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Experts Track 1st Black Male Slave Freed by Lincoln

William Henry Costley apparently died in a Minnesota psychiatric hospital
By Neal Colgrass,  Newser Staff
Posted Jul 19, 2015 2:45 PM CDT

Abraham Lincoln helped free a black male slave long before the Civil War, and researchers say they've found the man's grave—in a former psychiatric hospital's cemetery, the AP reports. A budding lawyer, Lincoln won a case before the Illinois Supreme Court in 1841 that released Nance Legins-Costley from indentured servitude, which historians say amounted to slavery for a black woman. Legins-Costley walked away with her 10-month-old son, William Henry Costley, and lived to a ripe old age in her central Illinois hometown of Pekin. But what became of the first black male slave freed by Lincoln? An amateur historian named Carl Adams spent years investigating the story and published a book about Legins-Costley last year, Nance: Trials of the First Slave Freed by Abraham Lincoln—A True Story of Nance Legins-Costley.

The editor of a history journal says Nance tells "the only story of Lincoln that is really new," according to a site dedicated to the book. Costley apparently enlisted in a colored-troops regiment from Illinois in 1864, was wounded in the war, and found himself dispatched in Galveston, Texas. A few years later, an all-white jury found him not guilty in the shooting death of a man considered disreputable; Costley said he was protecting a woman when he pulled the trigger. Eventually, Costley moved to Minnesota, became an invalid, and lived in a psychiatric hospital in Rochester. There, Adams says, lies a grave that matches a number from hospital records as Costley's. It also recently received a "Costley" headstone. "I think it is so likely that it's nearly a sure thing," says a Lincoln expert. (Read about a black slave whose story was rewritten, 150 years later.)

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