The Amazing Archivists of Springfield, Illinois: An interview with Mr. John A. Lupton

John Lupton–Historian for the Illinois Supreme Court

I first met John Lupton during my on-going search for anything and everything Ellsworthy. I wrote about an exciting part of my journey HERE and promised that I would interview John Lupton in the near future. Readers, meet Mr. John Lupton.

MG: Please introduce yourself and tell us exactly what you do for the great state of Illinois.

JL: My name is John Lupton.  I’m the historian for the Illinois Supreme Court and director of the Illinois Supreme Court Historic Preservation Commission.  I have a master’s degree in history, and I’ve been working in the field of legal history for the State of Illinois for more than 25 years.  I worked for the Lincoln Legal Papers and the Papers of Abraham Lincoln documentary, editing projects from 1991 to 2009, helping to compile documents and lawsuits related to Lincoln’s law practice.  Since 2009, I’ve been with Court, helping to preserve the judicial history of Illinois with programs, exhibits, and publications. Our most successful effort has been our History on Trial series, in which we did theater productions of famous trials in history, including Mary Surratt’s conspiracy trial, Mary Lincoln’s insanity trial, Mormon Prophet Joseph Smith’s habeas corpus hearings, and an Illinois school desegregation case.

MG: How did you become aware that the paperwork concerning the granting of law licenses in Illinois was in any danger?

JL: A number of files were stored in the basement of the Illinois Supreme Court Building, including attorney oaths.  Oaths are the document that an attorney signs promising to support the Constitution upon becoming a lawyer.  In effect, it is the last step in becoming an attorney in Illinois.

The Clerk of the Supreme Court turned over its entire collection of attorney oaths to the Illinois State Archives in 2010 for preservation purposes, while the Supreme Court Historic Preservation Commission provided the archival materials (acid free folders, etc.). It’s a great partnership among three state agencies. Since then, the Archives had been working for several years to flat-file and store the oaths properly.  At the end of their work, after properly preserving about 142,000 oaths, there were about 1,100 oaths that had mold damage from being stored in the Supreme Court Building basement for nearly 100 years and, at some point, being exposed to heavy moisture.  Most of them were ok, just with slight mold on them, but they couldn’t be stored with the larger collection lest the mold spread. A handful of oaths—a couple hundred—had fused together.  Separating them was a big task in itself.

MG: What changed to make rescuing this information even possible?

JL: Nothing really changed. I would say it was more that we wanted to get the 141,000 done first, and then figure out what to do with the 1,100. We had finally reached that point where the Clerk of the Supreme Court, the Director of the Archives, and myself could begin to wrap our heads around what to do with these fused, moldy documents and how best to save the information in case we couldn’t save the physical document.

Old State House, Springfield, Sangamon County, IL (LOC)

MG: As a historian, I think this work is vitally important. Why didn’t this effort get more publicity?

JL: Both the Court and the Archives issued news releases, but honestly, I think history news gets lost in the quickly changing news cycles, not because of any ill feelings toward history, but because of bigger and sexier stories—political intrigue and big personalities always get bigger headlines. I’ll give you an extreme example.  When I worked for the Lincoln Legal Papers, I researched onsite at the National Archives in Washington DC looking for Lincoln legal activities.  In records relating to pension payments, I found that Lincoln had worked as a pension attorney (a person who receives money for a veteran pensioner).  This work by Lincoln had never been mentioned before in any book or article.  I discovered about 60 or so previously unknown Lincoln signatures, including the ONLY time I ever saw him sign his name as “Abram” Lincoln.  Our press person and the National Archives public affairs person knew this would be a huge story.  The day the news release went out was the same day the United States invaded Haiti in the summer of 1994. Instead of the big story, the Lincoln discovery was relegated to page 20 and a couple paragraphs! Timing is everything.

MG: Who did the actual work? Who are the “amazing archivists” of Springfield who saved history?

JL: It really was a group effort.  Dottie Hopkins was the conservator at the Illinois State Archives and did much of the flat-filing work until she retired. Alex Dixon, the new conservator at the Archives, completed the flat-filing and had forwarded me a list of the names he was able to see on fused oath coverstock.  I went through the names and recognized E. E. Ellsworth, Charles Guiteau, Joseph Cannon, several Illinois governors, and several Illinois Supreme Court justices.  I passed the list around to other prominent historians in the state, and we uncovered a few others.  Those “famous” people, we decided to segregate from the rest of the moldy oaths.

Original document: permission to use granted

Alex carefully separated the coverstock from the documents contained within, and he encapsulated the documents to prevent the mold from spreading to uninfected documents.  Some of the documents were so faded, like Ellsworth’s, they were very difficult to read with the naked eye. David Joens, the Director of the State Archives; Carolyn Grosboll, the Clerk of the Supreme Court, and I arranged for the Justices of the Illinois Supreme Court to visit the Archives and examine these documents themselves.  They had many questions and provided guidance in making the final determination as to what to do with these documents.

MG: What exactly are these documents?

JL: Becoming an attorney in Illinois is a multi-step process. In the 19thcentury, the first step was obtaining a legal education.  There were only a handful of law schools, so most prospective lawyers studied in the law office of an established attorney.  Some, like Lincoln, just read the books and studied alone. The second step was to obtain a certificate of good moral character from any court of record.  The third was to take an oral exam before several of the Supreme Court justices or a committee.  If you passed, you would receive your license and you had to take the oath of office. In Lincoln’s time, the signed oath was a section on the license itself.  By the 1860s, there was a separate oath signed by the attorney and filed with the Court.

Again, there are 142,000 of these oaths in this collection, beginning in 1860s, meaning we don’t have Lincoln’s oath or Stephen Douglas’s oath—those would have been a part of the license itself. However, we do have some significant oaths, including a number of Illinois governors, Senators, etc. Probably the most significant oaths are that of Barack Obama and Michelle Robinson Obama.  In fact, Michelle Obama’s oath is currently on display at the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Museum’s new exhibit on the four presidents who called Illinois home.

MG: Can you tell us about the digital process used to recreate Ellsworth’s letter of acceptance?

JL: The Ellsworth file was one of the more heavily damaged ones. In fact, the coverstock had basically fused together. Alex Dixon, the Archives conservator, was finally able to open the coverstock, and there was only one document in it.  There was no signed oath but only a letter from Justice Pinkney Walker to the Clerk of the Supreme Court William Turney instructing Turney to send a license to Ellsworth.  This indicates that Ellsworth completed the three steps I outlined above.

Original document: permission to use granted

The letter was very, very faded due to water damage, and it was barely readable with the naked eye.  The conservator scanned the document at a high resolution, and I was able to examine the document more closely using Photoshop and zooming in as far as I could.  I could discern ink, but was really unable to tell what letter was being formed because of the high zoom level.  In Photoshop, I began to painstakingly color areas where I could tell there was ink. Once I was done with the document, I returned it to normal size, and I was able to read the document, mostly.  There were some areas where the ink had faded away completely or there was a tear. But because most of the words were clear, I could figure out what the likely missing words were.

MG: Which discovery is your personal favorite?

JL: While the Ellsworth letter certainly tugs at my sometime Lincoln-centric universe, I think the discovery that fascinated me most was Charles Guiteau’s attorney oath.  Guiteau, as you know, was the assassin of President James Garfield.  He was also a licensed Illinois attorney!

Assassination of President Garfield

MG: What does Illinois plan to do with this marvelous, now-reconstructed collection?

JL: I should note that only the Ellsworth document was reconstructed. It was done because we knew it would attract the most attention—I wrote up a short article on it for the Abraham Lincoln Association. The amount of time to put into doing the others would be massive at this point. That said, the entire collection of 142,000 is stored in proper conditions at the Illinois State Archives.  At some point in the future, it would be great to at least create a database of all 142,000, and perhaps even digitize them.  But both of those projects would take a great deal of money and time. I’m not saying it won’t be done, but at least not in the near future.  Also, a lot of my time and effort this year and into next year is going into the Illinois bicentennial.  As you probably know, Illinois is celebrating its 200thanniversary as a state in the Union in 2018.

Thank you very much, Mr. Lupton. I know the work of the archivists in Springfield was difficult and painstaking, as were your Ellsworthian efforts on the Colonel’s behalf. Emerging Civil War is pleased to be able to give your team some proper notice, and we look forward to celebrating the Illinois Bicentennial along with you. I know you will agree with me that, without your efforts, it would be just a little more difficult to “Remember Ellsworth!”