The raucous office of Lincoln and Herndon

William Herndon
William Herndon

The Lincoln-Herndon law offices must have been like the “fun cabin” at summer camp: always messy, rarely dull and the best place to hear something interesting.

William Herndon was Lincoln’s last law partner and nine years his junior. Although Herndon was a brand new lawyer when he joined Lincoln (and proved to be a problem drinker), their pairing was successful.

Their first law office was in the Tinsley Building, which still sits on the southeast corner of the downtown square. It had odds and ends of “somewhat dilapidated” furniture, a few shelves of books, and a “never scrubbed floor,” according to David Herbert Donald’s biography, Lincoln (Simon and Schuster, 1995). That’s probably why seeds sprouted in the floor’s cracks (per Daniel Mark Epstein’s Lincoln and Whitman: Parallel Lives in Civil War Washington, Random House, 2005).

Their tables were scarred by jackknives, the whole office exploded with papers, and a legal disagreement between law students had left “a spidery black stain” on a wall, Epstein writes. In the morning, visitors would find Lincoln lying on a “ragged” sofa, reading aloud, with his long legs spilling over onto a cane chair.

Lincoln and Herndon were good lawyers, but they were terrible organizers. Donald writes: “In one corner of the office was a bundle of papers with a note in Lincoln’s handwriting: ‘When you can’t find it anywhere else, look in this.’” Lincoln used his tall hat as a filing cabinet, stuffing it with papers. This dishevelment led to disappearing documents and subsequent apologies to clients and others that the lawyers had “lost or destroyed” important papers.

Lincoln’s boys didn’t help.

Occasionally he brought young Tad and Willie to the office and let them run amuck, much to Herndon’s displeasure. Herndon told his co-author, Jesse Weik (quoted in Donald’s book), that the boys “would take down the books — empty ash buckets — coal ashes — inkstands — papers — gold pens — letters, etc. etc. in a pile and then dance on the pile. Lincoln would say nothing.” Herndon, however, wanted to “wring their little necks.”

Clients who stopped by to learn about their case might have been regaled with Lincoln’s many tales. Herndon, in the Lincoln biography he and Jesse Weik wrote (Herndon’s Life of Lincoln) said Lincoln often told stories to clients when he didn’t want to answer their questions. It was a successful diversion. The client would leave happy, laughing at Lincoln’s yarns, only to realize later that their question was never answered.

Visitors could also find either or both partners studying their cases, which were quite varied. At that time lawyers did not specialize, but handled all types of legal problems. Herndon might have been talking to a mistreated wife or a surgeon who had been accused of interfering with another surgeon’s patient. Lincoln might have been preparing his latest case for the Supreme Court, a case for the railroad, or listening to the woes of a jilted woman who wanted to sue her lover for breaking their engagement.

Currently the Lincoln-Herndon Law Offices historic site, in the Tinsley Building, is only open Saturdays; however, it will be open every day from May 15 through September 7.

The Illinois Historic Preservation Agency is hoping a $1million appropriation in capital construction legislation currently before the Illinois General Assembly will be approved this spring so it can begin planning the Tinsley Project, which includes redoing the law offices.

“The Lincoln-Herndon law offices are currently located on the north end of the Tinsley Building, but research has shown they should be on the south end of the building,” says David Blanchette, spokesman for the Illinois Historic Preservation Agency. “Part of the goal of the Tinsley Project is to return the law offices to the place where historical evidence shows they should be located, another part is to transform the lower floor into a dry goods store, complete with merchant wares and interpretation.”

Contact Tara McAndrew at

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