Did Abraham Lincoln Read the Farmers’ Almanac?

Find out how the accuracy of the Almanac came to the aid of the lawyer who ultimately became the sixteenth President of the United States.

The accuracy of the astronomical data found in the Farmers’ Almanac also came to the aid of the man who ultimately became the sixteenth President of the United States. Before ascending to the highest office in the land, Abraham Lincoln was a canny and innovative trial lawyer in Illinois for more than two decades. Arguably, his most famous legal case was the 1858 Armstrong murder trial, better known in some annals as the Almanac Trial.

The Almanac Trial

In May 1858, Lincoln served as the defense attorney in the murder trial of William “Duff” Armstrong. Armstrong’s father, Jack, was an old family friend who had died the previous year. His widow, Hannah, traveled to Springfield and pleaded with Lincoln to save her son from a murder conviction. Lincoln agreed to do so but would accept no fee for his efforts. The entire case against Armstrong rested on the testimony of just one individual, Charles Allen.

The Case … For The Moon

He was the main prosecution witness and claimed that around 11 p.m. on the night of Saturday, August 29, 1857, at a religious camp meeting in Virgin’s Grove, Illinois, he saw Armstrong kill James Preston Metzker. Allen said that Armstrong used a “slungshot”–a kind of blackjack made of a lead weight sewn into a leather strap. Despite being a considerable distance away from the fatal fight–150 feet–Allen claimed he had a perfect view of the incident, thanks to the light of an almost full Moon “nearly in mid-heavens” (a reference to the Moon’s “southing” or meridian passage). The prosecutor thought he had an airtight case.

As the defense attorney, Lincoln had Allen repeat his statement about the brightness of the Moon several times. Then Lincoln made a motion to use an 1857 almanac. No one knows for certain which almanac Lincoln consulted, but most believe that it was Volume 40 of the very publication that hosts this web site: the Farmers’ Almanac. In the classic 1939 film, Young Mr. Lincoln, the dramatic climax shows actor Henry Fonda in the leading role, holding a small pamphlet in his hand and imploring the witness to: “Look at this . . . it’s the Farmers’ Almanac. Go ahead, look at it!” Consulting the calendar pages, Lincoln showed the jury that at the time of the incident, the Moon was actually low in the sky, going out of sight, and not at all high as Allen had claimed. Believing the Almanac, and not Charles Allen, the jury ended up acquitting Duff Armstrong.

Thus, Honest Abe did read and consult the Farmers’ Almanac as we hope you do, too.

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