William "Duff" Armstrong's trial is considered to be Lincoln's most famous case. By introducing an almanac into evidence, Lincoln proved that the witness who swore that he saw Armstrong kill a man at night under a full moon was lying.
Abraham Lincoln lived in the little town of New Salem, Illinois, for a while. He studied law while working in the local general store. One day, a local bully named Jack Armstrong challenged Lincoln to a wrestling match. Lincoln won the match and earned Armstrong's respect. Soon, Lincoln was a close friend of Armstrong and his wife, Hannah. When the Armstrongs had a baby, William, Lincoln used to rock the infant to sleep whenever he paid a visit.
Lincoln eventually left New Salem for Springfield, Illinois and had an eminently successful career in law and politics. Over 20 years later, in 1857, Lincoln learned that William Armstrong, now a grown man, had been charged with murder.
According to the authorities, an intoxicated Duff Armstrong murdered James Preston Metzker on the night of August 29, 1857. Jack Armstrong, the father, was dead, and Hannah Armstrong was a widow. Lincoln wrote Mrs. Armstrong and asked to defend her son:
I have just heard of your deep affliction and your son's arrest for murder. I can hardly believe that he can be capable of the crime alleged against him. It does not seem possible. I am anxious that he should be given a fair trial at any rate, and the gratitude for your long-continued kindness to me in adverse circumstances prompts me to offer my humble service gratuitously on his behalf.
Lincoln went to Beardstown, Illinois, where Armstrong was being tried. The trial was held on May 8, 1858. Lincoln was the defense lawyer, and the prosecutors were Hugh Fullerton and J. Henry Shaw. The judge was James Harriot.
The prosecution's case rested on the testimony of key witness Charles Allen, who said that on the night of the murder, he saw "Duff Armstrong strike Metzker under the light of a full moon. According to the notes of an eyewitness, Lincoln was calm, almost bored, while the prosecution made its case:
Lincoln sat with his head thrown back, his steady gaze apparently fixed upon one spot of the blank ceiling, entirely oblivious to what was happening about him, and without a single variation of feature or noticeable movement.
When it was his turn to cross-examine Allen, Lincoln asked Allen about the precise details of the night in question. Allen testified that on the night of August 29, 1857, there was a full moon and that from a distance of about 150 feet, he saw Armstrong kill Metzker. Allen further stated that the incident occurred at about 11:00 P.M.
With dramatic suddenness, Lincoln dropped his bored veneer and asked Judge Harriot for permission to enter an 1857 almanac into evidence. Judge Harriot granted Lincoln's motion, and Lincoln had Allen read the almanac entry for August 29, 1857. There was no full moon that night; there had been no moon at all by 11:00 P.M. Therefore, it would have been impossible for Allen to see anything from a distance of 150 feet. Allen had obviously lied under oath.
Armstrong's trial closed by the end of the day. Judge Harriot had allowed the jury to look at the almanac and confirm their opinion that Allen had perjured himself.
After a passionate plea to the jury for Armstrong's freedom, Lincoln rested the defense. While the jury deliberated, Lincoln confidently predicted that they would acquit Armstrong by sunset. He was right: after only one ballot, the jury's verdict was not guilty.
Lincoln won Duff's acquittal by convincing Judge Harriot to allow into evidence scientific data in the form of the almanac as to what the actual lunar conditions had been. This procedure is called judicial notice and is a common occurrence today. In the 1850s, however, it was a novelty because the judicial system relied almost entirely on witness testimony.
For what eventually would be regarded as his most famous case, Lincoln didn't charge "Duff or Hannah Armstrong one cent. Illinois' most famous lawyer, and ultimately one of America's greatest presidents, represented his case, Pro Bono.
I have often wondered about hearing of Lincoln's famous Almanac trial at Beardstown, Illinois, in defense of Duff Armstrong for the murder of James Preston Metzker at a camp meeting in Newmansville Township, Menard County, about 5½ miles due west of Petersburg, Illinois, on August 29, 1857, at about 10:00 P.M.
Why no one take the trouble to clear Lincoln's name of false statements made by "news reporters," such as the following:
"Lincoln went to a drug store on State Street in Beardstown, Illinois, and procured several almanacs, which he took to his room in the hotel, and with them manufactured an almanac, which showed there was no moon on that night of the murder.""This doctored almanac was introduced to the court and jury and resulted in the acquittal of the prisoner."
Let's refute all such false statements. Lincoln proved by a true almanac of 1857 that the moon was not on the 90° West Meridian at 10:00 P.M. the night of the murder. The principal prosecuting witness testified to seeing the fatal blow struck with a slingshot in the hands of Duff Armstrong by the light of the moon, which he swore was about where the sun was at noon the day of the murder.
The camp meeting grounds where the murder was committed near Latitude 40° north and Longitude 90° west.
The moon, I find, was on the 90° West Meridian at 7:44 P.M. on August 29, 1857. On August 29, 1857, the moon set at 12:51 P.M. Hence, the moon was within 69 minutes of setting. Therefore, it was at a low altitude. At that time, the moon's declination was nearly at its maximum south.
The camp meeting grounds were most probably sur- rounded with trees shutting off the moon's light at such a low altitude and south declination. On August 19, 1857, there was a new moon at 10:00 A.M., with a Longitude of 90° west. The first quarter was August 27, 1857, at 9:00 A.M., Longitude 90° west. The moon was two and one-half days past the first quarter. Hence, the moon was about ten and one-half days old, or about five days from a full moon.
Had the moon been on the Meridian of Longitude 90° west at 10:00 P.M., it would have shown fairly bright. Those Historians who said that there was no moon in sight at the time of the murder are all in error. At a public meeting in Beardstown, Illinois, in February 1909, the Ladies assigned to Mrs. Dr. Scheer the task of writing up the Armstrong trial on the occasion of the erecting of a tablet by the Ladies* Club of Beardstown, Illinois, February 12, 1909
I will now enumerate a few of the wrong statements made in ignorance of the true position of the moon on the date of the murder by well-meaning friends of Lincoln:
Mrs. Dr. Scheer, from her paper bearing on the position of the moon that night of the murder: "Taking this almanac, Lincoln showed that on the night sworn to and the hour was sworn to, the moon had not risen, proving that the whole of this testimony was a perjury."
In Joseph H. Barrett's book; "Life of Lincoln," in referring to this trial, the author, after describing the testimony of the prosecuting witness as to the position of the moon, says: "At this point, Mr. Lincoln produced an almanac which showed at the time referred to by the witness that there was no moon at all and showed it to the jury."
William H. Herndon, in his book; "Life of Lincoln," in which he gives an account of the trial, says: "Lincoln floored the principal prosecuting witness, who had testified positively to seeing the fatal blow struck in the moonlight, by showing from an almanac that the moon had set."
Mr. Gridley, to whom I am indebted for data, very wisely directed a letter to the Professor of Astronomy of the University of Illinois, inquiring about the position of the moon in this Latitude 40° north, Longitude 90° west, on the night of August 29, 1857, when the assault was committed is as follows:
Mr. J. M. Gridley,
Virginia, Illinois. March 2, 1909
Answering yours of February 24, the moon was at first quarter on August 27, 1857, at 9:00 A.M. On the night of August 29, the moon was two days and one-half past the first quarter and crossed the meridian at 7:44 P.M. local time. The time when the moon set was within 15 minutes of midnight, but to give this closer, I would have to know the exact locality for which to compute.
Very truly yours, Urbana, ILL.
Mr. J. M. Gridley, March 29, 1922
I have been rather busy of late and have neglected to answer your last letter. I computed the time of Moonset for Longitude 90° west of Greenwich and Latitude 40°. On August 29, 1857, I find the moon set at 12:05 A.M. on August 29. You understand this refers to the disappearance of the moon's upper edge below the true horizon. I am sorry that I cannot inform you about the period called the "dark of the moon." It may have been the exact meaning, but I can not find the term used in any textbook or standard work. I am under the impression that the period extends from the last quarter until the new moon, but that is only a guess.
Astronomically "the dark of the moon" is approximately 1-1/2 days before AND after a New Moon. The Moon is "dark" because it is so close (in zodiacal longitude) to the Sun it cannot reflect the Sun's light. See the comment section for more information.
On August 19, 1857, there was a new moon at 10:00 A.M. First quarter, you have a full moon on September 3, at 11:00 P.M. and last quarter on September 10, at 5 P.M.
Hoping this is suitable for your purpose.
I am Very truly yours, Joel Stebbins,
Director, Observatory Urbana, ILL.
I am pleased to note that my findings agree with Stebbins, with but one exception - the time when set. Stebbins found that the moon set at 12:05 P.M. on August 29, 1857, while I found that the moon set at 12:51 P.M. on August 29, 1857.
According to Mr. Stebbins' finding, the moon's altitude at 10:00 P.M. would show it much higher than mine. Mine was at 69 minutes before setting, while Mr. Stebbins was 1 hour and 55 minutes before setting.
The old Nautical Almanacs and Astronomical Ephemeris do not have the "tables" that we do not have the "tables" that our new Nautical Almanacs have for finding the stations, not on the meridian of Greenwich. Hence, a difference of 46 minutes in time when the moon sets. I used the 1857 Almanac in combination with that of 1922. The moon will be about the same position on August 31, 1922, at 9:43 P.M. as it was on August 29, 1857, at 10:00 P.M., about the same time from setting, about the same altitude and south declination. On August 31, 1922, the moon will be one day nearer to the new moon, a little brighter at 9:43 P.M.
The above shows that there was a moon in sight the night of the murder, but that does not change Lincoln's honestly won the victory. As the above clearly shows, the moon was not over the meridian at the time of the murder, as sworn to by the prosecuting witness.
Compiled by Dr. Neil Gale, Ph.D.
Contributor, Stephen G. Christianson
Contributor, Duncan Ferguson