Abraham Lincoln, the Almanac, and a Murder Trial

When Lincoln Famously Used the Almanac

By Judson Hale
February 8, 2019
Abraham Lincoln

Abraham Lincoln showing an 1857 almanac to the jury during the famous Armstrong murder trial in the spring of 1858. The original of this Norman Rockwell painting hangs in The Norman Rockwell Museum in Stockbridge, Massachusetts.

Yankee Archives

Abraham Lincoln, born on February 12 in 1809, pursued a legal career before turning to a political one that eventually led to the U.S. presidency. In our Dublin, New Hampshire, office hangs a reproduction of a painting by Norman Rockwell depicting him in front of a jury holding the 1857 edition of an almanac in his hand. Was it The Old Farmer’s Almanac?

It’s difficult to prove conclusively, but everything I’ve read about the case—and certainly my examination of the 1857 edition—indicates that it was.

Abraham Lincoln Defends an Alleged Murderer

Lincoln was considered to be a very skilled and respected trial lawyer.

The occasion depicted in the Rockwell painting is the 1858 murder trial of an Illinois man named William “Duff” Armstrong. Armstrong was accused of murdering James Preston Metzker by striking him on the back of the head with a “slung-shot”—a weight tied to a leather thong, sort of an early blackjack—a few minutes before midnight of August 29, 1857. Lincoln was a friend of the accused man’s father, Jack Armstrong, who’d just died, and so he offered to help defend young Duff Armstrong, without pay, as a favor to Jack Armstrong’s widow.

The principal prosecution witness against Armstrong was a man named Charles Allen, who testified that he’d seen the murder from about 150 feet away.

Lincoln asked Allen how he could tell it was Armstrong given that it was the middle of the night and he was a considerable distance away from the murder scene.

Allen replied, “By the light of the Moon.”

How Lincoln Used the Almanac

Upon hearing Allen’s testimony, Lincoln produced a copy of the 1857 almanac, turned to the two calendar pages for August, and showed the jury that not only was the Moon in the first quarter but it was riding “low” on the horizon, about to set, at the precise time of the murder.

He argued that the witness could not possibly have had enough light to see what he claimed and asked the judge to take “Judicial Notice” of the moon’s low position.

(“Judicial Notice” is when a judge determines that something is a fact, and in a criminal case, tells the jury it is up to them whether to accept it as true.)

The judge agreed and the jury found Armstrong not guilty. Duff Armstrong was acquitted.

Now, discover the true story of The Old Farmer’s Almanac and the German Spy Story!


The Best of The Old Farmer's Almanac: The First 200 Years


Reader Comments

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Can anyone provide the citation where this case is filed? Thanks in advance!

Abraham Lincoln

The Editors's picture

Hi James, Here’s some information and references if it helps:

“Circuit Court Transcript, 15 April 1858, People v. Armstrong, case file; Order, 7 May 1858, People v. Armstrong, Circuit Court Record C, 174, both in Cass County Circuit Court, Cass County Courthouse, Virginia, IL; William E. Barton, The Life of Abraham Lincoln, 2 vols., (Indianapolis, IN: Bobbs-Merrill, 1925), 1:310-318.”





Interesting! I hope that

Interesting! I hope that everyone had a nice Earth Day!

I have seen this event

I have seen this event dipicted in the movie, "The Young Mr. Lincoln" where Henry Ford played the part of Mr. Lincoln. In this portrayal, the mother of the accused did indeed witness the murder but could not tell which of her sons was guilty and would not testify either way. Mr. Lincoln was puzzled by Mr. J.C. Cass, the prosecution's lead witness's name in the movie, who had testified he saw the accused kill the decedent, his supposedly best friend from the distince because the night was "moon bright". Upon the final day of the trial Mr. Lincoln called Mr. Cass back to the stand for reexamination. He asked him why he lied about his name. Mr. Cass said he had not lied. "Oh yes you did Mr. Cass." Lincoln said. "You only gave us your initials, was it because you might think we thought your name was Jack-Ass that you didn't tell us your name was Jack Cass?" "I'd would venture to say anybody who would lie about their name would lie about just about anything. Just like you lied about seeing this boy kill your best friend." And you know the rest of the story...

good retelling of the story

good retelling of the story from Hollywoods point of view....with the exception of the "Jack Cass" statement...this was mentioned earlier in the movie and never brought up in the end of that movie...just watched it by the way....

Young Mr lincoln

Great movie on honest abe, a great educational piece of film that could be used in any educational setting

Doesn't matter if he did it

Doesn't matter if he did it or not, Lincoln only had to prove reasonable doubt. That is what an attorney does and that is what Lincoln did. Look at the OJ trial.

You are absolutely right.

You are absolutely right. When I served on a jury, the judge instructed us that it is the prosecutions job to prove that a crime was committed. It is not the responsibility of the defender to prove innocence. With my case, we all knew the defendant was most likely guilty, but the prosecution completely failed to prove that a crime had been committed so we had to find the person not guilty.

Doesn't mean he didn't do it,

Doesn't mean he didn't do it, just no witnesses.

I agree! Honest Abe!

I agree! Honest Abe!