SPRINGFIELD, Ill. — Abraham Lincoln is perhaps the most well-known American who ever lived, according to once Lincoln scholar.
“Lincoln is the most recognizable American in the world,” Christian McWhirter, the Lincoln historian at the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum in Springfield, said. “He’s either the second or third most written about person in the English language. No. 1 is always Jesus Christ and Lincoln and Napoleon are either ranked second or third.”
Almost any first grader student can list a handful of facts about the nation’s 16th president; his height, his signature beard, his stovepipe hat, the Gettysburg address, the Emancipation Proclamation, and that he’s on the penny, the five-dollar bill and the Illinois license plate.
At Mitchell Elementary, a CPS school in Chicago’s West Town neighborhood, Katie Arbuckle, the first-grade teacher, discussed with her class the idea of Lincoln as a symbol of national unity.
“He was a president who brought two separate (entities) – a seceded part of our country together with the union,” she said.
Because he played such an important role at such a perilous time in American history, Lincoln is revered and respected and relevant today.
“There’s a lot there that is so iconic – stove pipe hat, all of that stuff has become like a lore within our society. He’s almost bigger than life,” Arbuckle said.
But one part of the Lincoln story that isn’t as well known is that the frontier-born future-president may have been one of the nation’s greatest wrestlers.
Lincoln, who stood 6’4,” was enshrined in the National Wrestling Hall of Fame in Stillwater, Oklahoma.
“Abraham Lincoln is an outstanding American that was selected in the Hall of Fame,” the Hall’s executive Director Lee Roy Smith said. “We like to say wrestling is life. And he wrestled with life.”
The legend of Lincoln competing in wrestling, a sport that dates to Ancient Greece, may be a bit exaggerated. There are some accounts that say Lincoln amassed an overwhelming won-loss record as a wrestler at county fairs and other frontier competitions.
Dr. Christian McWhirter is the Lincoln historian at the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum in Springfield.
“One common claim is that Lincoln only lost one out of 300 or 500 matches,” McWhirter said. “All of these stories are out there. There’s not a lot of evidence for a lot of them.”
But there is one documented and verified wrestling match that happened shortly after Lincoln moved to New Salem, Illinois, and started working at a general store.
“Lincoln is a rail splitter. He’s a rough-and-tumble, sinewy frontier guy and there’s a group of local toughs called the Clary’s Grove Boys,” McWhirter said. “The guy Lincoln works for, a guy named Denton Offutt, bets another guy that Lincoln can take on the toughest of the Clary’s Grove Boys in a wrestling match.”
The opponent was Jack Armstrong, the most feared wrestler in on the frontier. Nearly the whole town turned out to watch the contest.
“The match went on and it got rougher and rougher,” Smith said. “Eventually Lincoln got the best of him and pinned him.”
After it was over, Lincoln had earned the respect of the macho culture.
“It’s enough to prove that Lincoln proves he can hold his own against these guys,” Smith said.
And the discipline, grit, and determination Lincoln learned while wrestling may have helped shape the character of the president who led the country through the Civil War, according to Matt Storniolo, head wrestling coach at Northwestern University.
“I think wrestling teaches people a lot of things. It teaches independence, confidence, hard, work, discipline.I think it’s a rare sport,” he said. “I think you can see a lot of ways that wrestling could have influenced Abraham Lincoln.”