ABRAHAM LINCOLN-THE LAWYER

I have been known to extend my family a bit. As an example: this is a story about a “shirt-tail” relative.

Hazel Norris was the Grandmother of my Brother-In-Law; my Sister’s husband. Hazel’s Great Grandfather was James Norris.

The time was August 29th, 1857. The place was “camp ground” in Mason County, Illinois. There was a tent revival nearby. Often when there were revivals happening, men who had no interest in the revival, sat up their own tents and had a “whiskey camp”. They would get drunk and act like fools. Sometimes they would fight amongst themselves.  On this night, James Preston Metzker was hit with a piece of wood as well as a slung shot (the dictionary describes this as a weight on the end of a cord or chain). The two men who were fighting with Mr. Metzker were: William “Duff” Armstrong and James Norris. That evening Mr. Metzker got on his horse and rode home. During the ride, he fell off his horse several times. After his arrival home, he was checked by a Dr. who said he had a fractured head in two separate places. James Preston Metzer died two days later. Did he die from the piece of wood that was used by Mr. Norris? Did he die from the slung shot used by Mr. Armstrong? Did he die from the several falls he took from his horse, riding home?

James Norris and William Armstrong were both charged with murder. The men would be tried separately. The first trial was against James Norris. In October, 1857 James was convicted of manslaughter and sentenced to eight years in the Joliet penitentiary.

The second trial, for William Armstrong was not as swift. His father died while he awaited trial. There was a well-known lawyer named Abraham Lincoln who notified the widowed mother of Mr. Armstrong that he wanted to defend her son pro bono. Years before, Lincoln had stayed with the Armstrong family. He was studying law at the time and had no money. He remembered their kindness and wished to “repay”. This trial would be on May 7th,1858 and moved to Cass County, Illinois. The trial became known as the “Almanac Trial”. There would be books, news stories and plays written about this trial. It is possible that this was Abraham Lincoln’s most famous case.

Although there were many witnesses who testified, Mr. Lincoln was only interested in one. Charles Allen testified that he saw Duff Armstrong strike Metzker with a slung shot and he could clearly see the act by the light of the full moon and he was at a distance of 150 feet. Abraham Lincoln used an almanac to show Allen lied on the stand when he claimed he had witnessed the crime in the moonlight and that the moon on that date could not have produced enough light for the witness to see anything clearly. Based on this evidence, the jury acquitted Armstrong after only one ballot.

James Norris was pardoned several years later, in 1863. He had served six years of his sentence.

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