Abraham Lincoln's Most Famous Case: The Almanac Trial
REVIEW BY: Travis H. D. Lewin, Professor of Law, Emeritus, College of Law, Syracuse University
The Almanac Trial case: People v. Armstrong is probably the most famous of Abraham Lincoln’s trials. Many elementary school children have read of it, learning that Lincoln produced an almanac while cross-examining the primary prosecution witness, Charles Allen. They learned that Allen testified when late at night by the light of a full moon he saw Lincoln’s client Duff Armstrong use a slungshot to strike a fatal blow against the victim, James Metzker. They then learned that Lincoln “destroyed” Allen’s testimony by producing an almanac that proved the moon was not overhead but was almost sunk in the west. But what the school kids didn’t learn was that claims were made that Lincoln offered a false almanac—not the 1857 almanac from the year the crime occurred but one from 1853.
Trial lawyers have also studied the Almanac case learning from the writings of some distinguished trial lawyers that Lincoln conducted a devastating cross-examination of the witness, Allen. They have found from those writings that Lincoln, after ensuring that Allen was certain that the moon was full and the night bright, produced the almanac and effectively destroyed Allen’s credibility.
Professor Dekle has written a remarkable book on the Almanac Trial, proving among other things that the claim of a false almanac was itself false; that the reports of Lincoln’s devastating cross-examination were false; and that Lincoln’s tactics prevented Armstrong from being found guilty of murder.
Dekle does, however, make an early mistake when in his preface, he claims to be neither a Lincoln historian nor Lincoln scholar. He may not be a Lincoln historian in the same sense as those historians such as Carl Sandburg, Albert J. Beveridge who covered the life of our 16th President or those historians such as John Duff or Frederick Trevor Hill who researched Lincoln’s life in court, but he is in every sense a scholar by his thorough research and writing about the Almanac Trial. He gives as accurate a review of the Almanac Trial as can be created given the fact that the trial was not transcribed and that numerous “reporters” were in conflict and some clearly in error.
That said, who is this book for? Is it only for lawyers, perhaps law students, and, of course historians? Or is it a book that the general public will enjoy? It is clearly a book for everyone who wishes to read of the lawyer life of Abraham Lincoln. Dekle writes in a most readable style; in 14 chapters he analyzes the trial, debunks many historical assumptions, and studies the role some 1860 politicians thought the story of the trial should have played in the 1860 election. Those chapters devoted to the story behind the trial: the relationship between Lincoln and the Armstrongs and the night of the deadly fight will be particularly enjoyed by the non-legal reader.
Dekle begins by telling the story of the killing of James Metzger. Then he goes through the several assumptions setting forth historical inaccuracies. In Chapter 2, he sets forth an example of the claimed cross-examination of Allen considered “classic” cross-examination and then demonstrates why it could not have happened.
In Chapter 3, “Lincoln the Orator,” after noting Lincoln’s legitimate ability as a master orator he examines two differing accounts of Lincoln’s final argument. In subsequent chapters, Dekle analyzes the false almanac claim and goes into depth in describing the accounts of other historians and “hagiographers”–those early biographers who glorified Lincoln in their writings. These chapters are easily read and understood even as Dekle goes into great detail in his review of the trial and the various accounts.
In Chapter 7, Dekle takes us back to Lincoln’s early life, his arrival in New Salem, Illinois, and his friendship with Duff Armstrong’s parents. In one of the most interesting chapters we learn again of the famouswrestling match between Abe and Duff’s father, Jack Armstrong; a match (though often erroneously reported) that became a critical part of the Almanac Trial. Because of his strong friendship with Jack and later his deep affection for Jack’s widow, Hannah, Lincoln agreed to represent their son, Duff, without a fee (as did the other defense counsel) and used the relationship for his final argument which, however reported or dis-reported, was probably the basis for the jury verdict of acquittal.
In subsequent chapters, Dekle analyzes the trial evidence and concludes with the final argument and the impact it apparently had on the jury. Particularly interestingly to me, a former trial lawyer and criminal law teacher, was Dekle’s analysis of why the prosecution did not and could not win the case. Writing so that lay readers will clearly follow his analysis, Dekle, demonstrates why under Illinois law Armstrong could not have been found guilty of murder, why the evidence supported at most a conviction of manslaughter, and why Armstrong was properly found not guilty. In all, not only is Dekle’s Almanac Trial a well written and thoroughly enjoyable work, it is a substantial contribution to the history of Lincoln, the trial lawyer.
"Abraham Lincoln’s participation in the case of People v. Armstrong has become the stuff of legend. Often studied but rarely understood, the 'Almanac Trial' as it has been presented often obscures more than it reveals about Lincoln as a lawyer. From a sparse official record, a cornucopia of often-unreliable reminiscences, and fictional accounts in print and on screen, George R. Dekle unravels the many strands of fact, fiction, and assumption that form the public memory of this case. Drawing on his experience as both a defense attorney and a prosecutor, Dekle separates reasonably reliable facts from decades of lore that has veiled the case. His careful examination of the evidence in the Armstrong trial sheds new light on Lincoln’s role in this most famous of his thousands of cases."—Daniel W. Stowell, Director and Editor of The Papers of Abraham Lincoln
"Dekle provides a unique and fascinating examination of the celebrated Almanac trial. As a retired prosecutor, he utilizes his years of legal experience to weigh the known testimony and evidence, and brilliantly undertakes a cross-examination of the competing historiography of the past 150 years. The reader will be exposed to new insights, and will assuredly be won over to his side. It will forever be very difficult when considering the Almanac Trial to argue against the solid case that Dekle has objectively presented."—Ron J. Keller, Professor of History and Director of the Lincoln Heritage Museum, Lincoln College
"In his latest book, Dekle proves that he is as much a master storyteller as he is a professor and prosecutor. He sets the stage like a movie director, introducing us to the impoverished widow who sells her meager belongings when she hires a young lawyer to defend her accused son. Along the way, Dekle annotates the history-making tale with legal facts and factoids that only a legal insider would know but that a legal outsider can easily understand."—Sharon Packer, MD, Assistant Clinical Professor of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences, Albert Einstein College of Medicine, Bronx, New York
"Engrossing. Reads like an engaging mystery. Dekle, through meticulous scholarly research and with a novelist’s style, unscrambles the conflicting accounts of Lincoln’s famous Almanac murder trial in this endeavor to uncover the true story."—Ronald H. Clark, Distinguished Practitioner in Residence, Seattle University School of Law