By the Light of the Moon: Abraham Lincoln's Adventure in Forensic Meteorology (Part 1)

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This week we're running a special series by Matt Soniak about Abraham Lincoln's foray into forensic meteorology. Check back each day for a new installment!

August 29, 1857. Mason County, Illinois.

The night James Metzger got hit in the head, Walker’s Grove was hot and noisy. Between the crickets and the Methodists who were having a camp meeting nearby, the blow that killed Metzger was a barely audible thump. In the humid, heavy air of late August, the sound just wilted, sank and drowned. The people at the camp meeting didn’t even know anything had happened until several days later, when Rev. George Randle, the pastor of the local congregation, received word from town that the man had died. “The news came to camp meeting that a man was killed at the whiskey camp,” Randle reflected, succinctly, years later. “This report proved true.”

Camp meetings, a type of outdoor religious revival, were integral to spiritual life in areas of the American frontier where religion was firmly established but not every community had a church building. The meetings, which often lasted for several days, attracted not just the faithful, but young men who saw the crowds and the outdoor settings as ideal conditions for drinking, gambling, fighting and socializing. This rowdy element could be so disruptive that Illinois made it a criminal offense to "disturb a worshiping congregation.” Methodist ministers often tried to keep the “whiskeyites” a mile or more away from the meetings, so the men would often set up their own tents and wagons to make a “whiskey camp.”

On Saturday, August 29th, James Preston Metzker, a farmer in his mid-twenties who lived in Menard County, was hanging out at the whiskey wagons. Also there were James H. Norris, a farmer in his late twenties with a wife and four children and William “Duff” Armstrong, a twenty-four-year-old farmer also from Menard County. The three men were acquaintances, but after heavy drinking over the course of the night, both Norris and Armstrong argued with Metzker, possibly together but probably separately. At least one of those arguments turned physical, and a little before midnight, Metzker was struck in the head with a "slung-shot"—a weight tied to a leather thong, sort of an early blackjack. He managed to make his way home from the camp the next morning, falling from his horse several times. When a doctor examined him, he found that Metzger's skull was fractured in two places. Metzger died of his injuries two days later.

The Mason County sheriff arrested both Norris and Armstrong for Metzker’s murder. Because of the public interest in the case and the insecure conditions of the Mason County jail, the two men were taken to Lewiston in Fulton County to await trial (and Armstrong's trial would later be held in Beardstown in Cass County). In October, the Mason County Circuit Court indicted Norris and Armstrong jointly for the murder. The indictment read, in part:

"State of Illinois, Mason County

Of the October Term of the Mason County Circuit Court in the year of Our Lord one thousand eight hundred and fifty-seven.

The Grand Jurors chosen selected and sworn in and for the County of Mason aforesaid in the name and by the authority of the People of the State of Illinois upon their oaths present that James H. Norris and William Armstrong of the County of Mason and State of Illinois not having the fear of God before their eyes, but being moved and seduced by the instigation of the Devil, on the twenty-ninth day of August…with force and arms at and within the County of Mason…in and upon one James Preston Metzker…unlawfully, feloniously, willfully, and of their malice aforethought did make an assault. …James H. Norris with a certain piece of wood about three feet long which he in his right hand then and there held…James Preston Metzker in and upon the back part of the head…and there unlawfully, feloniously, willfully, and of his malice aforethought, did strike, giving to…Metzker…one mortal bruise and…William Armstrong with a certain hard metallic substance called a slung-shot which he…in his right hand then and there held…James Preston Metzker, in and upon the right eye and there unlawfully, feloniously, willfully and of his malice aforethought did strike, giving to the said James Preston Metzker…one other mortal bruise, of which said mortal bruises…James Preston Metzker from the 29th day of August until the 1st day of September…did languish, and languishing did live and on first day of September James Preston Metzker of the said mortal bruises died.”

Norris had killed a man years earlier, but was cleared of the charges after claiming self-defense. Things would not go his way this time around. The jury found him guilty, and he was sentenced to eight years in a state penitentiary.

While Armstrong was awaiting trial, his father Jack died. On his deathbed, the elder Armstrong urged his wife Hannah to do everything she could to save Duff, even if she had to sell their farm. She initially employed Walker and Lacey, the law partners who had defended Norris, to take Duff's case, but friends advised her to get another lawyer. She decided to call upon an old friend of the family, an attorney who had also dabbled in politics, named Abraham Lincoln.
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Coming tomorrow: The story continues, plus Abraham Lincoln's brief early career as a wrestler.

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September 13, 2011 - 9:30am
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