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How Abraham Lincoln Argued a Murder Trial

This week we're running a series of posts by Matt Soniak about Abraham Lincoln's foray into forensic meteorology. If you missed the first or second installments of the series, check them out.

May 3, 1858. Cass County, Illinois.

The Circuit Court of Cass County convened on Monday May 3rd, 1858, to begin Armstrong’s trial. Abraham Lincoln arrived in Beardstown, the county seat and site of the courthouse, on Thursday the 6th, only to find that the star witness for the People, Charles Allen, was missing.

Lincoln asked around among Armstrong’s friends and discovered that they had made an agreement with Allen. He would stay at a hotel in the nearby town of Virginia for the duration of the trial and not testify. In exchange, Armstrong’s friends would pay his living expenses. Lincoln explained to them that if Allen didn’t appear, the case would be continued and Duff Armstrong would have to wait in jail for the trial to be rescheduled. Realizing their error, two of Armstrong’s cousins hitched up their wagon and went to retrieve Allen that night. The next morning, the trial began.

Hugh Fullerton, the State’s Attorney, prosecuted the case. A private attorney named Collier, who’d been employed by Metzker’s brother, assisted him. William Walker, the senior member of the firm of Walker & Lacey, who had defended Armstong’s friend Norris the year before, assisted Lincoln.

During the early parts of the trial Collier more or less had the run of the show as he offered what appeared to be a solid case. Lincoln only sparingly cross-examined Collier’s witnesses, called few of his own, and spoke up occasionally only to double-check a few dates and place names. That is, until Charles Allen took the stand.

Allen testified that he'd seen Armstrong strike Metzker with the blow that killed him. On cross-examination, Lincoln pressed Allen for more details. How far away had he been standing? About 150 feet from the victim. What time was it? Approximately 11:00 pm. How could he be sure the assailant was Armstrong if it was the middle of the night and he was a good distance away from the action? “By the light of the moon,” Allen testified. He said it had been shining high in the sky and provided more than enough light. Throughout his questioning, Lincoln kept going back to these details and had Allen repeat himself several times about the moon.

Lincoln purchased an 1857 almanac from a nearby drug store and asked that it be entered into evidence. The judge allowed it, and Lincoln turned to the almanac’s August calendar. He showed the jury the pages and explained that on the night of the assault, the moon was in the first quarter and had set at three minutes after midnight. At the time Metzker claimed to have seen the attack, 11:00 p.m., the moon would have been riding low on the horizon and not directly overhead. (It is popularly believed, probably because it's been dramatized over the years, that the almanac showed there was no moon that night. In reality, it simply showed that its position in the sky did not match Allen’s description.)

When Lincoln read the facts from the almanac, laughter rose from the spectators and even some of the jurors. The moon, low on the horizon an hour before setting, probably still could have provided enough light for Allen to see the assault, but Lincoln had shifted the jury's attention away from the moon’s brightness and to its location. In the process, he revealed Allen’s mistake on this, casting doubt on the witness' testimony.

A juror recalled years later that “the jury thought Allen was telling the truth. I know that he impressed me that way, but his evidence with reference to the moon was so far from the facts that it destroyed his evidence with the jury.”

Lincoln did not rely solely on the almanac to defend Armstrong, though. He also had a doctor testify that the blow Norris struck to the back of Metzker’s head could have caused the wound on the front. Lincoln also gave a full-on performance during his closing arguments. The day the attorneys made their final remarks, it was hot in the courthouse. As Lincoln rose from his chair to speak, he took off his coat, vest and necktie. As he talked and paced in front of the jury box, his home-made knitted suspenders slipped off of one shoulder, falling to the side, where Lincoln let it sway until he was finished talking. Looking like a backcountry bumpkin, Lincoln spoke at length about his relationship with the Armstrong family and how much they meant to him, going so far as to plead for the life of the son of his old friends.

The jury deliberated for one hour, took only one ballot and delivered a unanimous acquittal. After the verdict was delivered, Lincoln reportedly shook hands with Armstrong, led him to his mother, and told him to care for her and try to be as good a man as his father. Then, he walked out of the courthouse and went back home to prepare for his Senate campaign.

Check back tomorrow for the story's conclusion and the repercussions of the trial in Lincoln's political career.

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Photo illustration by Lucy Quintanilla, Mental Floss. Saint Nicholas: HULTON ARCHIVE, GETTY IMAGES. Skulls, backgrounds: iStock
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Tomb Raider: The Story of Saint Nicholas's Stolen Bones
Photo illustration by Lucy Quintanilla, Mental Floss. Saint Nicholas: HULTON ARCHIVE, GETTY IMAGES. Skulls, backgrounds: iStock
Photo illustration by Lucy Quintanilla, Mental Floss. Saint Nicholas: HULTON ARCHIVE, GETTY IMAGES. Skulls, backgrounds: iStock

Throughout history, corpses have been bought and sold, studied, collected, stolen, and dissected. In Rest in Pieces: The Curious Fates of Famous Corpses, Mental Floss editor Bess Lovejoy looked into the afterlife of numerous famous corpses, including Saint Nicholas, one of the many canonized bodies whose parts were highly prized by churches, thieves, and the faithful.

Don't tell the kids, but Santa Claus has been dead for more than sixteen hundred years. No, his body is not at the North Pole, and he's not buried with Mrs. Claus. In fact, his remains are thousands of miles away, on Italy's sunny Adriatic coast. And while Santa might be enjoying his Mediterranean vacation, he's probably not too happy about what happened to his remains. They were stolen in the eleventh century, and people have been fighting over them ever since.

Of course, the Santa Claus of folklore doesn't have a skeleton. But his inspiration, Saint Nicholas, does. That's about all we can say for sure about Nicholas: he was a bishop who lived and died in what is now Turkey in the first half of the fourth century. Legend tells us that he was born into a rich family and delighted in giving gifts. Once, he threw three bags of gold into the window of a poor family's house, saving the three daughters who lived there from a life of prostitution. Another time, he raised three children from the dead after a butcher carved them up and stored them in a vat of brine. He also protected sailors, who were said to cry out his name in rough seas, then watch the waves mysteriously smooth.

The sailors spread Nicholas's cult around the world. Within a century of his death, the bishop was worshipped as a saint, lending his name to hundreds of ports, islands, and inlets, and thousands of baby boys. He became one of the best-loved saints in all of Christendom, adopted by both the Eastern and Western traditions. Christmas probably owes something to his December 6 feast day, while Santa Claus’s red outfit may come from his red bishop’s robes. "Santa Claus" is derived from "Sinterklaas," which was how Dutch immigrants to New Amsterdam pronounced his name.

As one of the most popular saints in the Christian world, Nicholas had a particularly powerful corpse. The bodies of saints and martyrs had been important to Christianity since its beginning: the earliest churches were built on the tombs of saints. It was thought that the bodily bits of saints functioned like spiritual walkie-talkies: you could communicate with higher powers through them, and they, in turn, could manifest holy forces on Earth. They could heal you, protect you, and even perform miracles.

Sometimes, the miracles concerned the saints' own bodies. Their corpses would refuse to decay, exude an inexplicable ooze, or start to drip blood that mysteriously solidified and then reliquefied. So it was with Nicholas: at some point after his death, his bones began to secrete a liquid called manna or myrrh, which was said to smell like roses and possess potent healing powers.

The appearance of the manna was taken as a sign that Nicholas’s corpse was especially holy, and pilgrims began flocking by the thousands to his tomb in the port city of Myra (now called Demre). By the eleventh century, other cities started getting jealous. At the time, cities and churches often competed for relics, which brought power and prestige to their hometowns the way a successful sports team might today. Originally, the relics trade had been nourished by the catacombs in Rome, but when demand outstripped supply, merchants—and even monks—weren't above sneaking down into the crypts of churches to steal some holy bones. Such thefts weren't seen as a sin; the sanctity of the remains trumped any ethical concerns. The relics were also thought to have their own personalities—if they didn't want to be stolen, they wouldn't allow it. Like King Arthur's sword in the stone, they could only be removed by the right person.

That was how Myra lost Saint Nicholas. The culprits were a group of merchants and sailors from the town of Bari, located on the heel of Italy's boot. Like other relic thefts, this one came at a time of crisis for the town where the thieves lived, which in this case had recently been invaded by a horde of rapacious Normans. The conquerors wanted to compete with the Venetians, their trading rivals to the north, who were known for stealing the bones of Saint Mark (disguised in a basket of pork) from Alexandria in 827. And when the Normans heard that Myra had recently fallen to the Turks, leaving Nicholas’s tomb vulnerable, they decided to try stealing a saint for themselves.

According to an account written shortly after the theft by a Barian clerk, three ships sailed from Bari into Myra's harbor in the spring of 1087. Forty-seven well armed Barians disembarked and strode into the church of Saint Nicholas, where they asked to see the saint’s tomb. The monks, who weren't idiots, got suspicious and asked why they wanted to know. The Barians then dropped any pretense of politeness, tied the monks up, and smashed their way into Nicholas's sarcophagus. They found his skeleton submerged in its manna and smelled a heavenly perfume wafting up from the bones, which "licked at the venerable priests as if in insatiable embrace."

And so Nicholas of Myra became Nicholas of Bari. The relics made the town, and the men who stole them. The thieves became famous in the area, and for centuries their descendants received a percentage of the offerings given on the saint’s feast day. The townspeople built a new basilica to hold the remains, which drew thousands of pilgrims throughout the Middle Ages. Even today, Bari remains a major pilgrimage site in southern Italy, visited by both Roman Catholics and Orthodox Christians. Every May an elaborate festival, the Feast of the Translation, celebrates the arrival of Nicholas’s relics. As one of the highlights, the rector of the basilica bends over Nicholas’s sarcophagus and draws off some of the manna in a crystal vial. The fluid is mixed with holy water and poured into decorated bottles sold in Bari's shops; it is thought to be a curative drink.

But Bari is not the only place that boasts of the bones of Saint Nicholas. If you ask the Venetians, they will say their own sailors visited Myra during the First Crusade and stole Nicholas’s remains, which have been in Venice ever since. For centuries, both Bari and Venice have claimed the saint's skeleton.

In the twentieth century, scientists waded into the dispute. During renovations to the basilica of Bari in 1953, church officials allowed University of Bari anatomy professor Luigi Martino to examine the remains— the first time the tomb had been opened in more than eight hundred years. Martino found the bones wet, fragile, and fragmented, with many of them missing. He concluded that they had belonged to a man who died in his seventies, although because Martino was given only a short time with the bones, he could say little more.

Four decades later, Martino and other scientists also studied the Venetian bones. They concluded that those relics and the ones in Bari had come from the same skeleton, and theorized that the Venetian sailors had stolen what was left in Myra after the Barians had done all their smashing.

As for Demre, all they have is an empty tomb. And they want their bones back. In 2009, the Turkish government said it was considering a formal request to Rome for the return of Nicholas's remains. Though the bones have little religious significance in a nation that’s 99 percent Muslim, there’s still a sense in Turkey that the centuries-old theft was a cultural violation. Its restitution would certainly be an economic benefit: according to local officials, tourists in Demre frequently complain about the barren tomb, and they weren't satisfied by the giant plastic sculpture of Santa Claus that once stood outside Nicholas’s church. Even though Santa has become an international cultural icon, his myth is still rooted in a set of bones far from home.

From REST IN PIECES: The Curious Fates of Famous Corpses by Bess Lovejoy. Copyright © 2013 by Bess Lovejoy. Reprinted by permission of Simon & Schuster, Inc.

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