Date of this Version
Documentary Editing, Volume 27, Number 4, Winter 2005. ISSN 0196-7134
How did Abraham Lincoln get an acquittal for his client Duff Armstrong, on trial for his life in a murder case in 1858? His co-counsel and a prosecution attorney remembered that it was Lincoln's eloquent closing argument that recounted how the accused's parents had been kind to Lincoln when he was a young man, alone and without friends. Another co-counsel was certain that Lincoln's carefully worded jury instructions paved the way for Armstrong's acquittal. The judge recalled that it was a doctor's expert testimony that a blow to the back of the victim's head by someone other than Armstrong was the cause of death. Two jurors recollected that Lincoln's use of an almanac to discredit the key prosecution witness's testimony was the deciding factor. The deputy sheriff insisted that Lincoln had used an almanac from 1853 (altered to read 1857), and that this fraud was the critical piece of evidence. All of these contradictions-and more-appear in a series of reminiscences prepared as soon as seven years and as late as seventy years after the case of People v. Armstrong.
One of the many challenges historical documentary editors face is selecting from among thousands of documents those that best represent a larger corpus of documentary evidence. Certain types of documents complicate this process even further. Reminiscences by participants in or observers of specific historical events are among these complicated source materials. Often recorded years or decades after the events they describe, these reminiscences can be colored by nostalgia, influenced by other people's accounts of the same event, and refracted through their later attitudes toward the participants. Reminiscences are frequently distorted by the sheer passage of time, clouded by poor memories, and imperfectly recorded by interviewers.