An evening with Lincoln: MSU College of Law sponsors an American Inn of Court

By Roberta M. Gubbins

Legal News

On the evening of May 4, the courtroom in the Ingham County Court House in Mason, Mich., became the setting for the William "Duff" Armstrong murder trial held at the Beardstown, Ill., Cass County Courthouse in 1858. Abraham Lincoln, ably acted by Christopher Lewis, was attorney for Armstrong. Adrianne VanLangevelde was Mason County states attorney and Hon. William Collette was the judge.

"Abraham Lincoln," said Hon T.S. Eveland, President of the MSU College of Law American Inn of Court, sponsors of the event, "was America's greatest lawyer. It was Lincoln's training and skills in lawyering that played a large part in his success as a politician and a president."

Lincoln practiced law for 25 years prior to being president. Most of his practice was civil, Duff Armstrong's case was one of the 26 criminal matters he handled. "He commanded great respect among his colleagues, Judge Eveland said.

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, Ill. His father, Jack Armstrong, had been a friend of Lincoln while he was studying law in New Salem, Ill. 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, Ill.

According to the eye-witness, Charles Allen, played by Sean Gallagher, 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 p.m. and 11 p.m., clearly because of the full moon.

Lincoln used the Farmers' Almanac to discredit Allen. When the prosecutor challenged the admissibility of the almanac, Lincoln defended its admission, claiming, "everybody uses these almanacs and that 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 a.m. 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, Mary Lincoln, played by Adrianne Van Langevelde, and Abe Lincoln pondered whether he should keep a fee sent to him for his work on the Manning-McCormick trial, a patent matter. Edward Stanton did not want Lincoln on the case, while his client insisted Lincoln be consulted. The client prevailed and Lincoln was invited to participate. He wrote a brief, which was never submitted to the court, and traveled to Cincinnati for the trial. He was not allowed to participate.

When, seven months later, he received a check from Stanton, he sent it back, telling his wife "I did nothing to deserve this." The check was returned to him and he kept it, splitting the $2000 fee with his partner.

After he became President, he was seeking a man for Secretary of War. He called Stanton into his office. He offered him the position. Stanton, played by Sean Gallagher, was shocked, but said, "Mr. Lincoln, I accept." Lincoln and Stanton became close friends.

The evening ended with a reading of the Gettysburg Address by Van Langevelde.

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, Mich.

Published: Fri, May 13, 2011

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