Sorry Not Sorry

Recent daytrips with my sons made me recognize a category of historical monument I had not considered much: the overenthusiastic mea culpa.

The first was in my hometown of Herrin, Illinois. A stone recently erected in the cemetery marks the graves of “scab” workers murdered in 1922, during a mine strike.


The second was the Elijah Lovejoy monument in a cemetery at Alton, Illinois. As you will remember, Lovejoy was the minister, editor, and abolitionist who was murdered by a pro-slavery mob in Alton in 1837, and his printing press thrown in the Mississippi.

The Herrin marker, worded by a non-historian, is incorrect about being the “largest.”

The Lovejoy memorial’s mea culpa, which ties Alton and Lovejoy together forever, is so enthusiastic that the same inscription has been engraved twice, one next to the other.

(The inscription reads: “Historic Alton–Alton that slew him and Alton that defended him. Alton whose people today with one heart and one mind pluck from oblivion this wreath of immortality and place it around the memory of Lovejoy. Lovejoy and Alton! Names as inseparable and as dear to the people of Illinois as those of Lincoln and Springfield, Grant and Galena.”)

These are different from, say, the obelisk in the Confederate cemetery in Alton, for prisoners of war who died from disease in the stone prison there. Those men were not to be buried in local or national cemeteries but were given recognition—as the foreign nationals they had declared themselves to be, in a sense. They are not for glorification, as many Confederate monuments in the south are.

The mea culpa monument honors former enemies with a tinge of the reconciliationist but also sounds like a boast, a claim to fame.

John Griswold

John Griswold is a staff writer at The Common Reader. His most recent book is a collection of essays, The Age of Clear Profit: Essays on Home and the Narrow Road (UGA Press 2022). His previous collection was Pirates You Don’t Know, and Other Adventures in the Examined Life. He has also published a novel, A Democracy of Ghosts, and a narrative nonfiction book, Herrin: The Brief History of an Infamous American City. He was the founding Series Editor of Crux, a literary nonfiction book series at University of Georgia Press. His work has been included and listed as notable in Best American anthologies.