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Lincoln Courtroom Museum: Home of the famous Duff Armstrong "Almanac Trial"

The Lincoln Courtroom Museum
The Lincoln Courtroom Museum in Beardstown
Illinois Lawyer Now recently toured the Lincoln Courtroom Museum in Beardstown, the only circuit courtroom still in use that Abraham Lincoln practiced in and the site of the famous Duff Armstrong "Almanac Trial" in 1858. The Armstrong "Almanac Trial" as history tells it: James Preston Metzker was savagely beaten at about 11 p.m. on Aug. 29, 1857, just outside a Methodist camp meeting near Walker's Grove in Madison County. William Duff Armstrong and James Norris were charged with Metzker's murder. Armstrong was the son of Jack and Hannah Armstrong, Lincoln's dearest friends from his days in New Salem. When Hannah asked Lincoln to defend her son, he could only agree -- and represented the young man without a fee. The trial took place in 1858. The weather was warm and it appeared the cards were stacked against Lincoln's client. After all, Norris had been found guilty the previous year. The state's star witness was Charles Allen, who claimed to have witnessed the murder by the light of the moon. Allen responded to Lincoln's questions by saying the moon was nearly full and high in the sky at 11 p.m. the night of the attack. He insisted the trees to the west of the attack site did not block the moon's light. Lincoln's questioning of Allen was slow and deliberate, giving the witness every opportunity to modify his story. Allen would not be budged.
Picture of Abraham Lincoln taken immediately after Armstrong verdict
Picture of Abraham Lincoln taken immediately after Armstrong verdict
Then, Lincoln produced a copy of an 1857 Almanac (see photo gallery). It showed that moonset would have occurred at 12:03 a.m. on Aug. 30, 1857. Thus, at 11 p.m., the moon would have been low in the west. Lincoln also called Charles Parker, M.D., as a defense witness. The doctor testified that the blow struck by the previously convicted Norris could have caused the injury to the front of Metzker's skull. The prosecution had contended that Armstrong hit Metzker in the front of his head with a slungshot (see photo gallery). Then came Lincoln's summation as described by Pulitzer Prize-winning historian David Herbert Donald: "In the Duff Armstrong case, after carefully reviewing the now discredited evidence advanced by the prosecution, he (Lincoln) made an unabashedly sentimental appeal that as the prosecution attorney remembered, 'took the jury by storm.' " He told the jurors 'of his once being a poor, friendless boy; that Armstrong's father took him into his house, fed and clothed him, and gave him a home.' There were tears in his eyes as his spoke, and the story he told with such pathos moved the jury to tears also. 'His sympathies were fully enlisted in favor of this young man,' the prosecutor recalled, 'and his terrible sincerity could not but help arouse the same passion in the jury.' " Duff Armstrong was acquitted. Cass County Circuit Judge Bob Hardwick holds court at the site a couple of times a month -- while hauling case files over from the county seat of Virginia. "It's important that we keep any courtroom that Lincoln practiced in active and functioning," Hardwick said. "And it can't help but be inspiring for attorneys to practice in the same room that Lincoln did." And Hardwick -- like most in Illinois in the legal profession -- feels a special pull to the 16th President. "I've always thought Lincoln was one of the best or the best president and to hear cases in the same courtroom from 150 years ago ... you can't help but feel like a part of history." Click here to view the Lincoln Courtroom Museum photo gallery.
Posted on July 17, 2009 by Chris Bonjean
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