A fascinating study of an intriguing case. (15 pages of photos)



The true significance of the “Almanac Trial” is revealed by historical detective and novelist Walsh (Midnight Dreary, 1998, etc.) in this engrossing account of how history is made and lost.

In November 1857, less than a year before the Lincoln-Douglas debates, the lawyer and would-be senator from Springfield, Illinois, received a request he felt he had to honor. It was the dying wish of an old friend, James Armstrong, that Lincoln represent his son, who was on trial for murder. Lincoln was not, in fact, an especially good criminal defense attorney: Walsh documents that, prior to the Armstrong case, when faced with a client’s certain guilt, Honest Abe would either pull out of the defense or end up doing such a half-hearted job that the accused would get convicted anyway. One defense witness in the Armstrong case hinted broadly at the guilt of the defendant by stating that “he knew too much” to be of much use and, after the trial, told a juror that he had seen the defendant commit the crime. (This last delicious tidbit was uncovered by an amateur historian 50 years later, but it has been hitherto ignored.) No one knows if Lincoln thought his client was guilty, but if he did, it didn’t show. He gave his client a tough, artful defense, which included consulting an almanac to discredit a prosecution witness who claimed that he saw the murder clearly because the moon was high in the sky. (The almanac showed that the moon was lower on the horizon.) In considering what Lincoln might have known about the case, Walsh wonders, “which is more in order for what he did, censure or sympathy?” But his telling of the conflict between honesty and loyalty that Lincoln likely faced is clearly sympathetic. Perhaps it is simply the contemporary climate that leads Walsh to ask this question—as if the story he has told is not interesting enough.

A fascinating study of an intriguing case. (15 pages of photos)

Pub Date: June 1, 2000

ISBN: 0-312-22922-4

Page Count: 176

Publisher: St. Martin's

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: May 15, 2000

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For Howard Zinn, long-time civil rights and anti-war activist, history and ideology have a lot in common. Since he thinks that everything is in someone's interest, the historian—Zinn posits—has to figure out whose interests he or she is defining/defending/reconstructing (hence one of his previous books, The Politics of History). Zinn has no doubts about where he stands in this "people's history": "it is a history disrespectful of governments and respectful of people's movements of resistance." So what we get here, instead of the usual survey of wars, presidents, and institutions, is a survey of the usual rebellions, strikes, and protest movements. Zinn starts out by depicting the arrival of Columbus in North America from the standpoint of the Indians (which amounts to their standpoint as constructed from the observations of the Europeans); and, after easily establishing the cultural disharmony that ensued, he goes on to the importation of slaves into the colonies. Add the laborers and indentured servants that followed, plus women and later immigrants, and you have Zinn's amorphous constituency. To hear Zinn tell it, all anyone did in America at any time was to oppress or be oppressed; and so he obscures as much as his hated mainstream historical foes do—only in Zinn's case there is that absurd presumption that virtually everything that came to pass was the work of ruling-class planning: this amounts to one great indictment for conspiracy. Despite surface similarities, this is not a social history, since we get no sense of the fabric of life. Instead of negating the one-sided histories he detests, Zinn has merely reversed the image; the distortion remains.

Pub Date: Jan. 1, 1979

ISBN: 0061965588

Page Count: 772

Publisher: Harper & Row

Review Posted Online: May 26, 2012

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Jan. 1, 1979

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Buffs of the Old West will enjoy Clavin’s careful research and vivid writing.



Rootin’-tootin’ history of the dry-gulchers, horn-swogglers, and outright killers who populated the Wild West’s wildest city in the late 19th century.

The stories of Wyatt Earp and company, the shootout at the O.K. Corral, and Geronimo and the Apache Wars are all well known. Clavin, who has written books on Dodge City and Wild Bill Hickok, delivers a solid narrative that usefully links significant events—making allies of white enemies, for instance, in facing down the Apache threat, rustling from Mexico, and other ethnically charged circumstances. The author is a touch revisionist, in the modern fashion, in noting that the Earps and Clantons weren’t as bloodthirsty as popular culture has made them out to be. For example, Wyatt and Bat Masterson “took the ‘peace’ in peace officer literally and knew that the way to tame the notorious town was not to outkill the bad guys but to intimidate them, sometimes with the help of a gun barrel to the skull.” Indeed, while some of the Clantons and some of the Earps died violently, most—Wyatt, Bat, Doc Holliday—died of cancer and other ailments, if only a few of old age. Clavin complicates the story by reminding readers that the Earps weren’t really the law in Tombstone and sometimes fell on the other side of the line and that the ordinary citizens of Tombstone and other famed Western venues valued order and peace and weren’t particularly keen on gunfighters and their mischief. Still, updating the old notion that the Earp myth is the American Iliad, the author is at his best when he delineates those fraught spasms of violence. “It is never a good sign for law-abiding citizens,” he writes at one high point, “to see Johnny Ringo rush into town, both him and his horse all in a lather.” Indeed not, even if Ringo wound up killing himself and law-abiding Tombstone faded into obscurity when the silver played out.

Buffs of the Old West will enjoy Clavin’s careful research and vivid writing.

Pub Date: April 21, 2020

ISBN: 978-1-250-21458-4

Page Count: 400

Publisher: St. Martin's

Review Posted Online: Jan. 20, 2020

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Feb. 15, 2020

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