During the 1840s, when Abraham
Lincoln and William Herndon practiced law at Sixth and
Adams streets, Lincoln probably walked often through
Seth Tinsley’s dry goods store on the first floor before
going up, two steps at a time, to his own offices.
Tinsley owned the building, renting space to the two
lawyers and others. He also ran a fat-rendering
business, supplying Springfield with lard. At the time,
the Tinsley name held its own, comparable to that of the
Eventually, however, Seth Tinsley fell into oblivion.
Today, despite Tinsley’s diverse business interests in
the mid-1800s and his proximity to Lincoln as a
historical figure, little is known about the man. Vague
rumors passed down through generations suggest he died
in a fire.
But, as part of an ongoing project to recreate
Tinsley’s dry goods store at the Lincoln-Herndon site, a
clearer portrait of the man is beginning to emerge.
For one thing, Tinsley didn’t perish in a fire but
died of kidney failure, according to Kathleen Thomas,
the researcher hired to find out as much as possible
about Tinsley and his store.
Thomas, a former film and humanities professor at
Florida State and Florida A&M universities, moved to
Springfield about six years ago. She briefly worked as a
tour guide at the Old State Capitol before leaving to
teach at Lincoln Land Community College.
Last year, the Old State Capitol Historic Site
manager, Justin Blandford, who also manages the
Lincoln-Herndon site as well as Vachel Lindsay’s home
for the Illinois Historic Preservation Agency, asked
Thomas to return to IHPA on contract and lead the
The job has led Thomas on a fascinating trail to the
great-great granddaughter of Tinsley’s sister in Macomb
and to the Harvard University library, where she found a
dissertation on the mercantile climate of Springfield in
In the dissertation and files of Lincoln-era credit
reports held at Harvard, Thomas uncovered a man with a
lot of potential, but with serious weaknesses that
prevented him from realizing them.
“A dashing, industrious, adventurous keen trader,”
reads one creditor’s report of Tinsley that Thomas
discovered - and which probably affected his ability to
secure loans. “Has been drinking to excess latterly and
a portion of his time unfit for business and his health
is giving way.”
Lincoln was one of several Springfield leaders who
wrote such reports for lenders. Thomas hasn’t found a
report by Lincoln about Tinsley, but it would have been
easy for him to write one, since he worked right above
the merchant. There’s a credit report on Lincoln, too,
Thomas says. But much of it has been blacked out.
Tinsley, who was married and had 11 children, never
seemed to get a handle on all the ventures he was
establishing. By the time his wife died in 1867, he must
have been in desperate financial shape, since he appears
to have signed over the guardianship of his children to
relatives shortly after her death. He died the following
“He is the great American dream and tragedy,” Thomas
Thomas currently is reading through old diaries,
looking for more clues to piece other aspects of
Tinsley’s life together. Thomas’s next step is to find
her holy grail, a photo of Tinsley’s dry goods store, to
aid in the store’s reconstruction. That’s a project
Blandford wants to have at least under way by 2009, when
Springfield and the nation will be celebrating Lincoln’s
The project will not affect the Tinsley Dry Goods
gift shop, just south of the law offices on Sixth
Street. That store is privately managed, but is owned by
Inspired by the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Museum,
Blandford’s goal is to rewrite the presentations at the
law offices and the Old State Capitol by telling the
stories of the supporting characters in Lincoln’s life
and finding ways to make such stories more appealing to
At the law offices, the focus, at least on the first
floor, will be Tinsley. The presentation at the Old
State Capitol has shifted from an emphasis on artifacts
to the rivalry between Lincoln and Stephen Douglas.
“We learn more about Lincoln by learning more about
him from others,” Blandford says.
The Tinsley project won’t come cheaply. Thomas’s
salary is funded by a grant from the Illinois Department
of Commerce and Community Affairs as well as from IHPA
and the Old State Capitol Foundation.
Blandford also has recruited an archeologist and
architect to peel back the years on the first floor at
the Lincoln-Herndon site. Currently, the first floor is
a somewhat dated exhibit space.
Altogether, Blandford estimates that a high-quality
recreation of the Tinsley store could cost as much as
“It’s an ambitious goal,” Blandford conceded. “But
it’s for ambitious men who worked here.”
Pete Sherman can be contacted at 788-1539 or