In August of 1857, a preacher named Peter Cartwright set up a church revival in Mason County, Illinois. This was big news and people came from everywhere to hear his sermons in the town of Virgin’s Grove. Some came to be filled by the Holy Spirit while others stayed just outside the camp to be filled with a different kind of spirit, alcohol. On the night of Saturday, August 29, 1857, Cartwright concluded his meetings. The large crowd slowly made their way home enjoying the cold front that had just passed through. It was a beautiful night with clear skies, a light wind from the northwest, and a pleasant 56 degrees. During the meeting the bright moon was observed by many to illuminate the tents, platforms, and people.
As the moon sank lower in the sky, William “Duff” Armstrong and James H. Norris were enjoying the night at a saloon owed by Tom Steel. At about 11 p.m., Armstrong and Norris traded verbal jabs with “Pres” Metzker. A fight ensued and a bloodied Metzker retreated to a friend’s house. Three days later he was dead from head trauma. Armstrong and Norris were arrested and charged with murder. Norris was tried, convicted, and sentenced to six years in the state penitentiary. Duff Armstrong however had an ace in the hole. Duff’s mother Hannah raced to Springfield to get the help of a family friend and attorney named Abraham Lincoln.
Lincoln not only agreed to defend the alleged murderer, he didn’t charge the family a fee for Duff’s defense. A change of venue was accepted so Duff’s murder trial began on May 7, 1858 at the Cass County courthouse in Beardstown, Illinois. This courthouse is still standing and you can visit the actual place of Lincoln’s most famous case as a lawyer. Lincoln’s defense team consisted of himself and William Walker. At first, the evidence against Duff Armstrong looked as airtight as in the James Norris conviction. The most convincing testimony for the prosecution came from Charles Allen. Allen testified that the moon was almost full and sat high in the sky. He was only around 150 feet away from the attack which took place around 11 p.m. He stated that the bright moonlight gave him a clear view of Armstrong striking Metzker in the head. Allen said the weapon was a heavy lead weight sewn into a leather strap.
How could Lincoln discredit this witness? As the burden of proof is on the prosecution, Lincoln’s defense only needed the jury to have a reasonable doubt. First Lincoln asked Allen to restate his testimony especially about the light of the moon. Allen was sure that there was nearly a full moon that emitted plenty of light. No one, especially Allen, his counsel, or the jury expected what happened next. Lincoln brought out an almanac! According to the 1957 almanac the moon on the night of the murder would have been almost out of sight at 11 p.m. on the night in question! In addition the moon was not full but only 74 percent sunlit. Judge Harriot allowed the jury to examine the almanac which helped convince them that Allen was lying or mistaken. There was reasonable doubt based on scientific fact that was allowed into evidence. Today we know this as judicial notice, and it is quite common. However, in 1857, this was shocking because trials were decided primarily on witness testimony, not science. Duff Armstrong was acquitted thanks to an almanac and Abraham Lincoln who was a decent lawyer and even a better politician.
The following reference materials were used in the writing of this post.
This Roger W. Sinnott article is brief but fascinating and worth your time:
How did Lincoln become a lawyer back then?
The moon and its phases:
More about the trial:
The Beardstown Courthouse:
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