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Elijah Lovejoy’s Life And Tumultuous Times Get Their Due In ‘First To Fall’

Elijah Lovejoy is buried in Alton, Ill., the Mississippi River city where he was murdered by an angry pro-slavery mob in 1837.
Evie Hemphill
Elijah Lovejoy is buried in Alton, Ill., the Mississippi River city where he was slain by a pro-slavery mob in 1837.

In 1837, Elijah Lovejoy was killed by members of an angry, pro-slavery mob. They broke into the warehouse in Alton, Ill., where Lovejoy had hidden the printing press he used to publish his Abolitionist newspaper, the Alton Observer. Lovejoy, who was on site to defend his property, was shot five times.

As his body lay on a cot, the mob breached the building and seized the press. It was dropped from the top floor to the streets below — and then into the Mississippi River. It was the fourth time Lovejoy’s printing press had been destroyed in barely over a year.

That night, Lovejoy became the first American journalist slain for his work, writes journalist Ken Ellingwood in his gripping new biography, “First to Fall: Elijah Lovejoy and the Fight for a Free Press in the Age of Slavery.” The Presbyterian minister, who only became a staunch abolitionist after witnessing the horrors of slavery first-hand in his years living in St. Louis, became a martyr to the anti-slavery cause.

Author Ken Ellingwood
Journalist Ken Ellingwood.

As Ellingwood explained on Thursday’s St. Louis on the Air, Lovejoy was a native of Maine who’d made his way to Missouri — what was then the frontier — in the late 1820s in part to find his way. He ran a school, then started a newspaper.

But as his faith deepened (he felt a personal call to Christ, one of many Americans so inspired during the Second Great Awakening), the evils of slavery increasingly became a preoccupation — in his thoughts and in the pages of his newspaper.

“He got into the anti-slavery movement primarily through his religion,” Ellingwood said. After moving back east for a few years to get his divinity degree, Lovejoy moved back to St. Louis with a twin mission: “He was going to be a minister, but he was also asked to edit a religious newspaper. That was called the St. Louis Observer, and that became his vehicle to writing about all kinds of views he had.”

He added: “One of the things that affected him very deeply was what he saw all around him happening in Missouri, and in St. Louis, where steamboats were headed south down the Mississippi River carrying slaves to the South. There were slaves around him in St. Louis, there was very abusive treatment of enslaved people around him in St. Louis and in Missouri in general, and he was deeply affected by that.”

As Ellingwood’s book describes vividly, being an abolitionist in Lovejoy’s day was wildly controversial, even in the North. Abolitionists were thought to be fringe radicals, frequently accused of sedition for advocating a path that could blow up the nation’s increasingly fragile union. Even in the North, they often faced angry mobs — and their opponents, in Ellingwood’s words, “saw themselves as enforcers of the majority’s will during a time of flux,” with violence against them “a form of nuisance abatement to maintain the community’s living standards.”

And the freedom of the press was, at the time, no guarantee. As Ellingwood writes, it wasn’t until decades later that the rights guaranteed by the U.S. Constitution were extended to state and local governments. The federal government couldn’t crack down on a free press — but in those years, states could, and did.

A Journalist And A Martyr
Listen to Ken Ellingwood discuss Elijah Lovejoy's life and legacy on the air

In the 1830s, many slave states made it a crime to publish papers likely to produce “conspiracy or insurrection” among Black people, Ellingwood writes. Even circulating such materials was a crime. Missouri didn’t join those efforts until much closer to the Civil War but, Ellingwood writes, “relied on an 1804 law that imposed the death penalty for conspiring to encourage slave rebellion.”

Lovejoy would not be stopped. Even after he fled St. Louis for the free state of Illinois, settling in Alton, he continued to print anti-slavery broadsides in the Observer. The mob destroyed his printing press and sought to break into his home, both in Alton and when he visited his wife’s family across the river in St. Charles.

Still, Lovejoy stood firm. “It is because I fear God that I am not afraid of all who oppose me in this city,” Ellingwood quotes him as telling a group of Alton businessmen who sought to wrest control of the paper from him in the fall of 1837. “No, sir, the contest has commenced here and here it must be finished. If I fall, my grave shall be made in Alton.”

The mob succeeded not more than a few days later, a scene depicted vividly in Ellingwood’s book. Even though prominent citizens participated in the melee at the warehouse, none was ever prosecuted for their role in Lovejoy’s death.

Alton, though, paid a price.

“Alton in the 1830s had this grand ambition that it was going to usurp St. Louis as the queen of the West, as this powerhouse on the Mississippi,” Ellingwood said. “After this confrontation, after Lovejoy’s killing, after the mob’s attack on his presses and the firebombing of the warehouse where Lovejoy made his last stand, the fate of Alton really fell. … Alton didn’t die out, Alton still exists today, but it was never able to achieve the status that it believed it would have when dreamers in the 1830s envisioned this economic powerhouse.”

In the end, Lovejoy’s ideas won. It’s not just that the abolitionist viewpoint eventually went from a fringe viewpoint to federal law, but also that his battle to print what he wanted to print, without interference from the government or the mob, became a cherished American principle.

Writes Ellingwood: “Lovejoy reminds us that a free press is not just a clause in the Bill of Rights but a cause that has been cultivated and defended by generations of its practitioners, too many of whom have died in its exercise. Lovejoy was the first of them to fall. In fighting his battle, Lovejoy triumphed for the rest. His victory would not be measured in the number of slaves freed or sins redeemed, but rather in the simple, audacious fact of published words, delivered to life by a press and the sacred kiss of ink on paper.”

St. Louis on the Air” brings you the stories of St. Louis and the people who live, work and create in our region. The show is hosted by Sarah Fenske and produced by Alex Heuer, Emily Woodbury, Evie Hemphill and Lara Hamdan. The audio engineer is Aaron Doerr.

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Sarah Fenske served as host of St. Louis on the Air from July 2019 until June 2022. Before that, she spent twenty years in newspapers, working as a reporter, columnist and editor in Cleveland, Houston, Phoenix, Los Angeles and St. Louis.