Most people only think of Abraham Lincoln as our 16th President, but prior to that Lincoln had a long career as a lawyer. Much of his legal work was mundane, but he did occasionally get involved in some high profile cases that showed his logic and guile.
Author John Evangelist Walsh brings to light one such case in his book Moonlight: Abraham Lincoln and the Almanac Trial. Moonlight is about one of the few murder trials that Abraham Lincoln ever served as defense counsel. Tried in a single day in 1858, just a few months before beginning his campaign for the US Senate in Illinois, Lincoln successfully defended William “Duff” Armstrong on the charge of killing a man in a fight. A co-defendant, James Norris, had been tried separately and had been convicted; he was already serving an eight year sentence. The trial came to be known as the “Almanac” trial because of Lincoln’s adept use of an almanac to demonstrate that the moon was perhaps not so directly overhead as the key witness had suggested. The insinuation, of course, is that the witness could not have been so sure about his description of the incident as he had come across on direct testimony.
Possibly the most interesting thing about the trial was the fact that Lincoln wore a white suit, a far cry from his normal rumpled black suits of fame. There was some rumor that the almanac had somehow been tampered with, a rumor long since shown to be specious. In short, the almanac evidence actually didn’t negate the witness’s testimony, merely created some uncertainty in an otherwise certain insistence of events by the witness. And “reasonable doubt” is all that a defense attorney must elicit from the jury. Lincoln did that and Armstrong, the son of a longtime friend of Lincoln’s, went free.
The book itself is fairly short, and actually not very robust as a work of scholarship. The writing is uneven and the author doesn’t really delve too deeply into events. Overall it seems like Walsh could have put a little more effort into the volume. Still, it gives a lightweight glimpse into a famous trial…a glimpse if not satisfying in its own right, may be just enough to wet the taste for a greater exploration of Lincoln’s casework.
David J. Kent is a lifelong Lincolnophile and is currently working on a book about Abraham Lincoln’s interest in science and technology. He is also the author of Tesla: The Wizard of Electricity and an ebook Nikola Tesla: Renewable Energy Ahead of Its Time.