Saturday, December 29, 2018

Abraham Lincoln was inducted into the National Wrestling Hall of Fame.

Thumb through any history textbook or watch any Hollywood biographical movie about Abraham Lincoln, and you'll see a pretty consistent version of Abe's story. The solemn, dignified leader who helped free the slaves and guide America through the Civil War is someone almost everyone learns about in grammar school. But before he stepped into the political arena, the man who would eventually become president was a combatant of a different kind: a wrestler on the American frontier.
Standing at an impressive 6 feet, 4 inches tall, with lanky arms perfectly designed to tie his opponents in knots, Lincoln was a renowned grappler known for his peerless strength and keen mind in his teens and early 20s. 
After the Wrong Man.
At one time while Lincoln was engaged in chopping rails, the "bully of the county" (Sangamon, Illinois), perhaps set on by some practical joker, came to "the boys" in the woods and, with set design, challenged "the greeny" (Lincoln) to a fight.

The great brawny, awkward boy laughed and drawled out: "I reckon, stranger, you 're after the wrong man. I never fit in my whole life." But the bully made for Abe, and in the first fall Lincoln came down on top of the heap. The champion was bruising and causing blood to flow down Lincoln's face, when a happy mode of warfare entered his original brain. He quickly thrust his hands into a convenient bunch of smartweed and rubbed the same in the eyes of his opponent, who almost instantly begged for mercy. He was released, but his sight, for the time being, was extinct. No member of the trio possessed a pocket handkerchief, so Lincoln tore from his own shirt front the surplus cloth, washed and bandaged the fellow's eyes and sent him home.

John White,
printed in The Censor, Viroqua, Wisconsin.
Remember, though, wrestling in rural 19th century America didn't have the fluid grace of an Olympic contest, and it certainly wasn't the garish morality play of the WWE. No, this style of wrestling was a pure test of strength, with combatants locking horns to prove their dominance in front of an audience mostly made up of drunks, gamblers, soldiers, or some combination of the three. Known as catch-as-catch-can style, this brand of wrestling is best described as "more hand-to-hand combat than sport."
There Was A Man, Esquire Magazine, July 1, 1949
Touting just one loss among his 300 (or so) contests, Lincoln gained a reputation among the New Salem, Illinois, locals as an elite fighter, eventually earning his county's wrestling championship. He knew just how good he was, too. After one victory, Lincoln reportedly looked at the crowd and bellowed what passed for trash talk at the time: “I’m the big buck of this lick. If any of you want to try it, come on and whet your horns.” The challenge would go unanswered.

Lincoln's most memorable contest came against Jack Armstrong, a member of the rough and rugged Clary's Grove Boys. When Armstrong heard stories of Lincoln's famous strength (from Lincoln's boss, no less), he challenged the future president to a match. Crowds gathered. Money was wagered. And when the bout was over, Lincoln again stood tall, as he always seemed to.

Some versions of this story claim that Lincoln challenged each member of Armstrong's gang to individual fights after they attempted to interfere in the match before a clear winner was declared. Armstrong, admitting defeat, reportedly called off his friends and became lifelong friends with Lincoln. While accounts differ on the last moments of the fight, it's clear Lincoln had earned the respect of not only Jack Armstrong, but the neighborhood as a whole.

Biographer William O. Stoddard wrote of the match:
"The episode was full of important consequences to Abraham Lincoln. His courage and prowess had been thoroughly tested and had made a deep impression upon the minds of his rough neighbors. He was in no danger of further challengers from any of them, and Jack Armstrong avowed himself the fast friend of the man who had given him so good a shaking."
To this day, historians can only find one instance where Lincoln was bested during a match. It occurred while he was a part of the Illinois Volunteers during the Black Hawk War of 1832 when a man named Hank Thompson became the only man to actually throw Lincoln during a bout for his regiment's championship.

While Thompson may have claimed the title, Lincoln's reputation as a feared wrestler—and beloved president—was rewarded in 1992 when he was inducted into the Outstanding American wing of the National Wrestling Hall of Fame and Museum in Stillwater, Oklahoma.
The National Wrestling Hall of Fame and Museum, Stillwater, Oklahoma. See mural on the wall.
Lincoln's joined there by three other presidents: George Washington, Teddy Roosevelt, and William Howard Taft. None of them, however, quite matched Lincoln's mystique as a trash-talking, grappling frontiersman.

Compiled by Neil Gale, Ph.D. 

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