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Court reporters record history and have for thousands of years. There are records of court reporters during Julius Caesar’s time. But what does this have to do with Abraham Lincoln?

In 1989, found tucked away in a shoebox, was the original trial transcript from Abraham Lincoln’s 1859 last murder trial. “This meticulous transcript…is the final direct link to the last great trial of Abraham Lincoln’s legal career, an event that helped propel him to the presidency,” according to the 2018 book Lincoln’s Last Trial: The Murder Case That Propelled Him to The Presidency, written by Dan Abrams and David Fisher.

This handwritten – yes, handwritten transcript – gives us an inside, almost camera-like view of this important piece of history. Think about it, there were no audio or video recordings. What was spoken in that courtroom would be lost forever but for the transcript prepared by “steno man” Robert Roberts Hitt.

Mr. Hitt documented the four-day trial using pens with nibs and ink from inkwells, using various weights of pens to provide relief from the pain in his hands. He would spend his days in the courtroom, taking down as close to verbatim as he possibly could, using a combination of symbols and notes. His nights were spent preparing the transcript, turning those symbols into words.

Today’s court reporters have many things in common with our 1859 steno man:

  • Writing all day, whether it’s by hand or with a steno machine, is physically strenuous. Even though steno machines were beginning to be used in the late 1800s and they definitely reduced the physical strain, they were not widely used until the 1940s. Today’s steno machines are highly complex, sensitive machines but it can still hurt to write for long periods of time without frequent breaks.
  • Outside noise, coughing, rustling papers, or even a witness who mumbles, these things could cause our steno man to miss some words and question whether he should insert what he thought was said or leave a blank. A blank was his choice. Today’s court reporter faces the same challenges, a blank is not an option in today’s world. Every word has consequence and a professional does not make assumptions. Today, a court reporter will ask for a repeat of what was spoken.
  • Our steno man called his concentration “work sense”, an empty vessel that words pass through without conscious thought from speaker to paper and was often asked for his opinion. He would politely decline. Today’s court reporter has the same concentration and is an impartial party, so opinions are not expressed.
  • Bawdy words and colorful language. What to do with that? Today, you say it, we write it. Sensitivities were different in Lincoln’s time. Our steno man left them out, replacing them with dashes.
  • If Mr. Hitt didn’t know a word, he spelled it phonetically hoping it could be found in Webster’s dictionary. Today, we do the same thing, only we use Google.

Court reporters today still record history. They provide verbatim transcripts in major trials, create the record for the United States Congress and House and produce formal documentation of oral histories from war veterans and Holocaust survivors.

Do you want to be a part of bringing history to future generations? Consider court reporting as a career. For more information visit Project Steno.

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