People v. Armstrong

7/20/2020 Kelley Clausing

In 1858, Abraham Lincoln defended a man charged of murder. William “Duff” Armstrong, a son of Lincoln’s New Salem friends Hannah and Jack Armstrong, had attended a religious camp meeting in rural Mason County, Ill. After an evening of heavy drinking, Armstrong engaged in a fight with another inebriated attendee, Preston Metzker, during which Armstrong allegedy hit Metzker in the head with a “slung-shot,” a blackjack-type weapon that was essentially a heavy weight on the end of a short rope. Metzker managed to ride his horse home, where he died three days later.

An early newspaper report on the crime

At the trial, the prosecution’s main witness claimed that the moon had been overhead shining “bright as day,” illuminating the fight so that he clearly saw Armstrong strike Metzker with the slung-shot. Dramatically, Lincoln then produced an almanac showing that the moon had been on the horizon, nearly set, when the fight took place, crushing the witness’s credibility.

An artist’s imagining of Lincoln (incorrectly shown with a beard) defending Armstrong.

After Lincoln delivered an eloquent, emotionally moving closing argument, the jury delivered an unanimous verdict of not guilty. Lincoln’s friendship with the Armstrongs continued into the Civil War: in 1863, Lincoln discharged Duff from the army on his mother Hannah’s request.

The verdict acquitting Armstrong “from all charges.”

You can explore all the documents from this case and thousands of others from Lincoln’s legal career at

Kelley Clausing
The Papers of Abraham Lincoln

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