The Boys: Abner Y. Ellis (1807-1878)
Abner Y. Ellis was a New Salem merchant in 1832 when he met Abraham Lincoln. Later, Ellis set up business in Springfield where he partnered with Joshua F. Speed, with whom Lincoln roomed when he moved to Springfield in 1837. Ellis's business partners also including Archer Herndon, the father of Lincoln's future law partner.
Ellis recalled - with his usual disregard for careful spelling, capitalization, or punctuation - that he "[f]irst became acquainted with Capt. Abraham Lincoln in New Salem then Sangamon County, shortly after his return from the Black Hawk war - but not intimately untill the Summer and fall of 1833, in that year I went to New Salem with a stock of goods belonging to Mr N A Garland now of Springfield[.] I then became I may say intimately acquainted with him We boarded at the Same log Tavern Kept by Henry Onstott and afterwards by Mr Nelson Ally[.] During my stay their he was not engaged in any part[i]cular business, but I think he was preparing himself of Surveying I remember he had an old form Book from which he used in writing Deeds, Wills & Letters when desired to do so by his freinds [sic] and neighbours, he also used a Small Size Dictionary when engaged in Writing. He also used to assist Me in the Store on busy days, but he allways disliked to wait on the Ladies he prefered trading with the Men & Boys as he used to Say[.] I also remember that he Used to sleep in the store on the Counter when they had two Much Company at the Tavern."1
Ellis recalled "once of Seeing Mr L out of temper & Laughing at the Same time. it was at New Salem the boys were having a Jollification after an Election They had a large fire Made of shavings & hemp [herds?], and Some of the Boys Made a bet with a fellow that I shall call Ike that he could not run his little bob tail Poney through the fire. Ike took them up - and trotted his Poney back about one hundred Yards, to give him a good start as he said. The boys all formed a line on Either side to Make Way for Ike & his poney presently hear he came full tilt With he hat off & Just as he reached the blazing fire raised in his saddle for the Jump Strait ahead but Poney was not of the Same opinion So he flew the track and pitched poor Ike into the devouring Ellement[.] Mr L. Saw it and run to his assistance saying You have Carried this thing far enough I could see that he Was Mad though he Could Not help laughing himself the poor fellow Was Concderably scorched about the head & face Jack Armstrong took him to the Dr who shaved his head to fix him up & put salve on the burn &c." Ellis wrote that "allthough Mr L. Was Verry fond of fun he Never played any pranks on any body & he took few libertys with any one and I do Not think he wanted any one to take them With him but if they had he would not have complained."2
Ellis was also the source of several of Mr. Lincoln's stories - which he said "few if any who can tell them so well as he Could."3 Ellis wrote: "It is Not Strange to Me that Mr L. Should have Such a Great passion For dirty Stories it was his Early training by the Hanks Boys his Cousins and after he left them he commenced a different train of thought and Studdie."4 As Ellis related Lincoln's story of " Bap McNabb's Red Rooster: "In early times the Boys in and about old Sangamon Town Got up a Free chicken fight or free to all to Enter his rooster by payin 25 cts entrance fee[.] Well Bap had a verry Splendid Red Rooster and he with others was entered[.] Well the eventful day arrived and Bap with his little Beauty was their in all his splendere. The time arrives and into the ring they toss their chickens Baps with the rest but no sooner had the little beauty discovered what was to be done he droped his tale and run[.] Bap being very much disappointed picked him up and went home loosing his quarter & dishonored chicken and as soon as he got home he tossed his pet down in the yard on his own dung hill - The little fellow then stood up & flirted out his beautiful feathers & Crowed as brave as a Lion. Bap Viewed closely & remarked[:] Yes you dam little cuss you are Great on a parade but you are not worth a Dam in a fight[.]"5
Before Lincoln moved away from New Salem in 1837, he sometimes stayed with Ellis when visiting Springfield. Lincoln scholar Richard Lawrence Miller wrote: "Lincoln wasn't well known in the county seat of Springfield in 1834, and Abner Ellis, with whom he stayed when overnighting there, took him around to Springfield's leading Whigs in order to get acquainted."6 Over the years, Ellis had many business interests and partners in Springfield. According to a history of Sangamon County, Ellis was with "Z. A. Enos in the feed and commission business; then in partnership with H. A. Grannis in merchandising; next with John Williams it Co., then Hurst & Ellis, and afterwards merchandising by himself; afterward general delivery clerk in the post office in Springfield, under Postmaster Lindsay, then removed to his farm in Moro, Madison county, Illinois."7
In 1849 Ellis was named Springfield's postmaster by the incoming Whig administration. Outgoing congressman Lincoln recommended to the Taylor administration that "that Abner Y. Ellis be appointed Post-Master at this place, whenever there shall be a vacancy. J. R. Diller, the present incumbent, I can not say has failed in the proper discharge of any of the duties of the office. He, however, has been an active partizan in opposition to us. Located at the Seat of Government of the State, he has been, for part, if not the whole of the time he has held the office, a member of the Democratic State Central Committee, signing his name to their addresses and manifestos; and has been, as I understand, re-appointed by Mr. Polk since Gen: Taylor's election. These are the facts of the case as I understand them, and I give no opinion of mine as to whether he should or should not be removed. My wish is that the Department may adopt some proper general rule for such cases, and that Mr. Diller may not be made an exception to it, one way or the other.8
More than a decade later, Ellis was again one of a number contenders for the post of Springfield postmaster when Lincoln himself became president in 1861. It must have been one of the most difficult appointments for Lincoln to make given the friendships at stake in his hometown. Illinois Governor Richard Yates wrote the president at the end of July: "I have never felt so heart sick at any disappointment as in your refusal to give Ab. Ellis the P. Office. It is perfectly inexplicable to me, unless upon the hypothesis that I have done something you did not like. This can hardly be, as I have always had the strongest friendship for you. Ab. thought there was no man like you. He had the recommendation of nearly all the citizens of Springfield, including most of the men, who had expended so much in our cause, and who are almost as much disappointed as I am. I understand it was represented, he voted against you in the Douglass fight, but this, I suppose, you knew, as I did, was false. I did think as you had given me no appointment, for which I had asked for my friends, and which if not myself worthy to recommend them, yet as Governor of your State, I was entitled to have from you the small favor of this appointment, when it was backed by petitions, which should have been controlling, without my name. My friend Herndon, whom I appointed out of my poor patronage, feels as deeply grieved as myself."8 Of the failure to win the appointment, Ellis himself recalled: "I Suppose he was right in Not appointing Me P.M. in 1861. [H]e Was I am Now Certin...opposed to Me from the begginning[.] I blamed [William] Butler and Old Duboice [Jesse Dubois] for Making him think that Was Not for him in 1858."9 Butler and Dubois were state officials who themselves were critical of Lincoln's patronage appointments.
Ellis was a major source of information about Lincoln's life in New Salem for William H. Herndon's biography of Lincoln. Writing to ask Ellis to report about Lincoln's relations with women, Herndon demanded: "I want to know all about it from beginning to end - from top to bottom - in-side and outside."10 Ellis in reply suggested that Lincoln would have had plenty of opportunity to patronize prostitutes by hanging around his friends Joshua Fry Speed and William Butler ("two old rats in that way") but did not believe he did.11