Pioneers of Menard & Mason Counties
Including Personal Reminiscens of Abraham Lincoln & Peter Cartwright
By T.G. Onstot, 1902

Trial of Duff Armstrong

Page 98

Hannah Armstrong was one of the earliest settlers of Menard county. Her maiden name was Jones. She grew up as most other maidens did in that early day, without the advantages of culture and refinement that mark the civilization of the present time. She was healthy and strong, of commanding appearance, had a strong mind and was endowed with good sense. It may be that she was masculine in some of her ways.

She married Jack Armstrong, and with no capital other than strong hearts and willing hands they commenced the battle of life. They never grew rich, but they were happy and contented.

In the "thirties" Abraham Lincoln came to Salem. An acquaintance soon sprang up between him and the Armstrong family. He made his home with them for weeks at a time and Aunt Hannah treated him as one of her children. Lincoln never forgot her kindnesses, and years afterward, when he had become a lawyer of prominence, he was able to repay her kindness by defending and clearing her son, Duff Armstrong, of the charge of murdering James Medscar at a camp-meeting in Mason county. The trial became famous and the name of Hannah Armstrong is today known all over the world on account of her relationship to the defendant.

Historians and biographers have published to the world that Lincoln used a "doctored" almanac and by that means deceived the jury. I had heard it so often that I believed it, and I confess that it lowered Lincoln in my estimation. On writing to Judge William Walker, now of Missouri, but who was then practicing law at Havana, Ill., and was chief counsel for Armstrong, assisted by Caleb Dilworth, I learned the facts. The trial was to come off at Beardstown; Lincoln had written to Aunt Hannah that he would clear her son. He appeared in Beardstown about the time the trial began and asked Walker's permission to help in the case. Walker examined the witnesses. They all testified the murder was committed at 10 p.m. and that the moon was shining as bright as day. Lincoln was taking notes and would get each witness to repeat the statement: "as light as day and at 10 p.m."

Lincoln was to make the closing speech. After the other lawyers had finished Lincoln got up and said that the prosecution seemed to have a clear case. Then rising in his grandeur he said: "These witnesses have all perjured themselves and I can prove it!" Then he produced the almanac and showed that at ten o'clock on the night of the murder the moon had not yet risen. That the tragedy occurred in a deep ravine. That on the east bank of the ravine was a heavy body of timber, and that it must have been two hours after the moon came up before it threw any light into the ravine. He thus showed that the witnesses were mistaken and so cleared his client. The newspapers at that time were not justified in charging Lincoln with having substituted an old almanac for one of that year.

Aunt Hannah and Lincoln met for the last time at Havana in 1858, when Lincoln and Douglas were touring the state making political speeches. Douglas had just finished his speech when a steamboat came up the Illinois river with Lincoln on board. Aunt Hannah had come to town early and had waited all day to see Lincoln. She wore a calico dress, red shawl and a sunbonnet, and was wondering if he would know her or speak to her since he had become a great man. The boat landed, the plank was run out and Lincoln came ashore. He saw the figure in the read shawl and said: "How do you do, Aunt Hannah? How are all the folks?" Aunt Hannah was overjoyed to know that he had not forgotten her.

Jack Armstrong died some time in the "fifties", leaving Aunt Hannah a widow. She afterwards married Samuel Wilcox, and while there were two sets of children, all were well cared for. She had a hard time in her declining years to make a living off her little forty acres of land, but she was content to live in obscurity though her name had become almost a household word throughout the country. She died at Winterset, Iowa, about ten years ago and her remains were brought back to Petersburg for burial.

Women of Hannah Armstrong's make-up are found in every new country. Many of the early women of Menard county possessed the characteristics that made her conspicuous among her companions.

Transcribed by:Brenda Hamilton Johnson



1902 Index

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Illinois Ancestors