Moonlight

John Evangelist Walsh, Author
John Evangelist Walsh, Author Palgrave MacMillan $35 (192p) ISBN 978-0-312-22922-1
Reviewed on: 06/05/2000
Release date: 06/01/2000
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In Mason Country, Ill., in 1857, two young men, James Norris and William ""Duff"" Armstrong, waylaid a drunken older man with a big stick and a ""slung-shot"" (a form of blackjack). Days later he died, and the pair was charged with murder: Norris was swiftly convicted of manslaughter; Armstrong's trial was postponed for a change of venue. On his deathbed, Armstrong's father, Jack, committed his wife to secure the area's best lawyer for his son: a close friend from Jack's youth named Abraham Lincoln. Thus was Lincoln drawn into the biggest and strangest criminal trial of his career. Already quite famous inside Illinois, Honest Abe had built his courtroom reputation largely on civil practice, notably avoiding criminal defendants he thought were guilty; this trial was likely the major exception, and Walsh's painstaking dissection of it tries to provide both a surprising look at Lincoln and a brief piece of courtroom theater. The book largely succeeds as the latter; witness by witness, argument by argument, independent historian and biographer Walsh (Darkling I Listen: The Last Days and Death of John Keats) shows how Lincoln won an unlikely acquittal. One of his tactics was a masterful cross-examination. Another amounted to witness tampering, and arguably to suborning perjury. A key argument had to do with the time the moon set on the night of the beating: here Lincoln used an almanac (misleadingly) to discredit the prosecution's star witness. Otherwise assiduous biographers and historians, Walsh maintains, got nearly all the facts about the ""almanac trial"" at least slightly wrong: Lincoln didn't (as was later charged) doctor the almanac or use one from the wrong year--he didn't have to: his masterful, ""glib, insinuating,"" tactics alone succeeded in getting his client cleared. Walsh ably shows how and why. Illus. not seen by PW. (June)
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