Wednesday, August 22, 2012
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Leigh Morris presents a revisit of Abraham Lincoln's 1857 'Almanac Trial'

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[August 22, 2012] At the Aug. 13 monthly meeting of the Logan County Genealogical & Historical Society, guest speaker Leigh Morris, a Cass County and Beardstown local historian and author, revisited the famous 1857 "Almanac Trial" that was held in the Beardstown Courthouse and featured defense lawyer Abraham Lincoln.

William "Duff" Armstrong had been charged along with his friend James Norris in the murder of James Preston Metzker in an outside altercation around 11 o'clock on the night of Aug. 29, 1857 -- all three being reported to have been under the influence of liquor following a religious meeting on the outskirts of a camp in Mason County.

In an earlier trial, Norris had been accused and found guilty of murdering Metzker with a lethal blow to the back of the head. Armstrong was now on trial, being accused of hitting Metzker on his forehead with a "slung-shot" -- a weight tied to a leather thong.

Morris, the guest speaker, related that the last wish of Duff's dying father was for Duff's mother to contact his old friend Abraham Lincoln to take the case -- which had changed venues to the Beardstown Courthouse in Cass County due to the previous conviction of Norris in the volatile community of Mason County.

The speaker acknowledged that he has done much research on this particular trial over the years, as evidenced by his quoting several sources throughout his talk. He reported that Lincoln used not just one, but four clever but sound tactics to aid his case. Morris said that certainly, as a package of tactics, this was not typical of trials of the mid-1800s. Actually, as he further explained, three of these four tactics were not typical of any mid-1800s trials in this area. Nevertheless, all excellent trial lawyers, then as now, usually produce more than one piece of evidence or testimony to aid their case. Thus, said Morris, this trial "illustrates once again the superb abilities of Abraham Lincoln as a trial lawyer." (Note: Lincoln worked on very few murder trials during his lawyer days -- about 20 years.)

For his first strategy, Lincoln produced several copies of an almanac, which he passed out to the judge and jury, illustrating that the moon was not full, not three-quarters, not half, but only one-quarter on that night, and that it was very low in the sky at that point, setting three minutes after midnight. Obviously, this refuted the testimony of the star witness, Charles Allen -- who had testified just a few minutes before Lincoln's sudden introduction of the almanac -- that he saw Armstrong from about 150 feet away and clearly saw him swinging the slung-shot, by the "light of the moon."

Lincoln also noted to the jury that at this particular scene, there was a clump of trees between the altercation and the setting of the moon in the western sky. As suggested by a "roar of laughter" in the courtroom, this may have been enough to get the acquittal of his client.

However, Lincoln proceeded to introduce more evidence for his client's exoneration.

He requested Dr. Charles Parker to the stand. Parker testified that the blow to the back of the head was not only severe and lethal enough to cause the fatality, but also probably caused the frontal contusion. This testimony appeared to explain, then, that the previously convicted Norris had indeed been the murderer. More important, the doctor was stating that there was neither hard evidence nor need of a frontal blow to the forehead as purportedly done by Armstrong.

For a third stratagem, Lincoln called upon the owner of the slung-shot, who testified that it was indeed his device and it was not used by him nor anyone else that night. (This may have been a bit tricky -- a chance that Lincoln took, since a redirect by the prosecution may have revealed that this slung-shot owner did indeed witness the killing by both Norris and Armstrong, using their bare hands or other instruments. There was no redirect.)

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Lastly, according to Morris -- perhaps most significantly and certainly out of character -- Lincoln became very emotional as he pleaded to the jury that Armstrong's loving family had taken him into their home on several occasions to feed and comfort him back in the days of struggles to make ends meet.

Morris then reviewed what many of us already knew: Duff's father, Jack, had once challenged Lincoln to a wrestling match in New Salem, and it was widely known that Jack was the strongest man around. When Lincoln stood up to him and did not waver nor suffer defeat -- it was reportedly a draw -- then the entire community and countryside accepted young Lincoln ever after. It was common knowledge then as it is today that Abraham Lincoln and Jack Armstrong became lifelong friends from that time henceforth.

The speaker then posed a question: "Did Abraham Lincoln choose friendship over justice? Did his lifelong friendship with Jack Armstrong give Lincoln enough motivation to 'go to bat' for his son, guilty or not guilty?"

Morris answered his rhetorical question with his personal view -- now widely held -- that in this drunken brawl, both tipsy men beat up on the belligerent, combative and drunken Metzker, resulting in his death. Nevertheless, everyone in that Beardstown courtroom, including the jury and the prosecution lawyer, digesting all of Lincoln's support data and testimony, came to the conclusion that it was only Norris' blow to the back of Metzker's skull that caused the death. Finally, everyone including Lincoln now thought that one convicted assailant was enough in this rowdy brawl. Indeed, during the course of this trial, lawyer Lincoln may have convinced himself of his friend son's acquittal.

A few years later, President Lincoln had a hand in commuting Norris' sentence.

As a sidelight, the speaker pointed out that Lincoln wore a white suit that day of the trial -- something that he never reportedly did before nor ever again. Further, Morris said that on the same day, following the trial theatrics, Lincoln was asked to walk over to the nearby studio of a young 22-year-old Abraham Byers for a photograph (ambrotype -- negative on glass). Morris lamented that while there is a copy of this photograph in the Beardstown museum, the original ambrotype glass negative is on display in a museum in Lincoln, Neb.

In parting, Morris informed the group that the Beardstown Courthouse is the only existing courthouse in which Abraham Lincoln worked as a lawyer and which still continues today as an active city courtroom (Cass County seat was long ago moved from Beardstown to nearby Virginia, Ill.). The Beardstown courtroom remains on the second floor of the old courthouse, with the museum on the first floor.

[By PHIL BERTONI, member and webmaster for the Logan County Genealogical & Historical Society]



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