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Abraham Lincoln’s celestial connections revisited for bicentennial

Posted by Jayme Blaschke
University News Service
January 29, 2009

Abraham Lincoln has long been a favorite subject of the unique brand of forensic astronomy practiced at Texas State University-San Marcos, and now in observance of the Feb. 12 bicentennial of Lincoln’s birth, Sky & Telescope has published a retrospective of Lincoln’s celestial connections.

Authored by Texas State physics professor Donald W. Olson along with Texas State graduate and writer Laurie E. Jasinski, the article appears in the March 2009 edition of Sky & Telescope, on sale during February.

The most famous incident involves the so-called 1858 Almanac Trial, in which Lincoln used an almanac to discredit witnesses to a nighttime murder. On the stand, one witness claimed the nearly-full moon was high in the sky at 11 p.m., affording a clear view of the murder. Lincoln, however, challenged the witness’ credibility, producing an almanac listing a time for moonset that contradicted the sworn testimony.  Following the acquittal, controversy arose almost immediately and remained intense for years to come, with some going so far as to suggest Lincoln had fabricated the almanac—calling the reputation of “Honest Abe” into question.

In a 1990 article for Sky & Telescope, Olson finally explained the seeming contradiction and showed that Lincoln was honest in his quotations from the almanac. Because of the moon’s unusually southern declination in the sky on the night of the murder, it would appear to set with startling rapidity.

Also included in the feature are accounts of a rare daytime appearance of the planet Venus immediately after Lincoln’s second inaugural address as well as Lincoln’s encounter with the spectacular Leonid meteor storm of Nov. 13, 1833. The spectacular display of fireball meteors prompted Lincoln’s landlord to rouse him from his sleep with the cry, “Arise, Abraham, the day of judgment has come!” Decades later, during some of the darkest days of the Civil War, he drew upon that experience, observing, “Gentlemen, the world did not come to an end then, nor will the Union now.”