Abraham Lincoln: Amazing Wrestler

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This week we're running a series of posts by Matt Soniak about Abraham Lincoln's foray into forensic meteorology. If you missed the first installment yesterday, check it out.

In the summer of 1831, 22-year-old Abraham Lincoln arrived in New Salem, a small town along the Sangamon River in Menard County, Illinois. He had come there to work as a clerk for a man named Offut, a local store owner.

Offut liked Lincoln and tended to brag about the new clerk to his customers, claiming Lincoln could outrun or outfight any man in the county. Bill Clary, whose family was the namesake of a settlement southwest of town called Clary's Grove, was skeptical of Offut’s boasts. Clary’s Grove was known for a group of young toughs led by Jack Armstrong. Historian Benjamin Thomas called the Clary’s Grove Boys a “rough and boisterous, happy-go-lucky crowd” that “came to New Salem to drink, gossip, trade and play. Physical strength and courage were their ideals. In individual and free-for-all fights they had demonstrated their superiority over the boys from other settlements, and they ruled the town when they chose to.” Bill Clary figured that Lincoln couldn’t whip any of his boys, and certainly not Armstrong. Tired of Offut’s big talk, he told the shopkeeper to put his money where his mouth was and bet ten dollars that Jack Armstrong would prove to be “a better man than Lincoln” in a wrestling match.

Lincoln didn’t want to take part in the match, but he eventually gave in to Offut’s protests. The match took place in front of Offut’s store, and all of New Salem came out to watch and bet money, whiskey, knives and other property on the winner.

Most bettors backed Armstrong, but it was only a few minutes into the match when, according to attorney John T. Stuart, who was there to see the contest, Armstrong realized “he had got hold of the wrong customer.” The two young men wrestled hard, doing their best to throw the other, but both remained on their feet. Convinced he couldn’t throw Lincoln fairly, Armstrong tried to “foul” the clerk. The attempt at cheating enraged Lincoln and, putting his height and long arms to good use, he grabbed Armstrong by the throat, lifted him off the ground, and shook him out like a wet rag.

The rest of the Clary’s Grove Boys reportedly rushed Lincoln, kicking and punching his legs and torso in an effort to knock him down. Lincoln took the assault in stride, holding his ground and laughing as he was kicked. Eventually, everyone settled down. The boys stopped kicking and Lincoln let Armstrong go. The two men shook hands, Lincoln having proved to everyone in town that he had to courage and strength to “belong” in town. Armstrong later called Lincoln “the best fellow who ever broke into camp.” Many Lincoln historians have called the ordeal one of the defining moments of Lincoln’s life.

Lincoln soon became close friends with Armstrong and his wife, Hannah. He often stayed at their home, where he split rails, helped the Clary’s Grove farmers with their work and even studied surveying so he could establish the lines of their lands.

When Lincoln heard about Duff's legal troubles from Hannah, he reached out to her. Despite the fact that he was busy preparing for his Senate campaign against Steven Douglas – and the fact that he was not well-practiced in criminal law, and had lost half of his one dozen murder trials – he offered to take Armstrong’s case pro bono.

He wrote to Hannah:

“Dear Mrs. Armstrong,

I have just heard of your deep affliction, and the arrest of your son for murder. I can hardly believe that he can be guilty of the crime alleged against him. It does not seem possible. I am anxious that he should have a fair trial, at any rate; and gratitude for your long continued kindness to me in adverse circumstances prompts me to offer my humble services gratuitously in his behalf. It will afford me an opportunity to requite, in a small degree, the favors I received at your hand, and that of your lamented husband, when your roof afforded me grateful shelter without money and without price.

Yours truly,

Abraham Lincoln.

Hannah Armstrong drove to Springfield to consult Lincoln and see if he could get Duff out on bail before his trial. Lincoln tried, but could not secure his friend's release. Lincoln and Mrs. Armstrong went to the county jail to see Duff and tell him he’d have to sit tight until his trial started the next spring. There, Mrs. Armstrong met Duff’s cellmate, a former schoolteacher serving a sentence for larceny. He proposed to her that if she bought him a new pair of glasses and some books to pass his time, he would teach Duff how to read while he awaited trial. Mrs. Armstrong agreed, and the following May, a literate Duff Armstrong left the county lockup to be put on trial.

Check back tomorrow to hear about Lincoln's clever trial strategy.

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September 14, 2011 - 9:30am
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