Top 10 Strange Facts About Abraham Lincoln
President Abraham Lincoln is remembered as the United State’s 16th President whose life was cut tragically short by assassination in 1865. Throughout his career, Lincoln made a name for himself as a man who used his political prowess and passion for social change to keep the Union from dismantling during a time that the country was divided by the Civil War, all while catalyzing the emancipation of slaves.
Lincoln’s legacy paved the way for progressive movements such as the Women’s Rights movement and the Civil Rights Movement. In a time where the topic of “politics” is often met with a furrowed brow and latent mistrust, Lincoln remains a figure in American history that encompassed honesty, integrity and strength for our nation.
Lincoln’s life and story has been immortalized in various texts, books and movies. However, there are some anecdotes and stories about the 16th President of the United States that don’t appear in textbooks or on-screen.
From his early days as a wrestler, to a serendipitous encounter with the brother of John Wilkes Booth’s brother, and even dabbling with the occult (no, Lincoln was not a vampire hunter), here are the top strange facts about Abraham Lincoln.
Lincoln’s Mother Died from Drinking Poisoned Milk
Nancy Lincoln, Abraham Lincoln’s mother, died suddenly at the age of 34 after drinking poisoned milk. The death was not due to any malicious intent, but actually the result of an epidemic during the time known as “milk sickness”. Milk sickness is known today as Eupatorium rugosum, or white snakeroot, which is a poisonous herb that was supposedly ingested by cattle during the time of the milk sickness epidemic leading to Nancy Reagan’s death.
William H. Herndon, who co-authored Lincoln’s biography, described the milk sickness and its swift infliction on Nancy Lincoln in detail:
“Her sufferings, however, were destined to be of brief duration. Within a week she too rested from her labors. … Abe and his sister Sarah waited on their mother, and did the little jobs and errands required of them. There was no physician nearer than thirty-five miles. The mother knew she was going to die, and called the children to her bedside. She was very weak, and the children leaned over while she gave her last message.”
One caveat to this story is that Herndon did not clarify Nancy’s signs and symptoms. Although noted as a “tireless researcher,” many present day historians have voiced reservation over Herndon’s findings and the accuracy of said information.
Still, the pervasiveness of milk sickness during this time was largely what influenced the Lincolns to relocate from Indiana to Illinois in 1830.
Lincoln Was a Wrestler
Let’s get ready to rumble…with honest Abe?!
Strange but true, before he came into political power, Lincoln garnered a reputation as a skilled wrestler who, according to History, only lost “…once in approximately 300 matches.”
In his biography “A. Lincoln: A Biography,” author Ronald C. White Jr. details the times during Lincoln’s youth (from the age of nine until his early twenties) that he enjoyed the sport of wrestling.
WWE spoke to White about Lincoln’s wrestling history, and how “honest Abe” was quite the fair fighter. In one instance,Lincoln became very heated when his opponent (who was a sort of “world champion” of New Salem at the time), attempted to trip Lincoln—“a low blow by today’s standards”—when he sensed he was losing the match.
“Honest Abe, never one to break the rules, became incensed and used his long, powerful arms to grab his opponent by the neck and shake him vigorously like a rag doll. With The Clary’s Grove Boys backing up Armstrong, they began to corner Lincoln. Some say that Lincoln offered to take on each member of the gang, but their leader called off the bout instead. The competitors agreed on a draw and Armstrong proclaimed Lincoln to be, ‘the best fella that ever broke into this settlement.’”
Things ended peacefully, however. Lincoln had technically won the match, but due to the physical advantage he had over his opponent from his tall stature, he “did not want to win the match…the two men decided to shake hands out of respect instead.”
Believe it or not, Lincoln’s early years as a wrestler helped fuel his political career. The notoriety—however slight—he had gained had made his name recognizable, and earned several votes when he ran for Illinois state legislature in 1832.
Lincoln Used His Hat as a Filing Cabinet
As iconic (if not more so) as Lincoln’s beard was his stovepipe hat, an eight inch accessory that made the 6’4″ president tower even more prominently–albeit, with humility–over his colleagues and fellow Americans.
Smithsonite Mag notes that the hat was often a source of comedic fodder for caricaturists, and also may have been a deliberate choice by Lincoln to add to his “frontier image,” as the oft worn headgear became battered and worn until Lincoln finally purchased a new top hat later in his career.
Before going to the theatre on the night of his assassination, Lincoln chose a silk top hat made specially by J Y. Davis that featured a mourning band in tribute to his late son Willie. The hat’s brief tenure ended on the floor beside Lincoln after he was shot and killed by John Wilkes Booth.
Just as Lincoln had chosen his hats for things like image and homage, he also found several other facilities in the tall accessory.
According to Scholastic, Lincoln used the hat for fashion AND function but storing important papers inside of it. In the book Abe Lincoln’s hat, Brenner describes different stories about the hat, including a time when, “…A group of boys rigged up a high wire and knocked it off [Lincoln’s] head, scattering the papers.”
John Wilkes Booth’s Brother Saved Robert Lincoln’s Life
It is hard for anyone to not be familiar with the name “John Wilkes Booth” the man who assassinated Abraham Lincoln. You may not be as familiar with the name Edwin Booth, John Wilkes Booth’s brother. During the time, however, Edwin’s name was the more iconic one, as he was a prominent theater actor.
Edwin and John experienced a somewhat volatile relationship, especially when it came to political views. Edwin was a staunch supporter of President Abraham Lincoln, while John was in extreme opposition as a self-proclaimed secessionist.
In a moment of historical happenstance, Edwin encountered Abraham Lincoln’s son, Robert Lincoln, not long before President Lincoln was assassinated. Before the president’s assassination by John Wilkes Booth, the murderer’s kin would end up saving Robert Lincoln’s life. Today I Found Out shared Robert’s recollection of the event:
“The incident occurred while a group of passengers were late at night purchasing their sleeping car places from the conductor who stood on the station platform at the entrance of the car. The platform was about the height of the car floor, and there was of course a narrow space between the platform and the car body. There was some crowding, and I happened to be pressed by it against the car body while waiting my turn. In this situation the train began to move, and by the motion I was twisted off my feet, and had dropped somewhat, with feet downward, into the open space, and was personally helpless, when my coat collar was vigorously seized and I was quickly pulled up and out to a secure footing on the platform. Upon turning to thank my rescuer I saw it was Edwin Booth, whose face was of course well known to me, and I expressed my gratitude to him, and in doing so, called him by name.”
When Edwin caught wind of the assassination of President Lincoln and the fact that his brother was the man responsible for the murder, he was enveloped in shock and grief. It was the help of friends that brought Edwin out of his grief and depression following the assassination, as well as the knowledge that he–while President Lincoln’s life had been taken–he had been responsible for saving the life of his son.
Edwin went on to open the Booth Theater which eventually folded, but he continued a lucrative acting career until his death.
Lincoln Had a History-Making Beard
Lincoln’s beard was historic in that he was the first president to showcase a beard. The story behind his choice to grow the beard actually becomes even more interesting.
An Oct. 2014 article from TIME details the story of Grace Bedell, an 11-year-old who originally requested the President—then Republican nominee—add some whiskers to his face. Westfield, NY resident, Bedell, wrote a letter to Lincoln in 1860, which backed up her reasoning for facial hair earning votes. The letter read, in part:
“I have yet got four brothers and part of them will vote for you any way and if you let your whiskers grow I will try and get the rest of them to vote for you you would look a great deal better for your face is so thin. All the ladies like whiskers and they would tease their husbands to vote for you and then you would be President.”
Apparently bristles were a new frontier for the regularly clean-shaven politician. But, being quite the frontiersman himself, Lincoln decided to throw caution—and his razor—to the wind.
He wrote Bedell back and reportedly arranged to meet the precocious preteen on his way to his 1861 inauguration. Grace Bedell later spoke about the face-to-face interaction with Lincoln.
“Taking my hand, the gentleman who had escorted us to the station made a lane through the crowd and led me to the low platform beside the train. The president stepped down from the car, shook my hand and kissed me. ‘You see,’ he said, indicating his beard. ‘I let these whiskers grow for you, Grace.’”
Bedell continued that she had prepared a bouquet of roses to give to the President but was so jolted by Lincoln’s affection, she returned home still clutching the stems. She recollected seeing a mixture of kindness and sadness in President Lincoln’s eyes.
Lincoln Predicted His Assassination
According to History, Lincoln’s former lawyer, friend and bodyguard, Ward Hill Lamon, offered an account of a dream Lincoln had shared with him days before his assassination. In a room where only the President, Lamon, Lincoln’s wife, Mary, and potentially one other person was present.
Teaching History notes that after some needling from his wife, Lincoln disclosed details of the dream in which he recalled immediately feeling, “A death-like stillness about me.” In the dream, Lincoln was accosted by “mournful sounds of distress.” The cries led Lincoln to the East Room where he saw a covered corpse flanked by a grief-stricken crowd.
“’Who is dead in the White House?’ I demanded of one of the soldiers,” was one quote Lamon alleged was stated by the President. “‘The President,’ was his answer; ‘he was killed by an assassin!’”
Did the dream and reverie with Lamon actually occur? Historians Don E. Fehrenbacher and Virginia Fehrenbacher were two professionals who criticized the account, noting that there were major inconsistencies that point to fallacy. As cited by Teaching History:
“Lamon stated that the incident had occurred only a few days prior to the assassination, yet within Lincoln’s monologue he related at one point that the dream occurred ‘the other night’ and also ‘about ten days ago.’ The Fehrenbachers pointed out that although Lincoln stated in the account that on the night of the dream he ‘had been up waiting for important dispatches from the front,’ during the period of March 24 to April 9, he in fact had been at the front, rather than in the White House.”
It should also be stated that Lamon was the only one to relay the meeting where Lincoln spoke of the dream, which seems odd considering the eery proximity the occurrence had to Lincoln’s assassination. If Lincoln’s wife, Mary, had been present during Lincoln’s account, why wouldn’t a quote or recollection surface from her following the assassination this dream seemed to foreshadow?
Still, several “respected authors” have stated the account is valid.
Lincoln’s Cat Had a Seat at the Dinner Table
Talk about a fancy feast! Lincoln’s cat, Tabby, got quite the presidential treatment during dinnertime. According to Today I Found Out, Tabby not only got to sit at the table with the President—the feline was even fed with a golden fork!
“Mrs. Lincoln got upset and scolded the President. Lincoln replied, ‘If a gold fork was good enough for former President Buchanan, it’s good enough for Tabby.’”
Lincoln loved cats, along with other animals. He was such an animal lover, in fact, he refused to hunt or go fishing.
Tabby and Dixie were the two cats President Lincoln mainly cared for and adored, although he was known to also take in abandoned strays at point.
According to Presidential Pet Museum, during a moment of frustration in his first term, Lincoln stated, “Dixie is smarter than my whole cabinet! And furthermore, she doesn’t talk back!”
He Hated Being Called by His First Name
Although he is popularly referred to as “Honest Abe” Abraham Lincoln actually hated being called by his first name, as noted by an article from the National Constitution Center. He preferred to be called “Lincoln”.
Fair enough! Although “Honest Lincoln” doesn’t seem to have the same affect for some reason.
According to Great American History, Lincoln received the nickname “Honest Abe” in his younger years while working as a shop clerk in New Salem, III. “According to one story, whenever he realized he had shortchanged a customer by a few pennies, he would close the shop and deliver the correct change-regardless of how far he had to walk.”
It is also noted, that despite many rumors that have pervaded the media stating that Lincoln was unfaithful to his wife, Mary, no source or story has even been deemed as credible. In fact, Lincoln was quite shy and “awkward” around women! He reportedly was confident in joking and socializing with men, but would clam up when females were present.
This nervousness never depleted any respect or tenacity in his fight for women’s rights, however.
“I want in all cases to do right, and most particularly so in all cases with women,” he wrote at the beginning of his political career.
He Performed Seances in the White House
Editor-in-chief of Tarcher/Penguin and author of “Occult America”, Mitch Horowitz spoke to Big Think about the seances held at the white house during Lincoln’s time as President. He describes that contact with the supernatural was spurred by the loss of President Lincoln and Mary Todd Lincoln’s 11-year-old son, who had fallen ill shortly after the Lincolns moved into the White House.
Horowitz notes that there are several historical records that allege a seance was held at the White House, but that it is difficult for historians to assess which sources are reliable.
The most noteworthy account was one that appeared in the Boston Gazette, when Lincoln permitted a correspondent to be present during a seance that was designed as an attempt to contact his late son.
“The proceedings were pure Lincoln,” states Horowitz. “He was in good humor, he was in good spirits—to put it a certain way—he was teasing people…From the content of the article, I think there’s reason to think that something did go on like what was reported.”
Horowitz notes a caveat, however, stating that the article refers to a medium by the name of Charles Shockle, and there were no records of a Charles Shockle appearing in any “spiritualist newspapers” of that time period.
Nonetheless, various facets of the account ring true. Moreover, it would make sense at the time for Lincoln to not only permit a seance to be performed at the White House, but for him to utilize the press in a way to make his experiment with spiritualism widespread knowledge.
At the time, spiritualism and the use of mediums was considered socially progressive, and something several liberals had already begun experimenting with as part of parlor room entertainment. Rather than paint Lincoln as eccentric—which would likely be the sentiment today if news camera caught our current President kicking back with a Ouja Board—the supernatural experiments would actually work in Lincoln’s favor, expounding upon the image he put forth as an open-minded, progressive frontiersman.
Thieves Attempted to Rob Lincoln’s Grave and Hold it For Ransom
Historian John Carroll Power details the attempts by thieves to rob the late President Lincoln’s grave, as well as the subsequent relocation of Lincoln’s coffin in his work, History of an attempt to steal the body of Abraham Lincoln. In total, Lincoln’s coffin has been opened five times and moved 17 times.
Roger J. Norton offers an overview of the most notable attempt on Lincoln’s grave, which was by gang leaders “Big Jim” Kinealy and a crew of thieves on November 7, 1876. The gang planned to steal Lincoln’s remains and hold the government to a ransom of $200,000.
Little did Kinealy know that a mole existed within his gang of thieves—Secret Service agent Lewis G. Swegles. On the night of the robbery, Swells alerted a band of detectives who went to charge Kinealy and his crew, but the gang managed to escape. They were apprehended in Chicago 10 days later.
As cited by Norton, “Robert Lincoln, Abraham’s son, hired the best lawyers in Chicago to prosecute Kinealy’s gang. The case didn’t come to trial for eight months. Finally, the trial began, and the grave robbers were found guilty and sentenced to one year in Joliet State Prison. On June 22, 1877, a train took the convicted tomb robbers to the prison to begin their terms.”
Today, the 16th President’s final resting place is the Lincoln Tomb, located in the Oak Ridge Cemetery in Springfield, Illinois.