An evening with Abraham Lincoln-- Presented by MSU College of Law American Inn of Court

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By Roberta M. Gubbins

Legal News

In the evening of April 6th, the courtroom in the Ingham County Court House in Mason, MI became the setting for the William "Duff" Armstrong murder trial held at the Beardstown, Illinois Cass County Courthouse in 1858. Abraham Lincoln, ably acted by George Howell, was attorney for Armstrong. Shaun Johnson was Mason County States Attorney and Liza Moore acted as the judge.

The Hon T.S. Eveland, President of the MSU College of Law American Inn of Court, sponsors of the event, welcomed the members of the audience and introduced the players.

The play, "Murder by Moonlight," told the story of Armstrong who was charged with the August 29, 1857 murder of James Preston Metzker in Mason County, Illinois. His father, Jack Armstrong, had been a friend of Lincoln while he was studying law in New Salem, Illinois. When Lincoln heard of the murder charge he volunteered his legal services pro bono. The trial was moved to Cass County and held at the courthouse at Beardstown, Illinois.

According to the eye-witness, Charles Allen, played by Christopher Lewis, Armstrong struck Metzker in the head with a slungshot (a rope with a stone tied at the end) causing his death. Allen claimed he was able to see the murder, which took place in the deep woods between 10 and 11 pm, clearly because of the full moon.

Lincoln used the Farmers' Almanac to discredited Allen. When the prosecutor challenged the admissibility of the almanac, Lincoln defended its admission, claiming, "everybody uses these almanacs and the facts stated in them are relied on by everybody and are common knowledge. It's a scientific fact."

The court accepted the almanac, which stated that the moon didn't rise until well after 1:00 am on the night of the murder. Armstrong was eventually acquitted. Lincoln, who was 47 at the time of the trial, went on to be elected President two years later in November, 1860.

In the second skit of the evening, Janet Welch was Lincoln and Max Hoffman was Preacher Bale. Preacher Bale wanted help with a collection matter. Lincoln encouraged Bale to settle the matter without going to court. "Lincoln quoted the Bible and Shakespeare in an effort to explain to Bale why litigation was not the answer," said Hoffman. "Eventually, the parties met and settled."

The evening ended with a discussion of the lessons learned from the life of Lincoln by Hon. Ronald W. Lowe, 35th district court judge in Plymouth, who shared his characterization of Abraham Lincoln as a courtroom lawyer.

The members of the American Inn of Court thank Hon. William Collette, who graciously made all the necessary arrangements for the use of his courtroom.

The MSU College of Law/Detroit College of Law Alumni Association and the Michigan State University College of Law sponsor an American Inn of Court. Over 300 Inns of Court have been established in legal communities throughout the United States. Michigan State University College of Law American Inn of Court meets at MSU College of Law, located at the intersection of Shaw and Bogue on the Michigan State University Campus, East Lansing, Michigan.

Published: Thu, Apr 15, 2010

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