Home > Uncategorized > FORENSICS 138: FORENSIC ASTRONOMY


February 19th, 2011

This essay could be of special interest to writers of stories that involve crimes where specific times and places are important factors. It could also be of general and historic interest to many other readers, even those who are not particularly interested in forensics..


As many young men did and do, William Armstrong attended a camp meeting apparently attended by some to drink and have a good time. Late one night, he got involved in a fight with a man named James Metzger. Reports vary considerably about who did what and when, but Metzger died two days later. Armstrong was subsequently charged with murder, for which he was tried. A lawyer friend of his father and family volunteered to defend him. Years before, when the lawyer had been down on his luck, the Armstrong family had treated him like a member. He would often spend time with them and reportedly even rocked William Armstrong in his cradle. In return for such kindness, he refused to charge for his legal services.

During the trial, a particularly tough obstacle for the lawyer to overcome was the testimony of a person named Charles Allen, who said that he had witnessed the fight and had seen Armstrong strike Metzger with an object. It was late and dark, but the witness said that, although he was some 150 feet from the fight, he could see clearly what had happened by the light of the Moon overhead. In what must have been an early application of what more recently came to be known as forensic astronomy, the lawyer employed a rarely used tactic known as “judicial notice” to prove that Allen could not have seen what he claimed to have seen from a distance of 150 feet.

Judicial notice is a rule in the law of evidence permitting a fact to be introduced as evidence if that fact is so well known that it cannot be refuted. What was introduced was an almanac that showed that, on the night of the fight, the Moon could not have provided sufficient light for anyone to see clearly what happened from 150 feet away. The lawyer concluded with an impassioned speech that included a heart-rending description of how the defendant’s family had always been so kind to him. The jury promptly returned a verdict of not guilty after but one ballot.

The foregoing narrative is only one example of how astronomy can be helpful in legal situations. Another example involved a location that had been determined from two pictures taken of it at different but known times. This was accomplished using spherical astronomy by comparing the changed positions of shadows during the time lapsed between the pictures and considering the height of the object casting the shadows and the length of the shadows. The location of a picture that included the Moon was also determined from the position of the Moon and the time the picture had been taken.

The owner of a solar house in Iowa sought legal action to prevent a potential neighbor from building a house next door because it would cast a shadow on his house. Upon a request by the defendant, the director of a planetarium set its “sun” in the location at which the real Sun would cast the longest shadow of the year (on December 21) and proved, by reference to maps and architectural drawings of the proposed house, that it would not cast a shadow upon the solar house at any time.

By the way, William Armstrong subsequently joined the armed forces. Before the end of his enlistment, William’s widowed mother requested the lawyer to try to get him back home. Once again, the lawyer came to William’s aid and arranged for his discharge from the army. It wasn’t as difficult as defending him in court had been years before. By this time, the lawyer had risen to a somewhat higher position of influence. The position gave him considerable say in army affairs. The date was 1863. His office was now in Washington D.C. His name was Abraham Lincoln.


The meaning of the word “forensic” has been broadened by common use to generally include any detailed analysis of past events.

Camera location techniques have also been applied to find the locations from which a number of masterpieces were painted.

Ansel Adams sometimes could not recall just when he took some of his beautiful pictures. With the aid of forensic astronomy, it was determined when he took his famous picture of the Moon as it rose above Yosemite Valley’s Half Dome. It was taken on December 28, 1960 at 4:14 p.m.

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  1. February 19th, 2011 at 07:50 | #1

    Fascinating, fascinating stuff! I guess the Mona Lisa has been stripped naked — forensically speaking — of late to reveal 1) an underlayment portrait, 2) med evidence of DaVinci, 3) possible microdot codes in the eyes (apart from Dan Brown’s fiction). Also “Starry Night” was given a validation for its “over-sized” stars through forensic astronomy. I knew little to nothing of Abe Lincoln’s specific case studies, but the one you cite could well be made into a TV court drama. Maybe you should write up a script and get it in the pipe??? Your unique skill of historical presentation, undertold and brought to life with very human anecdotes, could succeed in any market, methinks. Think Paul Harvey! But where Harvey was known to stretch the truth somewhat, Bob Jones can be depended on for objectivity and exhaustive research. This is your other great talent. From education to pure entertainment there is great potential in what you do my man. Somewhere there is an agent who can put this across in the marketplace…

  2. Bob
    February 19th, 2011 at 09:18 | #2

    Ye haveth a seventh sense for potential Hollywood material. In fact, in 1939, John Ford directed Henry Fonda (who else would he have picked to play Abe?) in YOUNG MR. LINCOLN. The film (very) loosely depicted the trial mentioned in my piece. It originally had a scene of him meeting a young John Wilkes Booth, but Ford insisted that the scene be cut. Fonda was reluctant to play such a great man,
    but Ford got him to make a test film in full makeup. That changed his mind, but he said later that “I felt as if I were portraying Christ himself on film.”

    In an early scene in the film, Lincoln claimed that he adhered to the principles of the Whig Party, but it wasn’t formed until four years later. Lincoln was actually a National Republican at the time depicted. In the film, Lincoln plays the tune DIXIE on a Jew’s harp, but the piece wasn’t written until more than two decades later than the time depicted.

    Thank you yet again for your supportive comments. I will continue my search of the Yellow Pages.


    Thank you

  3. Janet Berliner
    March 1st, 2011 at 19:14 | #3

    You are amazing. I want more.

  4. Bob
    April 2nd, 2011 at 15:41 | #4

    You may use a portion if you kindly include my name as author and Storytellers Unplugged as the source.
    Good luck.

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