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"Duff" Armstrong Trial: 1858

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Defendant: William Armstrong
Crime Charged: Murder
Chief Defense Lawyer: Abraham Lincoln
Chief Prosecutors: Hugh Fullerton and J. Henry Shaw
Judge: James Harriot
Place: Beardstown, Illinois
Date of Trial: May 8, 1858
Verdict: Not guilty

SIGNIFICANCE: William 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.

When he was nothing more than a young backwoods man struggling to make his way in the world, Abraham Lincoln lived for a while in the little town of New Salem, Illinois. He studied law while working in the local grocery 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 an eminently successful career in law and politics. Over 20 years later, in 1857, Lincoln learned that William Armstrong, nicknamed "Duff and 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 the arrest of your son 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 in his behalf.

Lincoln went to the town of Beardstown, Illinois, where Armstrong was being tried. The trial was held 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 about 11:00 o'clock.

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; in fact, there had been no moon at all by 11:00 o'clock. 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, did the case for free.

Stephen G. Christianson

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Law Library - American Law and Legal InformationNotable Trials and Court Cases - 1833 to 1882