When my third grader handed me an invitation to a Wax Museum presentation at her school, I wasn’t quite sure what to expect. The invitation explained that each child was given the freedom to select any individual from history, dress up as that person, and present slides that gave insight into their lives. When I asked her who she chose, she said without skipping a beat, “Abraham Lincoln.”
I went into panic mode as I realized the presentation was for the very next day and, since I was just informed that the event was happening, we had nothing to dress her up in. No bow tie, no top hat, and definitely no beard. So, I did a quick search for local costume shops and was relieved when the Party City that was 30 minutes away had a children’s Abraham Lincoln costume in stock.
So, with the costume hanging neatly on her closet door for the next morning, I couldn’t wait to see what she had up her sleeve for the presentation portion. Spoiler: I didn’t know as much about Lincoln as I thought I did.
1. Abe stored papers in his hat.
At six feet four inches tall, Lincoln towered over most men and women of his time, but even more-so when he wore his infamous top hat. Arguably the most distinctive feature of Abraham Lincoln, his top hat added another 7-8” of height, but it wasn’t just a fashion statement.
A practical man, Lincoln used his massive top hat to store important papers. This would keep them dry on rainy days and ensure he didn’t forget them. It’s also been said that, when angered, Lincoln would throw the papers down in front of generals to emphasize his emotions.
On the night Lincoln died, he dressed for the theater in a silk top hat, size 7-1/8″, from the Washington hatmaker J. Y. Davis, to which he had added a black silk mourning band in memory of his son Willie. When Lincoln was shot, the hat was on the floor beside his chair.
2. Lincoln jumped into an icy river to rescue his dog.
The 16th U.S. president found great comfort in his pets throughout his life, two of which were his childhood dogs, Fido and Jip.
It’s been said that when the Lincoln family was crossing the Wabash River in a wagon in March of 1830, the family noticed their dog had been left behind. Thomas Lincoln, Abraham’s father, elected to leave the dog, but Abraham jumped into the icy river, waded to shore, and rescued the forgotten dog. When berated, he told his father, “The dog feels better, and except for cold feet, so do I.”
Other accounts of the story state that the dog had jumped overboard, landed on a thin sheet of ice, and was about to drown. Abraham, seeing the crisis, jumped into the icy water and saved the dog’s life.
3. Abe was a wrestler.
As a young man, Abraham Lincoln competed in wrestling matches for more than a decade. In fact, he rarely lost. His long arms and athletic, 6’4” frame made him an admirable opponent, only losing one documented wrestling match out of 300.
The National Wrestling Hall of Fame inducted Lincoln as an “Outstanding American” in the sport in 1992, and to this day you can view the mural of Lincoln engaged in a wrestling match just inside the front doors of the Hall of Fame museum in Stillwater, Oklahoma.
In 1831, Abraham Lincoln and Jack Armstrong engaged in a long wrestling match,
as depicted in this mural which adorns the front wall in the National Wrestling Hall of Fame.
4. The Lincoln family set a place for their cat at the White House dinner table.
Upon his relocation to Washington, D.C., Secretary of State William Sewell gifted Lincoln two kittens that the President named Tabby and Dixie.
With the American Civil War raging on, Lincoln’s cats brought him great comfort and he became very attached to them. In fact, during an important White House dinner, he once fed his cat, Tabby, at the dinner table amongst political dignitaries.
After his wife, Mary Todd Lincoln, later chastised him for his “shameful” behavior, Lincoln is said to have responded, “If the gold fork was good enough for former President James Buchanan, I think it is good enough for Tabby.”
Tabby (Abraham Lincoln’s cat). The Digital Research Library of Illinois History Journal. 1861.
5. Abe was almost shot at Fort Stevens.
It was not unusual for presidents to visit the battlefield in the 1800’s, but on July 12, 1864, Lincoln visited the front lines at Fort Stevens and stood atop the parapet of the fort to witness the battle, when gunfire came dangerously close to his head.
Legend has it that Colonel Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr., a future Supreme Court justice, barked, “Get down, you [damn] fool!” Lincoln ducked down and left the battlefield unharmed.
This c. 1892 painting (sans parapet) by Eugenie De Land Saugstad hangs in the superintendent’s lodge at the Battleground National Cemetery. “President Lincoln is shown visiting Fort Stevens during the battle on July 12, 1864 as he comes under enemy fire while standing on the parapet.… The painting was donated by the artist to the Lincoln Museum which became Ford’s Theatre National Historic Site.” – NPS & Allen C. Browne, June 6, 2017
Just one month after the Fort Stevens incident, Lincoln was said to have been traveling to his cottage by horseback when a would-be assassin fired at him, shooting the top hat from off of his head. Soldiers who found it said there was a bullet hole through the crown, giving rise to the popular notion that the hat saved Lincoln’s life.
6. Lincoln had a “party trick” involving an axe.
Lincoln scholar and author Harold Holzer, co-chairman of the Lincoln Forum once said, “My favorite story of Lincoln’s athleticism dates to his final voyage back to Washington after a visit to the military front in the spring of 1865. Sitting on the deck of his steamboat for the return voyage with a group of friends and observers, the president spied an axe lying nearby, which was there for emergency use in case of fire, took hold of it and extended his right arm parallel to the deck while holding the axe at its tip with two fingers.
“Bringing it down with a thud, he asked if anyone else could equal the feat. Not even the young men on board could do it. This was a trick Lincoln performed on several occasions as President when, if you believe rumors and myths, he was fading, or even dying from an assortment of alleged diseases.”
Lincoln’s presidency was tragically cut short, but his contributions to the United States ensured that he would be remembered as one of its most influential presidents. Share these six stories with your school-aged children, and see if they have any fun stories to share about their favorite historical figures! You might be surprised to hear what they’ve learned!