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The Turning Point in Abe's Life: A Wrestling Match

Our American Stories / Lee Habeeb
The Truth Network Radio
May 23, 2023 3:02 am

The Turning Point in Abe's Life: A Wrestling Match

Our American Stories / Lee Habeeb

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May 23, 2023 3:02 am

On this episode of Our American Stories, Abraham Lincoln was very nearly without equal as he grappled with malcontents and men disrespectful of ladies, all long before he would grapple for the soul of a nation.

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They're some of our favorites. And this next story is brought to us by a listener, Mike Chapman, who listens to us on 1040 WHO out of Des Moines, Iowa. Abraham Lincoln is one of the greatest leaders in US history, but prior to his being elected the 16th President of the United States, he used his skills as a wrestler to win approval from the masses. Mike Chapman has been writing about and researching wrestling for many years. He is also the author of The Sport of Lincoln. Here is Mike Chapman to share this turning point story in Abraham Lincoln's life. Aside from my passion for wrestling, I have long been intrigued by the history of US presidents. That really began to blossom when I was executive editor of the daily newspaper in Dixon, Illinois, which is the hometown of Ronald Reagan.

I was the editor there from 1989 to 1998. During that 10-year period, I discovered that Abe Lincoln had actually served in the very same location that is Dixon today. Lincoln served there during the Blackhawk War of 1832. And that fact really inspired me to learn more about Lincoln as a young man, which in turn led me to the little village of New Salem, Illinois. It is located about 200 miles south of Dixon and about 20 miles northwest of Springfield, Illinois.

And what a wonderful place that is for any history buff. Abraham Lincoln was born on February 6th, 1809 and raised in Kentucky. But when he was seven, the Lincoln family moved to Indiana. He grew into a strapping young man, nearly six foot four inches tall and weighing about 180 pounds.

He first strolled into New Salem in 1831 as a 22-year-old looking for a new start in life. And soon he became engaged in an event that was destined to play a very important role in his career. It was called scuffling or grappling. And in modern terms, it is called wrestling.

But first, a little background. Wrestling is often called mankind's oldest sport, as it is a subject in some of the oldest pieces of literature known to exist. In the Epic of Gilgamesh, composed in ancient Sumer, which today is now known as Iraq, nearly 4,000 years ago, a wrestling contest between Gilgamesh, the king of the large city of Uruk, and a forest giant named Enkidu is an important feature of the saga. In the Bible, as described in Genesis, the Hebrew patriarch Jacob wrestles with the angel of the Lord.

After a struggle that lasted all through the night, the angel gave Jacob a new name, Israel, which loosely translated means contested with God. Some of the greatest figures in ancient Greece, such as Theseus, Hercules, and Achilles, the most celebrated hero in the Trojan War epic known as the Iliad, were wrestlers. And there are drawings of wrestlers inside some of the pyramids in Egypt. Wrestling came to the new world with the first colonists back in the late 1600s. It flourished along the eastern seaboard and moved west with the men who carved homes out of the wilderness. And it was popular both as a test of manhood and as a form of entertainment in small villages like New Salem.

It also attracted bedding, which made it even more popular. Today, New Salem is a beautiful state park with over 650,000 visitors a year. It is possible to walk through the main gate and stroll down the same path that a 22-year-old Abe Lincoln traversed in 1831. The village was founded in 1828, and Lincoln lived there for about six years, serving as a surveyor, postmaster, store operator, and rail splitter. It was here that Lincoln got his first taste of politics when he was elected to the Illinois General Assembly.

And it was also here in 1831 that the Lincoln legend first began to bloom, thanks to wrestling. Lincoln came to New Salem because he had received an offer from a man named Denton Offutt to work in his little store situated on a bluff near the Sangamon River. They had met sometime earlier when Lincoln had worked for Offutt on his flat boat, taking goods down the Mississippi River to sell in New Orleans. Offutt took a liking to Lincoln and told him that he could work for him in New Salem if he ever decided to venture over that way.

So now, when Lincoln arrived, Offutt was in competition with another store just 40 feet from his. It was run by a man by the name of William Clary. In the summer of 1831, Clary was selling liquor from his store and doing very well.

He charged 12 cents for a drink of brandy, gin, or whiskey, and twice that for his best wine. He developed a good and steady business of local customers and visitors from off the river. When river travelers came up the bluff for a break in their journeys, they were looking for a place to drink a bit and swap tails. So Offutt chose to build his store very close to Clary's, and the two men competed for business. Clary's store was at the top of the bluff about 40 feet in front of Offutt's store.

Travelers had to make a choice between them as to which was the best place to spend their small amount of money. Lincoln had impressed Offutt with his wiry strength. Offutt had seen Abe pick up large barrels of whiskey and other bulky items and carry them off with ease. At six feet, four and four inches of height and carrying close to 180 pounds of sinewy muscle, he was a very large man for that time.

Offutt was a man who liked to talk a lot. He is very proud of his new helper and boasted to William Clary that Abe was the strongest man he knew. But Clary knew a few strong men as well. They were men of a different temperament than Abe Lincoln, loud and belligerent when the liquor took effect. Wrestling was the best way to determine what a man was made of.

The bouts in the thick grass between Clary's store and Offutt's store were a regular occurrence in a true frontier style. The ringleader of the bunch was a rugged farmer from nearby Clary's Grove called Jack Armstrong. Shorter than Lincoln, Armstrong was much thicker and heavier. At age twenty-seven, he was five years older than Abe.

Little is known about Armstrong's wrestling expertise other than the fact that he was considered the roughest of the gang of young men who resided at Clary's Grove and hung out at the Clary's Tavern. And when we continue more of Mike Chapman's story about Abe Lincoln here on our American Stories. Folks, if you love the stories we tell about this great country and especially the stories of America's rich past, know that all of our stories about American history from war to innovation, culture, and faith are brought to us by the great folks at Hillsdale College, a place where students study all the things that are beautiful in life and all the things that are good in life. And if you can't get to Hillsdale, Hillsdale will come to you with their free and terrific online courses.

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That's slash iHeart. And we continue with our American stories and Mike Chapman's story, a listener about Abraham Lincoln's wrestling match that became the turning point in his life. Let's continue with Mike Chapman. Within a short amount of time from Lincoln's arrival, a match was brewing and talk soon reached the point that if either man shied away, he would be branded a coward. Tired of Offit's boasting, Armstrong eagerly accepted the challenge of wrestling Lincoln. Offit offered to bet anyone $10 that Lincoln would win. Money, drinks, and various items were soon being wagered all around the village.

Finally, the two men, Lincoln and Armstrong, met on the grassy area between the stores to settle the talk. As many as 100 men gathered to see the contest as it was undoubtedly a major source of discussion in the little village and the surrounding area. While Abe had the advantage in height and leverage, Jack had the advantage in experience and attitude. He was undoubtedly a more seasoned grappler and fighter, according to all reports. Now there were several types of wrestling that were engaged in on the frontier. One style was to where the two men agreed to grab a hold on each other and see who could throw who first. What it was was just a good old-fashioned scuffle with each man trying to throw the other to his back and hold him there. It was just two men tugging and pulling each other in an effort to subdue the other.

Yes, foot stomping was a frequent tactic, as was hair pulling and thumbing of the face. In 1939, a popular movie called Abe Lincoln of Illinois was made from the Pulitzer Prize-winning play of the same name written by Robert Sherwood. In this film version of the story, Lincoln, played superbly by Raymond Massey, tangles with Armstrong, played with gusto by Howard De Silva in a wild affair.

It was a dramatic version that certainly looked good on film. Many stories have the match ending with Lincoln on his feet, looking down at the defeated Armstrong, the Clary's Grove boys angry at seeing their best man beaten, advanced on Lincoln shouting at him and raising their fists. An all-out fight appeared imminent. Lincoln supposedly stood with his back against one of the two stores, fist clenched and declared that he would take them all on one at a time if necessary. However, Armstrong came to Lincoln's side and told his pals that Lincoln had beaten him fairly and that he had proven that he was worthy of their respect. Boys, Abe Lincoln is the best fellow that ever broke into this settlement, said Armstrong.

He shall be one of us. The Clary's Grove boys backed off and Lincoln gained a new status in the little village. He was known from then on as a man not to be trifled with, despite his infectious grin and considered good humor. The fact was, it seemed, that Lincoln could defend himself and he gained immense stature due to his wrestling prowess. So the main thrust of the bout could be described like this. Lincoln didn't really want to wrestle Armstrong because he felt it was building up too much as a fight and not strictly a good-natured contest.

But when he saw how everyone's talking about the match and making such a big deal, he knew it was bound to take place eventually. It is estimated today that nearly 15,000 books have been written about Abraham Lincoln, more than any other figure in history with the exception of Jesus Christ. And many of these books talk about Lincoln's contest with Jack Armstrong and its impact on his career. The most thorough discussion of Lincoln's wrestling background comes in the book, Honor's Voice, the Transformation of Abraham Lincoln, written by Douglas L. Wilson in 1999. The book offers an entire chapter, nearly 32 pages, devoted to Lincoln's wrestling prowess, appropriately entitled Wrestling with the Evidence.

Here's the key part. Abraham Lincoln's election to the presidency and his eventual elevation to the pantheon of American heroes have transformed his wrestling match with Jack Armstrong from a rowdy initiation right in an obscure pioneer village into a notable historical event. Wilson then quotes John T. Stewart, who knew Lincoln as well as anyone, and brought him to Lynch's law firm in Springfield after Lincoln left New Salem. Quote, this was the turning point in Lincoln's life, Stewart claimed after the death of his longtime friend, talking about the wrestling match. As a fitting end to the New Salem wrestling match story, Lincoln became friends with the Armstrong family and often visited the little cabin in the months after the match with Jack. Jack's wife, Hannah, even some shirts for Abe, and Abe would babysit, sometimes rocking the cradle of their young baby. Lincoln left New Salem after six years and moved to Springfield, where he began his law career.

Years later, he even defended Jack's son, Duff Armstrong, in a famous legal case. Jack Armstrong didn't live long enough to see Lincoln win the presidency, dying in 1854 at the age of 50. He is buried in an obscure, out-of-the-way frontier cemetery a mile or two from New Salem, unknown except for his grappling contest with a man who became the 16th President of the United States, and arguably the most popular American ever. There are other brief references to Lincoln using his grappling skills after the Armstrong encounter. Some time later, while working in another tiny store in New Salem, a man insulted several women customers with profane language, and Lincoln asked him to stop.

The man persisted and said no one could make him stop. Lincoln challenged him to step outside, flung into the ground, and stuffed weeds in his mouth until the man surrendered. In August of 1834, while running for the state legislature, Lincoln found the opportunity to show his wrestling skills once again.

During that time, he was running for office once again, and this time he was elected to the state legislature. Just as Lincoln was getting ready to speak, a fight broke out in the crowd and his friend was roughed up. Lincoln jumped off the platform, grabbed his friend's assailant, tossed him a few feet, then strode back to the platform and began his speech. And then there is also a report of Lincoln losing a grappling contest.

It occurred during the Blackhawk War years, sometime in the 1831-33 period, and took place in Beardstown, Illinois, a little village about 50 miles west of Dixon. The foe was a man named Lorenzo Dow Thompson, and many years later in 1860, while running for the presidency, Lincoln himself talked about the struggle in an interview. Lincoln said up to that time he had never been thrown, and neither had Thompson.

They squared off, grabbed hold of each other before a large group of soldiers and struggled valiantly, but Lincoln said he was thrown twice, declaring Thompson was strong enough to whip a grizzly bear and the best man he had ever grappled with. And then there's this fascinating tidbit from the Douglas Wilson book, Honor's Voice. He adds that Abe's mother, Nancy Hanks, liked to wrestle, and, quote, in a fair wrestle, she could throw most of the men who ever put her powers to the test.

So let us conclude with this statement from Wilson's book. Quote, legends by their very nature are not so much factual account as symbolic embodiments or expressions of what the facts represent. In any case, Abe Lincoln's wrestling prowess can best be interpreted as representing Lincoln as a strong, determined, and fearless fellow, ready to take on the task at hand and never shrinking from the ordeal itself. After all, that is what the man known as Honest Abe would want from us.

The pure truth, the facts, and nothing else. Abe Lincoln was a wrestler. And you've been listening to Mike Chapman tell the story of Abe Lincoln, the wrestler. Who knew? Who knew?

I didn't. And I've read a lot about Lincoln and, well, some of the books he cited I have on my desk. I have a stack of Lincoln books I still have to read. And you can never stop reading about Lincoln and Washington and some of these great, almost titanic personalities because there's just so much to them. And by the way, Mike spent his life as a newspaper writer and editor in Iowa and also has spent 50 years of his life writing and researching wrestling. He's appeared on A&E Network, ESPN, and the WWE.

Abe Lincoln and the wrestling match that became the turning point in his life here on Our American Stories. Want to get away but still listen to your favorite radio stations and podcasts? Then listen up. I Heart Radio is now the onboard music partner on select Southwest flights. That means you can jam out to your favorite local radio station. Even if you're flying coast to coast, check out expertly curated stations that are perfect for kids and adults available on most domestic Southwest flights and perfect for a full nonstop or those pesky minutes between a movie ending and your plane touching down.

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Whisper: medium.en / 2023-05-23 04:33:43 / 2023-05-23 04:42:49 / 9

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