams County with Quincy as the county seat. Although there may have been fewer than 12 or 15 residents within the borders of the town and only about 75 voters living in the entire county, legal matters were immediately addressed. The first session of the county court was held just two days later.

The first grand jury for the first circuit court was seated Oct. 31, in Willard Keyes' cabin. The grand jury convened on the front porch then moved out under a large oak tree to deliberate. They delivered five indictments, all for fighting.

John E. Jeffers, Louis Masquerier, George Logan, James H. Ralston, Archibald Williams, and Orville Browning were all practicing law in the new town before 1831, and 42 more attorneys, including Asbury, joined them between 1835 and 1847.

In the 1830s and '40s one often became a lawyer by apprenticing as a clerk under the guidance of an experienced lawyer. The apprenticeships often looked more like the jobs of errand boy, document copier and silent observer. Some attorneys did, however, tutor and teach their clerks. A few private law schools existed in the nation -- 15 by 1850, and some affiliated with universities, but they did not grant law degrees.

Asbury, who had arrived in Quincy in 1834, had been tutored in law by Abraham Lincoln's friend Orville H. Browning, before being admitted to the bar in 1837. It was possible -- and more economical -- to educate oneself sufficiently to pass the state's bar examination, as Lincoln did. In the mention of the numerous lawyers in Quincy's history, no distinction was made by how they attained their law education. When Asbury wrote his history of Quincy in 1882, he stated that at least 60 lawyers lived in the town. By that time, Asbury had been a justice of the peace and in addition to his recollections of Warren's "laughing cases" had collected a supply of humorous stories about occurrences in his own courtrooms in the first half-century of Quincy's existence.

Asbury heard his first case as justice of the peace soon after his election in 1836. Mr. Williams had sworn out a warrant against Col. Humphrey of Virginia, who had stopped in Burton Township on his way to Missouri but became stranded in Illinois when the Mississippi River closed to traffic. He had two boys with him as slaves. Williams accused Humphrey of kidnapping the boys. No evidence of kidnapping was presented, only hearsay, and slavery would not be constitutionally banned from Illinois until 1848, so Humphrey was released.

One of the local men who had watched the proceedings, Mr. McQuaid, was extremely distressed that the charges had even been made. When the case was dismissed, he punched Williams in the nose, as Asbury described, "making blood spurt out in a stream." The two presiding justices that day, Asbury and Robert Williams, promptly fined McQuaid, but the assembled crowd just as promptly donated the money for the fine and ran Mr. Williams out of town.

Asbury quipped, "I have given this incident to lift the curtain upon the old times, when an Abolitionist was considered by the masses of the people the meanest of men."

In about 1838, an old man named Phelps often visited the town with a wagonload of green wood, "troops of children," and "a rather sorry team of two horses." He was known far and wide for being so loud everyone knew of his arrival and subsequent location, usually on the north side of Washington Square -- the anti-abolitionists' side.

Asbury described the scene: "At that time the square was not fenced, and the old man, after he got pretty full, would generally march out into the middle of this public ground and stand and curse, shake his fist at and abuse the Abolitionists. His voice could be heard all over the town."

The abolitionists finally tired of his verbal abuse and had him arrested and brought before Asbury's court for disturbing the peace. In those days, there were no local laws, only state laws, and Asbury got out his state law book and studied it on the spot.

Technically, the state law only applied to disturbing the peace at night. Asbury dismissed the case, and a slightly more subdued Phelps left town.

Asbury once had to make a ruling between next-door neighbors, German immigrants. One man's pigpen had become so filthy he decided to remove, but he simply turned the pig loose until he could rebuild. One day the pig entered his neighbor's lot, where it was attacked by the neighbor's dogs. Attempting to get back home through the fence, the terrified pig got stuck. The neighbor attempted to free the pig by pulling on its tail and pulled it off. The tail-less pig's owner sued. Asbury noted, "We decided against the plaintiff."


Linda Riggs Mayfield is a researcher, writer and online consultant for doctoral scholars and authors. She retired from the associate faculty of Blessing-Rieman College of Nursing and is on the board of the Historical Society.



Asbury, Henry (1882), "Reminiscences of Quincy, Illinois Containing Historical Events, Anecdotes, Matters

Concerning Old Settlers and Old Times, Etc." D. Wilcox and Sons, Quincy; Bibliolife, Open Content Alliance.


Illinois Issues: Slave State (Oct. 20, 2016), NPR Illinois, nprillinois.og/post/Illinois-issues-slave-



Katcher, Susan (2006), "Legal Training in the United States: A Brief History,"



Snively, Ethan A. (1901), Slavery in Illinois, Transactions of the Illinois State Historical Society--1901,



Warren, Calvin Averill (2018), the Joseph Smith Papers, josephsmithpapers.org/person/calvin-