Cover image for Moonlight : Abraham Lincoln and the Almanac trial
Moonlight : Abraham Lincoln and the Almanac trial
Walsh, John Evangelist, 1927-2015.
First edition.
Publication Information:
New York : St. Martin's Press, 2000.
Physical Description:
166 pages : illustrations ; 22 cm
Format :


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KF223.A47 W35 2000 Adult Non-Fiction Central Closed Stacks

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On August 29, 1857, in the light of a three-quarter moon, James Metzger was savagely beaten by two assailants in a grove not far from his home. Two days later he died and his assailants, James Norris and William Armstrong, were arrested and charged with his murder. Norris was tried and convicted first. As William "Duff" Armstrong waited for his trial, his own father died. James Armstrong's deathbed wish was that Duff's mother, Hannah, engage the best lawyer possible to defend Duff. The best person Hannah could think of was a friend, a young lawyer from Springfield by the name of Abraham Lincoln. Lincoln took the case and with that begins one of the oddest journeys Lincoln took on his trek towards immortality. What really happened? How much did the moon reveal? What did Lincoln really know? Walsh makes a strong case for viewing Honest Abe in a different light in this tale of murder and moonlight.

Moonlight is a 2001 Edgar Award Nominee for Best Fact Crime.

Author Notes

John Evangelist Walsh was born in Manhattan, New York on December 27, 1927. He enlisted in the Army and served in the infantry in Italy in the mid-1940s and as a reporter and photographer for military newspapers. When he returned home, he enrolled in Iona College, but before graduating he was hired as a reporter for The Oneonta Daily Star in upstate New York. It was the start of a career that took him to Prentice-Hall, Simon and Schuster, and Reader's Digest, where he headed condensed-book projects.

He wrote several books during his lifetime including Into My Own: The English Years of Robert Frost, This Brief Tragedy: The Unraveling of the Todd-Dickinson Affair, and Unraveling Piltdown: The Science Fraud of the Century and Its Solution. He was also the project editor on the condensation of the Reader's Digest Bible from 850,000 words to 510,000 words. He died on March 19, 2015 at the age of 87.

(Bowker Author Biography)

Reviews 3

Booklist Review

The Almanac Trial of 1858 is so called because such a book's listing of the phases of the moon helped Lincoln obtain his client's acquittal on a charge of murder--an incident repeatedly cited in biographies as an example of his legal prowess. Skeptical, Walsh combs the records and senses that there are chinks in Lincoln's reputed honesty and legal probity. Walsh's grounds are somewhat technical, but as with much about Lincoln, the details reveal intriguing aspects of the man. Walsh raises questions about Lincoln's coaching of Nelson Watkins, owner of the lethal weapon, who claimed it was stashed in a wagon at the moment of the killing. The issue of the moonlight by which other witnesses identified Lincoln's client as the killer was, in Walsh's account, obfuscated by the defense attorney; and Lincoln's summary peroration, which was a paean to the goodness of the defendant's family, who were friends of Lincoln's youth, evaded the factual evidence. Walsh's intimations of Lincoln's legal corner-cutting may, however, provoke readers to perceive Lincoln as a smart operator. A nicely conceived case study.--Gilbert Taylor

Publisher's Weekly Review

In Mason Country, Ill., in 1857, two young men, James Norris and William "Duff" Armstrong, waylaid a drunken older man with a big stick and a "slung-shot" (a form of blackjack). Days later he died, and the pair was charged with murder: Norris was swiftly convicted of manslaughter; Armstrong's trial was postponed for a change of venue. On his deathbed, Armstrong's father, Jack, committed his wife to secure the area's best lawyer for his son: a close friend from Jack's youth named Abraham Lincoln. Thus was Lincoln drawn into the biggest and strangest criminal trial of his career. Already quite famous inside Illinois, Honest Abe had built his courtroom reputation largely on civil practice, notably avoiding criminal defendants he thought were guilty; this trial was likely the major exception, and Walsh's painstaking dissection of it tries to provide both a surprising look at Lincoln and a brief piece of courtroom theater. The book largely succeeds as the latter; witness by witness, argument by argument, independent historian and biographer Walsh (Darkling I Listen: The Last Days and Death of John Keats) shows how Lincoln won an unlikely acquittal. One of his tactics was a masterful cross-examination. Another amounted to witness tampering, and arguably to suborning perjury. A key argument had to do with the time the moon set on the night of the beating: here Lincoln used an almanac (misleadingly) to discredit the prosecution's star witness. Otherwise assiduous biographers and historians, Walsh maintains, got nearly all the facts about the "almanac trial" at least slightly wrong: Lincoln didn't (as was later charged) doctor the almanac or use one from the wrong yearÄhe didn't have to: his masterful, "glib, insinuating," tactics alone succeeded in getting his client cleared. Walsh ably shows how and why. Illus. not seen by PW. (June) (c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved

Library Journal Review

The story of how Abraham Lincoln secured the acquittal of murder suspect William "Duff" Armstrong, the son of an old New Salem friend, by making use of an almanac to discredit a witness's description of the position of the moon on the night in question is part of Lincoln lore. The victim, James Metzger, had died from a beating suffered the night of August 29, 1857. Two men were charged in the beating death, and one, James Norris, was separately convicted before Duff Armstrong came to trial. The trial's story has gone through so many changes and twists that while readers think they know the history, they don't. So suggests Walsh (Midnight Dreary: The Mysterious Death of Edgar Allan Poe), who has made something of a career of probing legendary stories in search of their basis in fact. In the instance, Walsh debunks certain variations of the tale (including claims that Lincoln deceived the jury with a forged or altered almanac) while presenting a persuasive case that Lincoln may have been aware of his client's guilt. The result is a fascinating story that deserves retelling. For general and academic libraries.-Brooks D. Simpson, Arizona State Univ., Tempe (c) Copyright 2010. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.



Chapter One KILLING AT WALKER'S GROVE It was a few minutes before midnight, the last curved sliver of a three-quarters moon about to slip below the horizon, when Press Metzger arrived home. Pulling his horse to a stop at the door of his farmhouse near Petersburg, he climbed clumsily out of the saddle to the ground, then stumbled through the front door. Greeting him, his wife caught a strong smell of whiskey, but she wasn't surprised or even much annoyed. She knew he'd spent the evening with his friends up at Walker's Grove racing horses and drinking. But James Preston Metzger was a good man, a hardworking father of three small children. Willingly his understanding wife conceded him his occasional sprees.     No sooner was he in the house, however, than the woman saw that her husband's unsteady gait wasn't all due to drink: the flesh around his right eye and brow was badly discolored, the eye itself swollen shut. Moaning, he dropped into a chair, his hands reaching up to clasp his drooping head. To his wife's anxious questions he mumbled a reply that he'd been in a fight. There were two of them. They'd hit him with something. One came at him with a club from behind. The other attacked him from in front with he didn't know what. The pain was pretty bad. Coming home he'd felt so dizzy a couple of times that he'd fallen right out of the saddle.     Next day the suffering Metzger remained in bed and the doctor was called. As examination revealed, the injuries were serious, the skull being fractured in two places: at the back, and in front near the corner of the right eye. The following day, losing strength by the hour, with the doctor standing helplessly by, Metzger became comatose. The following afternoon, September 1, 1857, he died. He was twenty-eight years old.     Even before his death, the search for Metzger's assailants--both clearly named by the dying man as acquaintances from farms in the Petersburg area--had begun. The first was James Norris, aged twenty-seven, who had a farm of his own, with a wife and four children. Second was William Armstrong, aged twenty-four, known to his family and friends as Duff. Single, he lived at home with his parents, along with two of his five brothers and two sisters. Within days of Metzger's funeral both men had been arrested in their homes by Sheriff I. F. West of Mason County and jailed at the county seat, Havana, a small town on the Illinois River, to await the October term of the Mason County circuit court. At that time the regular grand jury would convene, when a decision would be made about charging the two. While waiting for the grand jury the authorities found that Norris had earlier been involved in another serious scrape and had been tried for manslaughter in the death of a man named Thornburg. That time he'd been acquitted on a plea of self-defense.     Both suspects came of old central Illinois families, pioneer stock. Armstrong's father and mother--John, or Jack, and Hannah--had been there the longest, reaching the state more than thirty years before, when the Indians were still an occasional problem. (As a young militia sergeant Jack had fought in the Black Hawk War, coming home unscathed.) At first, the Armstrongs had settled just south of Petersburg, near the small, struggling village of New Salem where, like all the other settlers, they occupied a rough log cabin. In the 1840s, with the rapid rise of Petersburg, along with most other New Salemites, they gave up on the dwindling village, moving ten miles north to their present forty-acre farm. The Armstrong sons, though rough-mannered and given to drink and boisterous horseplay, were all hardworking farmers and law-abiding citizens. Duff's arrest in connection with the violent death of a neighbor left the whole family in shock.     On October 26 in the courtroom at Havana the Mason County grand jury began its deliberations, the Metzger case being its most pressing business. During several days it heard testimony from witnesses, a total of ten young men, all of whom had been at Walker's Grove the night of the fight. Also testifying was Dr. B. F. Stephenson, a Petersburg physician who described the fatal head wounds, explaining how they had caused the unlucky Metzger's death. The picture that emerged of that night's embroilment was an all-too familiar one involving a lethal combination of heavy drinking and flaring tempers.     At Walker's Grove on the night of Saturday, August 29, a religious camp-meeting had been in progress for a week, drawing enthusiastic crowds from a wide section of the countryside (churches were still few in the area and camp-meetings lasting a week or two were the usual substitute). Tents and makeshift wooden structures accommodated those who chose to remain on the grounds overnight or for longer, and the inevitable horde of sutler's wagons offering food and drink had followed. These by law were kept at a distance from the meeting grounds, being allowed to set up no nearer than a half-mile. It was in the vicinity of one of these outlying wagons that the unwary Metzger met his sad fate.     As outlined by the grand jury indictment, and drawing on the eyewitness testimony, it can be said that the attack on Metzger was both brutal and concerted, though not unprovoked. At dusk on the twenty-ninth, with the horse racing ended, Metzger spent several hours drinking, at length arriving at one of the wagons where he encountered Norris and Armstrong. All three knew each other well, and while not close friends were ordinarily on good terms. Armstrong, who had also spent the day at the horse races and drinking, lay asleep on a bench. Metzger, a large and powerful man, in a fit of devilment caught Armstrong by the legs and dragged him off the bench to the ground. Dazed, Armstrong, who was much smaller and lighter in build, struggled angrily to his feet but offered his antagonist only a token show of retaliation. The two then had a drink together, Armstrong apparently calm again but in reality still seething.     Shortly afterward at the same wagon the bearish Metzger became involved in a similar bit of roughhousing with Norris, also a man of light build, leaving Norris' feelings equally ruffled. Within an hour of these two seemingly superficial altercations there occurred the incident which was to prove fatal for the marauding Metzger.     In the bare, legalistic words of the grand jury indictment, Norris and Armstrong "unlawfully, feloniously, willfully, and of their malice aforethought did make an assault" on Metzger. They didn't come at their formidable target with bare hands. Norris had used as a weapon "a certain stick of wood three feet long and of the diameter of two inches" (later identified as a "neck-yoke," part of a wagon's frame). Armstrong had wielded a more unusual though equally effective weapon, "a certain hard metallic substance commonly called a slung-shot" (a lead ball encased in leather with a cord attached for swinging).     Norris' blow was a devastating one, delivered from behind. It gave to "the back part of the head of him the said James Preston Metzger one mortal bruise." At the same moment or shortly afterward Armstrong struck, either from in front or from off to the side. The deadly lead weight of the slung-shot smashed "in and upon the right eye," causing the victim to sustain "one other mortal bruise." Together these two savage injuries caused Metzger to "languish" for three days, at last killing him.     On November 5 in the Mason County courthouse, as the two prisoners and their families listened anxiously, the lengthy grand jury indictment was read out. Carefully phrased to cover every possible angle of the crime, it charged the two men with first-degree murder. The penalty if convicted was death by hanging.     Lawyers for Duff Armstrong had already been arranged by his parents, the firm of Dilworth & Campbell in Havana. Norris had to plead financial inability, and was assigned counsel by the court, William Walker of the Havana firm of Walker & Lacey. On the same day that the charges were handed up, Dilworth & Campbell, acting for both defendants, moved to quash the indictment. In support of the action ten points were cited, most of them simply questioning the grand jury proceedings technically. Three went to the merits of the case: (1) Metzger's head wounds were not adequately described, (2) it was not clearly stated whether the defendants had acted in concert, (3) it was not stated which of the two wounds had caused Metzger's death. The judge brushed aside the motion to quash, rejecting it without comment or discussion.     With that, Dilworth & Campbell, acting solely for their client, Armstrong, requested a change of venue ("he fears that he will not receive a fair and impartial trial in this court, on account of the mind of the inhabitants of said Mason County being prejudiced against him"). It was an almost automatic motion, one that a court seldom questioned or refused, the grounds usually being more convenient than accurate. This time the judge agreed, naming Cass County, adjacent to Mason on the southwest, as the new venue for Armstrong.     Whatever actually prompted the move, it was a fortunate one. Had Armstrong gone to trial in Mason at the November term, as Norris did, he would certainly have been convicted, though perhaps on a reduced charge. Why Norris and his attorney elected to remain in Mason isn't stated. It proved to be an obvious tactical blunder, however, one that was strangely compounded by Walker's letting the case go so speedily to trial. On November 7, only two days after the indictment was handed up, at the conclusion of a one-day trial, Norris was convicted of manslaughter. The sentence, imposed by the jury along with its verdict, as the judge had directed, called for eight years at hard labor in the Illinois penitentiary.     In almost peremptory style had Norris' fate been decided. For the prosecution no more than five witnesses had appeared: Metzger's brother Grigsby, three of his friends (Charles Allen, William Killion, James Walker), and the medical expert, Dr. Stephenson. The brother and the three friends all swore that they saw Norris deal the fatal blow. The time was eleven o'clock at night, but there was a bright moon high in the sky, almost overhead, and the four were watching the fight from about forty feet away. Dr. Stephenson authoritatively explained that the fracture at the rear of the skull by itself could have caused death.     In Norris' defense it was admitted that the young man had indeed fought with Metzger, but it was emphatically denied that he'd used any sort of weapon, only his fists, hardly a threat to his large opponent. In any case, asserted the defense, no matter how hard a blow might be delivered by a fist it could not crack a skull. That injury must have been sustained later, perhaps when the dead man fell from his horse going home. All four prosecution eyewitnesses were challenged as having stood much further off from the fight than a mere forty feet--two or three times that distance, it was insisted, much too far for onlookers to be sure what happened even with a bright moon shining. (A check of an almanac had satisfied the defense that the prosecution was correct, and that there had been a bright moon visible at the hour stated on August 29.)     None of this was convincing to the jury, especially when they heard one of the four, Charles Allen, earnestly insist that he'd been much closer to the scene of the battle than the other three, and couldn't be mistaken. He knew Norris well, saw him attack Metzger with a club, saw the deadly blow inflicted, was watching as the stricken man went down.     With the rapid and decisive conclusion of the Norris trial, and with Duff's case about to come up in the Cass County circuit court at Beardstown, Jack and Hannah Armstrong had to face the alarming probability that their son would be convicted, probably receiving a sentence no less than that given Norris. If the Beardstown jury should prove sterner than that at Havana, they might even conclude to a charge of outright murder, and Duff could well be facing the gallows. The same body of evidence that had been presented by the Norris prosecutors, the same damning witnesses, would be involved. In addition, the Armstrongs now had to face the fact that they could no longer afford to pay for lawyers. After so many years of struggle, their little farm was all they had.     It was a few days afterward that a final, devastating blow fell on the harried family. Jack, ailing for some time, grew suddenly much worse, and by early November he was dead. Before he breathed his last he whispered to Hannah a heartfelt wish that his hapless son be saved. If necessary, Hannah must sell the farm to pay for good lawyers, the best that could be found. Who they might be he had no idea, but there was one name out of his own past he'd like Hannah to see about, a man they both remembered fondly, Abe Lincoln.     Twenty years and more had sped by since the Armstrongs had known young Abe in their New Salem days. Since then he'd come a long way. Now he was a big lawyer in Springfield, a politician known throughout the state, and getting set to run for United States senator against the famous Democrat Stephen Douglas. The year before, he'd even been mentioned for vice-president on the Republican ticket and had missed by a hair. Maybe Abe wouldn't really remember people like them from so long ago, warned the dying Jack, maybe he couldn't take time out from a busy life like his, must have a lot more important things on his mind. But Hannah must at least write to Abe and ask him for his help with Duff. Abe might remember Duff. He'd known him as a baby in the cradle back in that old cabin at New Salem.     Tearfully, Hannah promised that she would.

Table of Contents

List of Illustrationsp. viii
Prologue: Not Too Latep. 1
1. Killing at Walker's Grovep. 11
2. Send for Abe Lincolnp. 21
3. In the Courtroomp. 41
4. The one Who Went to Jailp. 73
5. The Faked Almanacp. 89
Epilogue: Snapshotsp. 101
Appendix A The Watkins Testimony and the Brady Letterp. 111
Appendix B The Armstrong Juryp. 117
Appendix C Duff Armstrong's Statementp. 121
Notes and Sourcesp. 129
Selected Bibliographyp. 159
Acknowledgmentsp. 161
Indexp. 163