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Wednesday, July 28, 2021

Abraham Lincoln: Little-known Facets of his Life


    Abraham Lincoln has fascinated me since I was a child. A few years ago, I went on a marathon of reading Lincoln biographies and those of his military and political contemporaries. I learned a lot of interesting facts about the man, outside of his presidency.

Abraham Lincoln on February 9, 1864. 
(Library of Congress; public domain via Wikimedia Commons.)

           It’s common knowledge that Lincoln was a lawyer but, prior to that, he had a number of other jobs. In April 1832, at age twenty-three, he signed up for a 30-day enlistment in the Illinois Militia. The men in his company elected him captain and he ended up re-enlisting. He served a total of 51 days.

      After this, he returned to New Salem, Illinois and resumed his first campaign for the elected office of representative in the Illinois State Legislature. Although he did well in New Salem, he was defeated in the rest of the district and lost the election.

Image via Pinterest

     He entered into a partnership with his friend William F. Berry in January 1833 to purchase a small saloon which they called Berry and Lincoln.  Berry was an alcoholic, and the enterprise did not go well. Lincoln sold his share to Berry in April 1833. Lincoln was left deep in debt and didn’t get that debt paid off until he was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives.

     But May 1833, Lincoln received an appointment as Postmaster of New Salem and continued in this position until the post office was relocated to a different city three years later. During his tenure, he supplemented his income with a variety of jobs including helping farmers with their harvests, splitting rails, clerking in a store, and surveying land for the county. It was also during this period that he began seriously studying the law. He earned his law license in September 1836 and was admitted to the Illinois bar in March 1837 at age twenty-eight. Practicing law became Lincoln’s lifelong career, but his early experiences helped him relate to people from all walks of life. The New Salem State Historic Site preserves the village where he lived before moving to Springfield, Illinois.

     While in New Salem, Lincoln earned a reputation for being an elite wrestler eventually winning the county wrestling championship. According to Carl Sandburg’s biography of Lincoln, the future president once challenged an entire crowd of onlookers after dispatching an opponent in a match. There were no takers.  Lincoln was defeated only once in approximately 300 matches. His record earned him recognition in the National Wrestling Hall of Fame.

Lincoln's Patent Sketches, Wikimedia Commons

     Lincoln was also a tinkerer and inventor. As a young man, he was aboard a steamboat that ran aground on low shoals. He had to help unload the cargo to free it. Subsequently, he developed a design to keep vessels afloat in shallow waters by attaching empty metal air chambers to their sides and later modified it to use four balloons, collapsed accordion-like, attached to the four “corners” of the craft.  If the boat encountered shallow waters, the balloons would be filled with enough air to raise the hull higher than the shoals or sandbar and keep the vessel afloat. For his invention, Lincoln was granted Patent No. 6,469 in 1849. He is the only president to hold a patent.

     According to accounts of his wife, Mary Todd Lincoln, and many other contemporaries, Lincoln was an avid cat-lover. He had two cats while he was in the White House, Tabby and Dixie, and he would also bring in strays. There are some reports that he fed Tabby and Dixie on the dining table, a practice his wife did not approve of.

Lincoln family: From left to right: Mary Todd Lincoln, Robert Lincoln, Tad Lincoln, Abraham Lincoln

By Currier & Ives [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Lincoln and his wife had a great interest in psychic phenomena. During his first term, their son, Willie, died of a typhoid-like disease and the Lincolns were overcome with grief. Mrs. Lincoln convinced her husband to hold séances at the White House to communicate with Willie and another son who had died prior to his presidency. It is believed that Abraham attended at least two of the séances, but didn’t find them gratifying.

      As a theatre-lover, Lincoln was a fan of actor John Wilkes Booth. Before going to Ford’s Theatre in the evening to see Our American Cousin on April 14, 1865, Lincoln signed legislation creating the U.S. Secret Service. The original mission of the law enforcement agency was to combat widespread currency counterfeiting.

     The president was guarded around-the-clock by one member of a four-man security unit. A new bodyguard, John Parker, was assigned to protect the president at the theatre but he went missing. No one knows for sure where Parker was, but he had a reputation for being unreliable, including drinking and frequenting a “house of ill repute” while on duty, according to the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum in Springfield, Illinois.

Shooting of U.S. President Abraham Lincoln

.Library of Congress / Reuters

That evening, John Wilkes Booth assassinated the president. Lincoln died the next day. According to the report of Ward Hill Lamon, one of the president’s friends, Lincoln had dreamt of his assassination.

     It was not until 1901, after Garfield and McKinley were killed, that the Secret Service was assigned to protect the president.

   Ann Markim




  1. The log cabin that Lincoln was born in used to he housed inside a museum in Harrodsburg, Kentucky, next to Fort Harrod, and they had a huge exhibit of Lincoln memorabilia. I was very small child when went to see it. It was SOOOOOO small. We could actually go up and look inside the cabin through a window that had no glass. They moved the cabin, then a number of years later it burned down, so what they show now is a replica. I always through it odd that both Lincoln and Jefferson Davis were both born in Kentucky, even more striking, was the two had very similar faces.

    1. Thanks for the interesting comment. Shows how people with similar beginnings can take very different life pathways.

  2. Loved this. I adore the idea of a wrestling, inventing, saloon-owning, cat-loving president. No wonder he was so in touch with his humanity.

    1. For sure. And it gave him the broad background necessary to make good decisions about difficult things.

  3. I always found it interesting that he was in the militia furing what is now called 'The Blackhawk War'. That was a big part of Illinois history. He also visited the county seat where I grew up. Like you, Lincoln was always a fascinatng person to me.

    I love that you added depth to a person that made such an impact on our country. Doris

  4. Really interesting, Ann. I love the idea of him wrestling! And his love of cats. Such details make him all the more vivid.

    1. Thank you. I especially related to his love of cats since I have two of my own.

  5. Thanks for your comment. I read that Lincoln's time in the militia left him with an interest in military weapons and during the Civil War he tested new guns on the White House lawn. Didn't look for corroboration on that, but it sounds like him.

  6. I loved reading your post and learning so much more about him. A truly fascinating man. How ironic that the actor Lincoln admired and went to see his performance, shot the president. Was it ever revealed why? I've never read up about Booth but would like to know what made him do it. You shared a lot of interesting little-known (to me) facts about him. And I love that he loved cats and treated them like members of the family.

  7. Booth was a die-hard confederate and blamed Lincoln for the defeat of the South. He had a bitter feud with his brother, Edwin, who was also an actor. Before the assassination, Edwin had actually saved Lincoln's son, Robert's, life. After the assassination, Edwin disowned John, but had his remains buried in the family plot. History has so many interesting intersections.