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© Abraham Lincoln Online
Beardstown CourthouseThird & State streets
Long before the "Beardstown Ladies" appeared in the media, Lincoln put this river town on the map, so to speak, when he tried a murder case two years before he was elected president.
You'll find Beardstown about 45 miles northwest of Springfield, in the heart of Illinois farm country. As you approach the intersection of routes 67 and 100 southeast of the Illinois River, you'll see a sign which proclaims Beardstown as the home of Lincoln's famous "Almanac Trial." Take route 67 to Sixth Street (the last street before the bridge) to State Street, turn left and proceed to Third Street.
Lincoln's association with the town goes back to August 1832, 12 years after its settlement by Thomas Beard of Ohio. Lincoln was living in New Salem (about 20 miles from Springfield) and had piloted a Texas-bound family and their household goods on a raft down the Sangamon River to Beardstown.
The next April he volunteered for service in the Black Hawk War and marched from New Salem to Beardstown, where he was elected captain of his company. The approximate site is marked in Schmoldt Park. After his military service, he traveled to Beardstown to pick up supplies for his store. When he became a lawyer, he tried cases in the town's courthouse.
The "Almanac Trial" courthouse, built by Beard in 1844, served Cass County nearly 30 years before nearby Virginia stole the county seat (stealing county seats was a popular Midwest activity in the nineteenth century). The original brick building still stands on the town square. The first floor houses city offices -- you trot upstairs to see the courtroom where Lincoln defended 24-year-old William ("Duff") Armstrong. This is the only courtroom still in use where Lincoln once practiced law.
On the wall, pause to examine a copy of a Lincoln ambrotype taken on May 7, 1858, the day he won the case. After the acquittal, 22-year-old Abraham Byers stopped him in the street and asked him to pose in his studio. Lincoln protested that his rumpled white linen suit was not fit for a portrait, but the younger Abraham prevailed.
The acquittal represented a personal and professional triumph for Lincoln, who once rocked the defendant's cradle in New Salem. Lincoln took over the defense after a change of venue and the case moved from Mason to Cass County.
The trial resulted from a nighttime brawl, and the resourceful Lincoln produced an 1857 almanac (the year the incident occurred) to argue that the state's witness could not have seen Armstrong kill the victim. There was no moonlight at the time and he was a long distance from Armstrong, so theoretically he could not see that far in the dark. Lincoln also produced a witness who helped acquit Armstrong.
On August 12, 1858, a few months after the trial, Lincoln appeared in Beardstown to speak as the Republican candidate for the U.S. Senate. He spoke on a platform in the city park, a site marked by a plaque across from the courthouse. His opponent, Stephen Douglas, spoke the next day, and later that month they officially began their famous series of debates.
The courthouse is open Monday through Saturday from 10:00 a.m. to 4:00 p.m. and by appointment. Call 217/248-6053 for more information.
Lincoln-Herndon Law Offices (ALO)
Lincoln Legal Papers (The Papers of Abraham Lincoln Part I)
Lincoln Legal Practice on DVD-ROM (ALO)
Lincoln's Advice to Lawyers (ALO)
Lincoln's Notes for a Law Lecture (ALO)
Davenport, Don. In Lincoln's Footsteps: A Historical Guide to the Lincoln Sites in Illinois, Indiana, and Kentucky. Revised edition, Trails Books, 2002.
Duff, John J. A. Lincoln: Prairie Lawyer. New York: Rinehart & Co., 1960.
Frank, John P. Lincoln as a Lawyer. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1961.
Hill, Frederick T. Lincoln the Lawyer.
Steiner, Mark E. An Honest Calling: The Law Practice of Abraham Lincoln. Northern Illinois University Press, 2006.
Walsh, John Evangelist. Moonlight: Abraham Lincoln and the Almanac Trial. St. Martin's Press, 2000.
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