Lincoln and the almanac case

February 12, 1997|By Martin D. Tullai

BEFORE HE BECAME the most highly rated of our presidents, Abraham Lincoln, whose birthday we celebrate today, was a clever and adroit lawyer. He handled disputes involving property and debts, divorce, slander and railroad interests. While representing the Illinois Central he received his highest fee -- $5,000 for protecting the railroad's property from county taxation. Then he was forced to sue for the fee. He won that case, too.

Perhaps Lincoln's most famous, challenging and emotionally tinged case was the murder trial of the son of Jack Armstrong, an old friend from Lincoln's early days in Illinois.

Not long after he arrived in New Salem, Illinois, in July of 1831, Lincoln worked for storekeeper Denton Offut, who bragged that his tall, raw-boned clerk could ''outrun, outlift, outwrestle and throw down any man in Sangamon County.'' Another storekeeper, Bill Clary, bet $10 that Lincoln couldn't throw Jack Armstrong, the leader and champion of the Clary's Grove Boys. The short and powerful Armstrong was favored to win the match, which was held in a field adjacent to Offut's store.

After a grueling struggle, both agreed that neither could beat the other, so a tie was declared. Lincoln's showing gained him much community respect, as well as the friendship of Armstrong and the Clary's Grove Boys. When the militia went off to fight in the Black Hawk War in 1832, Sgt. Jack Armstrong and his followers elected Lincoln their captain.

Lincoln came to know Armstrong and his wife Hannah well. He visited them often; they provided him with meals and Hannah sewed his clothes while he rocked their son William, later nicknamed ''Duff.'' But Duff grew into a hard-drinking and wild youth, and some years later found himself in jail, charged with murder. Lincoln was on the circuit when he heard that Hannah Armstrong, now a widow, was frantically trying to reach him. He hurried back to Springfield, heard of her son's plight and offered his legal services free.

A drunken brawl

It appeared that during a camp-meeting revival in Mason County, Illinois, in August 1857, Duff Armstrong, James H. Norris and James P. Metzker had gotten into a drunken brawl. Norris, it was alleged, had hit Metzker with a piece of wood, possibly a wagon yoke. And Duff Armstrong, it was charged, also had struck Metzker with a metal slungshot, a sort of blackjack.

The injured Metzker managed to mount his horse and ride away, but died three days later. Norris and Armstrong were indicted for causing his death. Norris, who previously had killed a man and escaped punishment, was convicted of manslaughter and sentenced to eight years in prison. Armstrong's trial was moved to Beardstown and scheduled for May 7, 1858. This is when Lincoln arrived on the scene.

The key testimony was that of Charles Allen, a house painter from Petersburg. Yes, he acknowledged, he had seen the fatal blows struck at about 11 p.m. And how close to the action was he? ''About 150 feet.'' But it was the dark of night, he was reminded. Allen explained that light from the moon shining nearly straight overhead enabled him to see Armstrong hit Metzker.

Lincoln sent out for a popular almanac. Instead of being high in the sky, as Allen had testified, Lincoln showed that the moon had set that night at three minutes before midnight, scarcely an hour after the fatal fight. Could a setting moon, low in the western sky, have illuminated brawling figures 150 feet distant? (A later story that Lincoln tricked the jury with a bogus almanac is strictly a piece of Western folklore.)

Lincoln also produced a witness, Nelson Watkins of Menard County, who testified that the slungshot (blackjack) allegedly used by Duff Armstrong belonged to him and that he was in possession of it on the night in question.

Lincoln's final words to the jury told of the goodness of the Armstrong family. They were good citizens, he said, plain people who worked hard for a living, kindly, lovely people, the salt of the earth.

When the case went to the jury, Lincoln turned to his old friend, the defendant's mother, and assured her: ''Hannah, your son will be free before sundown.'' And so he was, as the jury returned a ''not guilty'' verdict.

This famous ''almanac case'' enhanced the already fine reputation of this prairie lawyer who would be elected president of the United States a little more than two years later.

Martin D. Tullai teaches history at St. Paul's School.

Pub Date: 2/12/97

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