Abraham Lincoln evidently was unfazed by this lack of medical law.
Always the practical man, if the law was vague on certain points,
Lincoln employed logical analysis and rhetorical flourishes. Such were
the circumstances when Lincoln agreed to serve as one of six defense
attorneys in the
"Chicken Bone" case.
It was just after midnight, October 16, 1855, when a fire in the
livery stable behind the Morgan
House in Bloomington, Illinois, destroyed all except two of the
buildings in the block south of
the McLean County Courthouse. One man was killed, and Samuel G. Fleming,
suffered burns and two broken thighs when the Morgan House chimney fell.
Doctors Thomas P.
Rogers, Jacob R. Freese, and Eli K. Crothers, doubting Fleming would
live, set his legs in
splints. Fleming recovered, and after three weeks the doctors removed
the splints and found the
right leg was crooked. They recommended breaking the adhesions and
resetting the leg. With
Fleming's and his family's consent, the doctors administered chloroform
and proceeded to reset
the leg. Finding the pain unbearable, Fleming stopped the operation and
decided to cope with a
crooked leg. Five months later he hired six lawyers and, on March 28,
1856, filed suit declaring
that Doctors Crothers and Rogers "not regarding their said duty but
intending and contriving to
injure the said plaintiff," had not used "due and proper care, skill or
diligence." Fleming sought
$10,000 in damages.
With public sentiment supporting Fleming, Lincoln realized the
doctors' best defense was time.
Twice he succeeded in having the case continued. The trial, finally
heard during the April 1857
term of the McLean County Circuit Court, took place in a circus-like
atmosphere. The courthouse
was filled for the week-long affair as the plaintiff's attorneys
presented fifteen doctors and
twenty-one other witnesses, and the defense presented the town's twelve
Overwhelmed by the contradictory medical testimony, the jury was
unable to arrive at a decision
after eighteen hours of deliberation. The case was dismissed and
re-docketed for the next term.
Twice more Lincoln won continuances; the final time, September
1857, because he was in
Chicago arguing the famous Effie Afton case. After the fourth
continuance, the defense gained a
change of venue to the Logan County Circuit Court, on the grounds that
Fleming "had an undue
influence over the minds of the inhabitants of the County of McLean."
The case never reached
trial in Logan County, as both sides agreed to dismiss the suit with the
defendants paying costs.
Plaintiff and defendants' counsel had performed well. Fleming's
attorneys, led by Leonard Swett,
reputedly the leading central Illinois practitioner in medical
litigation, had no statutory law for
guidance and were dependent on prior court rulings. They charged the
incompetence and tried to secure a conviction based on the testimony of
medical colleagues not
immune to self-service.
Lincoln did his best to defuse the charge of incompetence with his
own unique combination
of osteology and rhetoric. In illustrating to the jury that Fleming's
recovery was normal because
bones became brittle with age, Lincoln used a chicken bone and
exclaimed, "This bone has the
starch all taken out of it." Lincoln then asked Fleming if he could
walk. Fleming replied, "Yes,
but my leg is short so I have to limp." Lincoln then concluded his
argument by saying, "Well!
What I would advise you to do is get down on your knees and thank your
Heavenly Father, and
also these two Doctors that you have any legs to stand on at all."
Do you think the doctors were incompetent? Did Lincoln finally
win the case? Go to the Case Answer Form and complete it.
You be the judge and/or jury.
Complete the Case Fact Box &
Complete the Court Form and render
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