It was a day where we were without jobs so Keith and I headed to Beardstown to see the Old Lincoln Courthouse & Museum. This wonderful museum is one of Abraham Lincoln’s most important trials, the Almanac Trial happened. I was amazed by the showmanship and drama attached to this trail. While I surely learned about it as a child, I had forgotten the story.
The courtroom where Lincoln tried the Almanac Trial is located on the square in Beardstown, Illinois and the towns of Beardstown and Virginia duked it out over which town would be the county seat. In an upcoming issue of Senior News I report the background for this fun tug of war.
The Beardstown Courthouse was built, in 1844 and Lincoln’s famous trial took place in 1858. The story begins with a Methodist camp meeting near Walker’s Grove in Mason County. The famous evangelist Peter Cartwright preached at this meeting. (See a previous story in Traveling Adventures that covers the historic marker about Cartwright near Pleasant Plains.)
I love how history comes together. It was at this camp meeting that Cartwright was preaching at that William “Duff” Armstrong and James Norris were accused of killing James “Pres” Preston Metzker man in a drunken brawl on August of 1857. The murder took place around 11:00 p.m. and Metzker died two or three days later.
History crosses paths again when Lincoln was asked to take the case by Duff’s mother, Hannah Armstrong. She was recently widowed and had been married to Lincoln’s old friend Jack Armstrong. This is the man that Lincoln had bested in a wrestling match in his early days in New Salem. Lincoln was quoted as saying that match was a “turning point in his life” and that it was due to Jack’s friendship that allowed him acceptance in the community.
Because of this friendship, Lincoln took the case for the benefit of Hannah Duff and he did it without a fee.
Both James Norris and Duff Armstrong were charge. In a separate trial, James Norris was convicted of manslaughter for hitting the man in the back of the head with a weapon. Lincoln thought there would be bias in Macon County and he asked and received a change of venue. Thus, Armstrong’s trial was moved to Cass County.
The famous Almanac Trial took place on May 7, 1858, a year after Norris had already been convicted. It was assumed to be a slam dunk case with a quick guilty verdict. Lincoln’s defense team consisted of himself and William Walker. The star witness against Duff Armstrong was Charles Allen, who said he was only around 150 feet away from the attack when it happened. Allen claimed to have witnessed the murder by the light of the moon. Allen said that the moon was nearly full and high in the sky and he insisted that the nearby trees did not block his view.
This eye witness’s credibility though was brought into doubt when Lincoln produced an 1857 Almanac that showed that moonset would have occurred at 12:03 a.m. on August 30, 1857 so at 11:00 p.m., the moon would have been low in the west. Judge Harriot, who presided over the trial allowed the jury to examine the Almanac. The jurors were able to see what Lincoln claimed was true.
There is a painting at the museum that shows Abraham Lincoln showing the almanac to the jury. You can also see the picture of the slungshot that they said killed Metzker as well.
Besides the wonderful courtroom the museum also offers artifacts of the area and a collection of guns from the Rudie A. Black collection of guns that features firearms from nearly every period of American history. There is also an assortment of Indian arrowheads and Native American Tools. I loved the historical artifacts from the area and the River museum profiling history along the Illinois River There is also the early jail that is now connected but was not originally and a gift shop as well.
Amazingly, the museum also just recently received an artifact with an original Abraham Lincoln signature. The manuscript is an appointment document from 1863 that features the signature of Abraham Lincoln. The document once belonged to Frances and Augustine “Gussie” Carter, a family with ties to Beardstown. Philip J. Frowery, of New Jersey, came into possession of the document and chose to donate it to the Old Lincoln Courtroom.
The museum is open 10-4 Monday – Saturday and by appointment. You can also have a tour as well. Call 217-248-6053 or 217-323-3225 for more information or email firstname.lastname@example.org.