Winthrop Gilman’s stone warehouse on the banks of the Mississippi River was a fortress-like structure with thick walls and few windows — nearly ideal for defending a printing press from a frenzied mob. But it had one unfortunate weakness: a wood-shingled roof, which one member of the mob, torch in hand, was now ascending toward.
In the days that preceded the riot, Elijah P. Lovejoy, along with a small group of his supporters, had made a fateful decision. The editor of the Illinois abolitionist newspaper the Alton Observer, Lovejoy, having already witnessed the destruction of three of his other presses, and having tried unsuccessfully to reason with the citizenry of the town, had resolved to defend the new press by force, if necessary.
And so as the assailant climbed the ladder the mob had leaned against the warehouse, Lovejoy stepped outside and aimed his pistol upward. Immediately, five bullets ripped through his flesh. Lovejoy stumbled back into the building, where he managed to climb one flight of stairs before collapsing, dead. In the early morning hours of Nov. 7, 1837, the man from a small town in central Maine became a martyr for the anti-slavery cause and the first journalist in the United States to be killed for defending his First Amendment right to publish.
Elijah Parish Lovejoy was born in what is now the town of Albion, Maine, on Nov. 9, 1802, just over a decade after his father, Daniel Lovejoy, had first settled what was then known as Freetown Plantation. Daniel Lovejoy was a farmer and Congregational minister. Elijah’s mother, Elizabeth, was also extraordinarily pious, and Elijah (or “Parish” to his family), the oldest of his parent’s children, fully absorbed the religiosity of his upbringing. He attended Waterville College (now Colby College), where he graduated first in his class.
Academically, Lovejoy’s years at the college were a great success. He consistently impressed his professors and the administrators with his intellect. But his letters home to his family from those years also reveal the depth of his internal torment. Lovejoy suffered from major bouts of depression, an affliction that appears to have run in his family. He was also prudish and judgmental, frequently expressing disgust at the intemperance and licentiousness of others. Unsurprisingly, this won him few friends, and he spent much of his time in a lonely search for spiritual fulfillment.
After a few years teaching school, Lovejoy decided to go west in search of a calling. In the spring of 1827 he took a schooner from Bath to Boston, and from there he set off on foot to New York City. He resolved to make his way to Illinois, but after several weeks in the city selling newspapers door to door, he had not earned enough to accumulate any savings to pay for travel. He appealed to the president of Waterville College, who sent him some money with which he paid for his passage along the Erie Canal. When he reached Illinois, he found that the state was still very much a rough frontier, offering few opportunities for interesting work, but the nearby city of St. Louis seemed promising.
St. Louis was a bustling city, but it still lacked a public school system. Having some familiarity with private academies, Lovejoy set up his own school, which he ran for a couple years before a more interesting opportunity presented itself. T. J. Miller, publisher of the St. Louis Times, was looking for a new partner, so Lovejoy sold his school and entered the newspaper business.
Like most newspapers of its day, the Times had an explicitly partisan stance. It strongly supported Henry Clay and opposed President Andrew Jackson, whom Lovejoy considered immoral. His involvement with the Times gave him experience in both the technical aspects of newspaper publishing as well as the 19th-century style of editorial sparring. At this point, however, Lovejoy had shown little interest in the cause for which he would eventually give his life.
Lovejoy only gradually became radicalized by the anti-slavery movement. In the beginning, he was much more interested in broader moral reforms. It was the peak of the Second Great Awakening, when a passionate Protestant religious revival swept through the land. During a series of meetings at the First Presbyterian Church in January of 1832, Lovejoy was captivated by the sermons of the Rev. David Nelson, who later became an important figure in the abolitionist movement.
Soon Lovejoy converted to Presbyterianism, sold his stake in the St. Louis Times, and went back east to enroll in Princeton Theological Seminary. Although he entertained the idea of remaining in the Northeast, Lovejoy continued to feel the pull of the West. His decision to move back to St. Louis was firmly fixed when he received word that a group of Presbyterians in the city were establishing a newspaper and were eager to enlist him as editor.
On Nov. 22, 1833, the first issue of the St. Louis Observer appeared. Early on, the paper was occasionally critical of slavery, but it was not, by any stretch, an abolitionist newspaper in the mold of William Lloyd Garrison’s Liberator. In fact, Lovejoy initially despised Garrison and called him an “incendiary fanatic.” He even chastised his own mother back in Maine for being a Garrison fan. In a letter to her, he wrote that only “silly women and boys” were captivated by the fiery abolitionist, and that he felt “regret and mortification that my Mother should be among their number.” But before he put the letter in the mail, he thought better of his self-righteous scolding, wrote “Stop Here” above his anti-Garrison tirade, and signed it in a cramped script below. Paper wasn’t cheap in those days.
Lovejoy’s new venture was a religious reform newspaper dedicated to condemning a whole host of sins, such as Sabbath-breaking and consumption of tobacco and whiskey. To Lovejoy and likeminded New England transplants, Westerners were a people deeply in need of moral enlightenment.
In fact, it was not anti-slavery rhetoric but anti-Catholicism that first began to turn the public against Lovejoy. Like most evangelical Protestant clergy of the day, Lovejoy believed “Papism” posed a serious threat to “the Fountain of Protestant Liberty” and was incompatible with the principles upon which the American republic was founded. The screeds Lovejoy ran earned the ire of the Catholic Church, a powerful institution in St. Louis. About a third of the local population was Catholic, a result of the city’s early history as a French trading outpost.
After his return to St. Louis, Lovejoy also served as a minister and had an appointment from the American Home Missionary Society. Preaching, heading various reform societies, writing and running a newspaper kept him perpetually busy. According to one of his biographers, Merton Dillon, Lovejoy seldom got to bed before two o’clock in the morning. During this time, Lovejoy also met his future wife, Celia Ann French, whom he married on March 4, 1835.
By then, Lovejoy was becoming more militant in his opposition to slavery, and the editorial line taken by the Observer was growing increasingly bolder. He forcefully condemned lynchings of African Americans as “disgraceful,” “savage” and “barbaric.” He described how a lynch mob in St. Louis bound a biracial man named Francis McIntosh and slowly burned him alive as he begged the white men to shoot him while the fire “obliterated the features of humanity.” After 20 agonizing minutes, McIntosh finally died. After the mob dispersed, Lovejoy described how “a rabble of boys” began throwing rocks at the “black, disfigured corpse, as it stood chained to a tree.” The object of the game, he explained, was to see who would be the first to break the skull. While other newspapers sought to downplay the lynching or pin the blame on McIntosh for allegedly murdering a sheriff’s deputy, Lovejoy exposed it as a moral abomination.
“Is it not time to stop?” he asked. “We must stand by the constitution and laws or all is gone!”
A fierce public backlash to his writing and preaching grew, and St. Louis became a dangerous place for the young reformer. In August of 1835, Lovejoy narrowly avoided being tarred and feathered by two men who had attended a revivalist camp meeting where he had preached. They were upset by his condemnation of slavery, even though it had not been the main topic of his sermon. He escaped the attack only by chance. The men had assumed Lovejoy would be spending the night in the village of Potosi, Missouri, near the camp meeting, when in fact he was staying with a friend some distance away. The men eventually gave up waiting for him to pass through the village that night, and he only learned of the close encounter afterward.
A few months later, officials in Jefferson City discovered copies of The Emancipator, the newspaper of the American Anti-Slavery Society, in a shipment of Bibles that Lovejoy had sent to the local branch of the American Bible Society in his role as an agent for that organization. He may not have deliberately included the papers, and he insisted they were merely used as packing material. Nonetheless, when word of this got back to St. Louis it led to a series of meetings protesting Lovejoy’s recent activities.
While Lovejoy was away from St. Louis that fall, rumors of mob violence against the Observer began to circulate. The newspaper’s proprietors, seeking to mollify the citizenry, announced that anti-slavery articles would cease during the editor’s absence. Upon his return, Lovejoy took a stand. He wrote a declaration of principles in the Observer strongly defending his freedom to publish according to his conscience. Although this won him the support of some who, while not necessarily sharing his views, did endorse his right to speak his mind, he lost the backing of the newspaper’s proprietors, who transferred ownership to the mortgage holder. To Lovejoy’s surprise, however, the paper’s new owner ultimately decided to keep him on staff.
The owner initially thought the newspaper should be moved out of St. Louis, across the river to Alton in the free state of Illinois. But while Lovejoy was in Alton making arrangements for the move, the owner wrote to inform him that he’d decided to keep the paper in St. Louis. Events in the city would soon force their hand, however, just as Lovejoy foresaw. In a letter to a fellow clergyman, he wrote, “The time is soon coming, when we must all be tried by fire.”
Will Chapman is the Librarian and Archivist at Museums of the Bethel Historical Society. Andy O’Brien is the communications director for the Maine AFL-CIO. You can reach them at firstname.lastname@example.org and email@example.com.