Elijah Lovejoy, the son of a Congregational minister, was born November 9, 1802. Lovejoy was not the only one abolitionist who died for what he believed in, but he is one of the better known martyrs of the abolitionist movement. Lovejoy was murdered by a mob in Alton, Illinois, because he continued to publish abolitionist materials, even after his having press destroyed three times.
In 1826, Elijah Lovejoy moved to St. Louis, Missouri, where he established a school and eight years later became the pastor of the Presbyterian Church there. Tensions ran high in Saint Louis, Missouri in the 1830s. The city stood on the banks of the Mississippi River, dividing it from the free state of Illinois.
Within this atmosphere, Lovejoy established the St Louis Observer, a religious newspaper, in which he advocated the abolition of slavery. In 1835, pro-slavery supporters warned him to halt his abolitionist preaching but Lovejoy, made of stern stuff, refused. In 1836 Lovejoy wrote an account of how an African American was dragged from jail, where he was being held on the charge of the murder of two white men, and lynched. Lovejoy criticized the local judge because of his failure to indict anyone for the crime. The report angered many St Louis inhabitants and in July 1836, a pro-slavery mob destroyed his press.
Lovejoy moved his family and his press to Alton, Illinois and there established the Alton Observer. Even though Alton was in the free state of Illinois, it was still a focal point for slave catchers and slavery supporters because of its proximity to the slave state of Missouri. Again, his printing press became the focal point of violence and on three occasions, white mobs seized it and threw it into the Mississippi River. Lovejoy remained defiant, writing, “We distinctly avow it to be our settled purpose, never, while life lasts, to yield to this new system of attempting to destroy, by means of mob violence, the right of conscience, the freedom of opinion, and of the press.”
On November 7, 1837, a mob of pro-slavery supporters approached the warehouse where Lovejoy had hidden his press. They opened fire on the building, and Lovejoy and his men returned fire, killing a man named Bishop. The mob found a ladder and used it to set fire to the warehouse roof. Lovejoy and another man came out and pushed the ladder down before hurrying back inside. When the ladder was raised again, Lovejoy and his friend ran out again to push it down. This time, he was shot dead. He was two days short of his 35th birthday.
The local district attorney prosecuted the case, but failed to make a conviction. Abolitionists were outraged, and Lovejoy was elevated to the status of martyr.
After Lovejoy’s murder, his brothers Joseph and Owen wrote a memoir of their brother and his defense of the freedom of the press. Other honors to Lovejoy include a monument erected near his grave in Alton; and a local African-American community was renamed Lovejoy, as was a library at Southern Illinois University. The Elijah Parish Lovejoy Award is a journalism award given each year by Colby College; and Reed College annually awards the Elijah Parish and Owen Lovejoy Scholarship.