Of Interest

Michigan Lawyers in History: Flavius Littlejohn

Flavius and Harriet Littlejohn in front of their Allegan home with an unknown girl. Photo courtesty of Center for Adventist Research Image Database.

by Carrie Sharlow   |   Michigan Bar Journal

Perhaps if Flavius Josephus Littlejohn had not become ill, Michigan might never have abolished capital punishment.

Fifteen years before Michigan became “the first English-speaking jurisdiction to ban capital punishment,”1 the territory was most likely not even on Littlejohn’s radar. Instead, he was in the early stages of a brilliant legal career in New York.

Littlejohn was born in Herkimer County in upstate New York to John and Katherine Littlejohn, sandwiched neatly in the middle of their 12 children with six older siblings and five younger. The Littlejohns were either well-read or fascinated with Roman history — among their children’s names were Silas, Augustus, Philo, Lydia, and, of course, Flavius.

By the time Flavius Littlejohn was in his late 20s, he had completed college and studied law at a local firm;2 got married to Harriet Hackley and had two children, Cornelia and Wolcott; and was admitted to practice before the United States Supreme Court.3

He became ill at the top of his game. Around 1832, as described by one biographer, Littlejohn had an episode of “bleeding at the lungs” while in a courtroom in the middle of a lawsuit.4 Another account reported that Littlejohn had “hemorrhage of the lungs.”5 Whatever happened, it wasn’t good, and Littlejohn was likely looking at either a shortened career or an early death.

This is where Michigan entered the picture. The 19th century remedy for such ailments was a change in climate: Move West for your health! The Littlejohn family — one ill lawyer, his wife, and two toddlers — settled in west Michigan:.6 However, they were not alone. Joining in on the adventure were Littlejohn’s parents and three of his siblings — Philo, Silas, and John — made the journey as well.7 The extended family’s new home base was no longer Herkimer County, but Allegan County.

Once in a new (and healthier) climate and presumably feeling better, Littlejohn picked up where he left off in New York. He was the second attorney in Allegan County; George Y. Warner beat him to the punch by only a few months.8

But, in a new untamed land, there were far more exciting things to do. Littlejohn worked as a surveyor, charting “the west side of Barry County, near the north end of Gun Lake, to Allegan, and thence to the mouth of the Kalamazoo” for a possible canal connecting the Clinton and Kalamazoo rivers.9 He plotted the road leading from Allegan to Kalamazoo and another to Paw Paw. He even resurveyed others’ work, correcting it in some cases. Littlejohn also worked as a geologist, exploring the Upper Peninsula with another upstate New York native who had put down his stakes in Michigan, Dr. Douglass Houghton, the state’s first geologist.10

Years later, Littlejohn remembered “his explorations as a [s]urveyor and [g]eologist [when] the scenery, topography, water courses and indigenous products of various sections in both peninsulas became familiar objects of sight and investigation.”11

His travels as a surveyor and geologist put him in contact with many of Michigan’s native tribes — among them the Chippewa, the Huron, the Ottawa, and the Potawatomi. He was fascinated by their knowledge of the terrain, flora, and fauna; the routines of their daily lives; and especially their historical accounts and tales of legends passed down from generation to generation by word of mouth.

Over the years, Littlejohn wrote down these stories under the pseudonym “Old Trailer” primarily for his own enjoyment. In 1874 at the bequest of people whom he termed “partial friends,”12 [do you wan to include this? It looks like for the time he was actually very forward thinking] but also referred to in derogatory terms, he compiled his written accounts into a book titled, “Legends of Michigan and the Old North West” and published it under his own name. The book includes tales of an Ottawa hunter named Lynx Eye being rescued from a wolf attack by a sharpshooter; an account of an ongoing battle between the Potawatomi, led by Chief Pokagon and the Shawnee of Chief Elkhart; and the story of an Ojibwe chief Ne-oh-ta-no-mah, who expelled his wife, Star Light, and son, Red Hand, from the tribe’s Upper Peninsula settlement.13

When he wasn’t surveying, exploring, or writing, Littlejohn practiced law — no reason to waste such a good education. He also discovered that he was well-suited for public office. In the span of about a decade, he served as Allegan Township supervisor, Allegan County prosecuting attorney, state representative, circuit court commissioner, and, finally, state senator.

Once elected to the House of Representatives, Littlejohn became involved in an issue that had been discussed by Michigan officials for some time. Years before — when Littlejohn was still a New York resident — Michigan carried out its last criminal execution.14

In 1843, having been elected to another term as a state representative, Littlejohn was reappointed to the House Judiciary Committee. Archibald Y. Murray, a representative from Wayne County, suggested that the committee “inquire into the expediency of abolishing capital punishments.”15 Four days after Murray’s instruction, Littlejohn “reported a bill entitled ‘an act to abolish capital punishment.’”16 The bill passed the House by a 35-15 margin.17 Although it failed in Michigan Senate a week later,18 it was the first time any American legislative body voted to abolish capital punishment.19

Two years later, Littlejohn was a member of the Senate and was elected as its president pro-tem on Jan. 6, 1846.20 He was also appointed to a special committee tasked with revising the state’s statutes along with the Judiciary Committee.21 Petitions from across the state urged for “passage of a law abolishing capital punishment.”22 The Judiciary Committee made its recommendation to the Statutes Committee, and the measure went to a conference committee. It passed both the House and the Senate, and when Gov. Alpheus Felch signed the new statute “Michigan became the first state, as well as the first English-speaking jurisdiction, to ban capital punishment for first-degree murder.”23

Littlejohn continued in the state Legislature and even made an unsuccessful run for governor24 before he settled into the position as a judge presiding over one of Michigan’s biggest circuits — it covered more than 20 counties and went as far north as Emmet County25 — likely traveling the roads he surveyed many years ago. And, of course, some of the next generation of lawyers read law in his office.26

The pioneer air must have helped Littlejohn; almost 50 years after the initial concern over his lungs, he died at age 76 on May 14, 1880. His funeral was “the largest and most imposing ever seen” in the area.27


1. Id.

2. Hamilton College, Albany Argus (August 24, 1827), p 3.

3. Albany Argus (July 23, 1833), p 1.

4. Bartholomew, ed., Historical Collections Made by the Pioneer Society of the State of Michigan Including Reports of Officers and Papers Read at the Annual Meeting of 1887, Vol. XI (2nd ed) (Lansing: Wynkoop Hallenbeck Crawford Co, 1908), p 305.

5. Portrait and Biographical Album of Newaygo County, Michigan (Chicago: Chapman Brothers, 1884), p 501.

6. Cornelia Littlejohn was born in 1832 and Wolcott Littlejohn in 1835.

7. History of Allegan and Barry Counties, Michigan with Illustrations and Biographical Sketches of Their Prominent Men and Pioneers (Philadelphia: D.W. Ensign & Co, 1880), p 157.

8. Id., p 151.

9. Id., p 77.

10. Portrait and Biographical Album of Newaygo County.

11. Littlejohn, Legends of Michigan and the Old North West (Allegan: Northwestern Bible and Publishing Co, 1875), p 5.

12. Id.

13. Id.

14. Chardavoyne, A Hanging in Detroit: Stephen Gifford Simmons and the Last Execution Under Michigan Law (Detroit: Wayne State Univ Press, 2003).

15. 1843 House Journal 142.

16. 1843 House Journal 158.

17.19 1843 House Journal 210.

18. 1843 House Journal 210.

19. “The Northwest Ordinance and Michigan’s Territorial Heritage,” The History of Michigan Law.

20. 1846 Senate Journal 7.

21. A Hanging in Detroit, p 156.

22. 1846 Senate Journal 357.

23. “The Northwest Ordinance and Michigan’s Territorial Heritage,” The History of Michigan Law.

24. Pioneer Collections. Report of the Pioneer Society of the State of Michigan, Together with Reports of County, Town, and District Pioneer Societies, Volume III (Lansing: Robert Smith Printing Co, 1903), p 311.

25. The Late Judge Littlejohn, Lake County Star (May 27, 1880), p 3.

26. History of Allegan and Barry Counties, p 153.

27. Obsequies of Judge Littlejohn, Detroit Free Press (May 18, 1880), p 6.