Who Was Jesse W. Weik?

Seven-year-old Jesse W. Weik was in the crowd when Abraham Lincoln’s funeral train passed through Indianapolis on its way to Springfield. Weik’s father, an immigrant baker and grocer, lifted his son to see the late president’s body. Years later, the younger Weik would play an instrumental part in putting a reputation and a personality to Lincoln’s haunting, haunted face.

herndon's lincolnBorn on August 23, 1857, Jesse Weik grew up in Indiana and at age thirteen enrolled in the forerunner of DePauw University in Greencastle. In his time there Weik became a student of John Clark Ridpath, author of the then-popular History of the World. Weik wrote and received letters from the likes of William Lloyd Garrison and Thomas Carlyle. Indeed, a short and interesting biography of Weik by Randall T. Shepard notes a “fascination” with famous people. A social animal, Weik belonged to various clubs and, in the family tradition, joined the Republican Party. He also made frequent journeys to Indianapolis to attend the theater and once took in a show starring Edwin Booth, the toast of the nineteenth century American stage and the elder brother of John Wilkes Booth.

Weik wrote to William Herndon, well known as Lincoln’s pre-White House law partner, in 1881. Asking for an autograph, Weik received a page from a Lincoln notebook written in Lincoln’s hand. By then Herndon had been working for years on a biography of the Great Emancipator but had trouble pulling the materials together. The next year, Weik took up a post in Springfield. Herndon let him go through some old papers belonging to Lincoln and Weik, enthused, started to interview people who had known the late president.

Fast forward, and the two signed a contract to co-write Lincoln’s biography. Herndon, a frequent lecturer at DePauw, joined Weik in Greencastle in 1887, though Weik had to pay his way there. Weik collaborated with Herndon in between waiting on customers at his grocery. Basically, Herndon wrote rough drafts. Weik, baffled by his work, then rewrote. The bulk of his labor took place after an exhausted Herndon returned to Springfield, with the end product almost entirely Weik’s prose.

The book that emerged, Herndon’s Lincoln, faced controversy and careless editing. Thanks to an unscrupulous publisher, neither Herndon nor Weik cleared much money. But a later edition of the biography from Charles Scribner’s Sons had a happier fate. Herndon’s Lincoln established itself as a classic and remains, as Don E. Fehrenbacher declared, “the most influential biography of Lincoln ever published.”