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!