Perhaps no activist to emerge from Colby has been more widely recognized than Elijah Parish Lovejoy, abolitionist and the first martyr to the freedom of the press.

Lovejoy was born on November 8, 1802, in Albion, Maine. In 1826, he graduated from Colby (then Waterville College), where he was valedictorian and class poet. From there, he travelled west to St. Louis to teach and write periodically for the local newspapers. He soon became editor of a paper supporting Henry Clay for President. As he was feeling the pull of a political career, the urge to become a minister overtook Lovejoy. He returned east, and entered Princeton Theological Seminary. He concluded, after a year of studying and a few months of preaching in Rhode Island and New York City, to return to St. Louis and begin a religious weekly newspaper.

The first issue of the St. Louis Observer emerged in November, 1833. Several sources suggest he became an abolitionist after he witnessed a slave being burned at the stake. Missouri, still a slave state at the time, was known as particularly hostile to the anti-slavery movement due to its bordering free states. Lovejoy began publishing anti-slavery editorials and pro-slavery whites responded with threats against the paper’s office. A series of break-ins at in 1837 resulted in a judge publicly denouncing Lovejoy’s views. Lovejoy continued to denounce slavery, and his home was burglarized and his press destroyed.

He purchased a second press and decided to move his paper across the Mississippi to Alton, Illinois, now publishing the Alton Observer. Though Illinois had been a free state since the Northwest Ordinance of 1787, pro-slavery aggressors still pursued him. On July 6, 1837, he published yet another editorial condemning slavery. That night, his press was destroyed. He bought a third press, which was likewise destroyed.

Alton had no police force, but a volunteer militia of sixty men opposed to mob violence was formed to protect Lovejoy’s next press, acting under the direction of the Alton mayor. The new press arrived on November 6, and there was no disturbance that night.

The following night, November 7, 1837, only twenty men remained around the warehouse containing Lovejoy’s press. At about 10 p.m., a mob arrived, armed with stones, rifles and pistols. They demanded the press. After an exchange of gunfire, one member of the mob was killed. The mayor of Alton commanded the mob to disperse, but he was simply mocked for his efforts. With the men in the warehouse refusing to yield the press, members of the mob used a ladder to set fire to the roof. A man stepped out of the south door of the warehouse to shoot at the man on the ladder, then stepped back inside to reload. Lovejoy and a few others emerged from the same door moments later, whereupon Lovejoy was shot five times and killed.

The killing of Lovejoy became widely known throughout the country. John Quincy Adams said it had given “a shock as of an earthquake throughout this continent, which will be felt in the most distant regions of the earth.” Since Lovejoy’s death, the city of Alton struggled with its images as home to lawless mobs. River traffic along the Mississippi moved south a few miles to St. Louis, costing the city of Alton greatly. In 1897, sixty years after the tragedy, Alton erected a monument over his grave, a ninety-three foot tall granite tower, capped with a bronze statue of Victory.

In 1952, Colby established the Lovejoy award with three purposes:

  1. To honor and preserve the memory of Elijah Parish Lovejoy, America’s first martyr to freedom of the press and a Colby College graduate (valedictorian, Class of 1826) who died bravely rather than forsake his editorial principles.
  2. To stimulate and honor the kind of achievement in the field of reporting, editing, and interpretive writing that continues the Lovejoy heritage of fearlessness and freedom.
  3. To promote a sense of mutual responsibility and cooperative effort between a newspaper world devoted to journalistic freedom and a liberal arts college dedicated to academic freedom.

Photos and drawing from the Illinois State Historical Society.

Please note: The Illinois State Historical Library has a Lovejoy webpage including articles and letters by Lovejoy as well as many research materials.