Abraham Lincoln and the Case of the Altered Almanac

By Mel Maurer
The Cleveland Civil War Roundtable
Copyright © 2006, All Rights Reserved

Abraham Lincoln an unscrupulous lawyer? That was one of the charges made against him in his senatorial race against Steven Douglas and later again in his run for the presidency. Lincoln, so it was claimed, had altered the almanac used so successfully in his most famous trial – a murder trial in 1858. It was a serious charge against anyone but especially against a man well-known for his integrity.

Abraham Lincoln

The initial source for this scurrilous claim was apparently someone – a Douglas Democrat – who was on the jury for the murder trial. A man who voted to acquit Lincoln’s client – Duff Armstrong – and who then felt deceived by Duff’s attorney. Lincoln had taken this case at the request of Duff’s mother, Hannah, the newly widowed wife of his old friend, Jack. It was Jack he had bested in a wrestling match in his early days in New Salem. Lincoln called the match a “turning point in his life.” Jack’s friendship with Lincoln after his win led to Lincoln’s acceptance into the community.

Duff and another man named Norris were accused of killing a man in a drunken brawl in August of 1857. In a separate trial, Norris was convicted of manslaughter for hitting the man in the back of the head with a weapon. Now Duff would be tried for hitting the man in the front of the head with a weapon. Although already preparing for his run for the Senate against Steven Douglas, Lincoln could not say no to his friend Hannah and took the case – pro bono.

Lincoln, at that time, was known as one of the best lawyers in Illinois but his reputation was made in civil cases. He had, in his over 20 years in practice, handled over 4,000 civil cases and just a few hundred criminal cases. Roughly a dozen of these involved murders and he lost half of them.

Obviously Abe Lincoln was not Perry Mason but it was a “Perry Mason” moment – crushing an opposing witness – that created the impression in the minds of some that false evidence had been introduced in what became known as “The Almanac Trial.” The trial’s defining moment – its turning point – came when Lincoln, after a series of questions setting up the prosecution’s eyewitness, Charles Allen, with his testimony on how much moonlight there was that fateful August night and how far he could see because of it, introduced an almanac for 1857 showing the time the moon had set that night. It is popularly believed – probably because that’s the way it’s been dramatized over the years – that the almanac showed there was no moon that night. It merely showed that the “moonset” that night was three minutes after midnight.

The time of the assault was about 11:00 PM so the moon could not have been overhead, as the witness had testified. When Lincoln read the facts from the almanac, a “roar of laughter” rose from the spectators and some of the jurors – the witness had been discredited. Despite the fact that a moon an hour before setting would have been high enough to provide all the illumination needed, the impression Lincoln had created in the minds of the jury and those in attendance was that there was not enough light to see what the witness said he saw, especially in the detail that Lincoln had him testify to in setting him up. Lincoln had not altered the almanac, he had skillfully altered the perception of the witness’ testimony in the minds of the jurors and no words by the prosecutor were able to change that perception. It was only later, when people began to look at the almanac for themselves, and saw that there was almost a full moon that night, that they thought that Lincoln had used an altered almanac.

The Beardstown, IL courthouse (now city hall), site of the “Almanac Trial,” where Abraham Lincoln successfully defended Duff Armstrong against murder charges in 1858

It was a ridiculous claim. Even if Lincoln were unethical and stupid enough to try such a trick it would not have worked. Lincoln had three copies of the almanac with him that day. He gave one to the judge, one to the prosecutor and one to the jury after he read from it. The prosecutor immediately sent his assistant out to buy more almanacs. He did and returned with several copies of two published by other companies – they agreed with Lincoln’s almanac to the time of moonset within a minute or two – as if further proving Lincoln was right and the witness was wrong. (Over time various enterprising people clumsily changed 1857 almanacs to show there was no moon that night and then claimed their almanac was the one Lincoln used in the trial.)

A good lawyer, Lincoln did not rely on just his almanac to defend his client. Before recalling the state’s star witness to discredit him with the almanac, he called a witness who testified the weapon that Duff allegedly used belonged to him and not Duff. (A potentially dangerous witness since he told Lincoln he, Lincoln, did not wish to hear all he saw that night). Lincoln also found a doctor to testify as an expert witness that the blow to the back of his head could have caused the wound at the front of the victim’s head. (And they had already convicted the man who delivered that blow, hadn’t they?) Finally, and maybe most importantly, Lincoln, in his closing argument in his shirt sleeves, pulling on his knitted braces, told a somewhat exaggerated story of his relationship with the Armstrong family and how much they meant to him – it was as if Lincoln were personally vouching for the boy on trial. How could anyone from a family so loved by Abe ever do anything so wrong? No wonder Duff was acquitted.

While Lincoln was innocent of the campaign charge that he had fixed the almanac, a charge that he had violated his principles in taking and trying this case would have been true. Lincoln was known for only accepting cases he believed in and he could not have believed in this one. There was sufficient evidence to prove that Duff was as guilty as his convicted partner that night – even Lincoln’s own witness if asked could have testified to that – but, in a test of friendship vs. principle, Lincoln chose friendship. Maybe what he was really doing in his closing remarks was making his friendship argument to himself in front of the jury trying to convince himself that he had made the right choice. Although he never talked about the trial, at least publicly, as president he had friends in Illinois start the wheels rolling to have Norris released early on parole.

Note: More on this subject can be found in Moonlight: Abraham Lincoln and the Almanac Trial by John Evangelist Walsh published by St. Martin’s Press.