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Abraham Lincoln: Hall of Fame wrestler? How Ancient Sport Shaped the 16th President


SPRINGFIELD, Ill. — Abraham Lincoln may be the most well-known American who ever lived, according to a Lincoln scholar.

“Lincoln is the most recognizable American in the world,” said Christian McWhirter, Lincoln historian at the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum in Springfield. “He is either the second or third most written about person in English. Number 1 is always Jesus Christ and Lincoln and Napoleon are ranked second or third.

Almost any first grader can list a handful of facts about the country’s 16 countries.and President; his height, signature beard, stovepipe hat, Gettysburg address, Emancipation Proclamation, and that he is on the Illinois penny, five-dollar bill, and license plate .

At Mitchell Elementary, a CPS school in Chicago’s West Town neighborhood, first-grade teacher Katie Arbuckle discussed with her class the idea of ​​Lincoln as a symbol of national unity.

“He was a president who brought together two separate (entities) – a breakaway part of our country with the union,” she said.

Because he played such an important role during such a perilous time in American history, Lincoln is revered, respected, and relevant today.

“There are a lot of things that are so iconic – stovepipe hat, it has all become like a tradition within our society. He’s almost larger than life,” Arbuckle said.

But a part of Lincoln’s 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 was 6’4″, was enshrined in the National Wrestling Hall of Fame in Stillwater, Oklahoma.

“Abraham Lincoln is an exceptional American who was inducted into the Hall of Fame,” said Hall executive director Lee Roy Smith. “We like to say wrestling is life. And he struggled with life.

The legend of Lincoln competing in wrestling, a sport that dates back to ancient Greece, is perhaps a bit of an exaggeration. Some accounts say Lincoln racked up an overwhelming record of winning 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.

“A common claim is that Lincoln only lost one game out of 300 or 500,” McWhirter said. “All those stories are out there. There is not much evidence for many 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, edgy frontier guy and there’s a bunch of local tough guys called the Clary’s Grove Boys,” McWhirter said. “The guy Lincoln works for, a guy named Denton Offutt, bet on another guy that Lincoln can take on the toughest Clary’s Grove Boys in a wrestling match.”

The opponent was Jack Armstrong, the most feared wrestler on the frontier. Almost the whole town turned out to watch the contest.

“The game went on and it got harder and harder,” Smith said. “Eventually Lincoln got the better of him and pinned him down.”

After it was over, Lincoln had earned the respect of the macho culture.

“It’s enough to prove that Lincoln is proving he can stand up to these guys,” Smith said.

And the discipline, courage 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 many ways the struggle could have influenced Abraham Lincoln.”