Friday, November 22, 2013


In previous posts I have mentioned Lincoln's skill as a wrestler. He is reputed to have contested over 300 bouts, losing only one. This sort of a record would put him in a league with Aleksandr Karelin, the Greco-Roman wrestler from Russia who went over 12 years in international competition without losing a bout and picked up multiple Olympic Gold Medals in the process.

As I explain in my upcoming book, Lincoln excelled at the sport of collar-and-elbow wrestling, a sport which originated in the British Isles, and migrated to America with Scots-Irish immigrants. Originally a standup game, it evolved into a game which allowed ground fighting. From one place to another the rules differed markedly, and I went through something of a research project trying to figure out the precise rules that were being used in Illinois during Lincoln's lifetime. For reasons which I explain in Chapter 7 ("Lincoln and the Clary's Grove Boys") I decided that the Illinois sport was a standup game. The wrestlers took prescribed holds at the beginning of the match and tried to throw one another to the ground. The popularity of the collar-and-elbow hold caused the sport to be most widely known by that name, but it went by other names as well.

The collar-and-elbow hold was exactly what it sounds like. Each contestant grabbed his opponent by the collar with one hand and the elbow with the other. The contestants took turns prescribing the type of hold which would begin the fight, and Lincoln preferred the side hold, which called for the contestants to grab each other around the waist.

Of course, Lincoln's most famous wrestling match came against Jack Armstrong, the leader of a New Salem gang of roughnecks known as the Clary's Grove Boys, a bout which I fully describe in the book. But there was another notable bout he took part in before he wrestled Armstrong. Upon his return from a flatboat trip to New Orleans, he was challenged by a county champion named Daniel Needham. At first he declined, but Needham pushed him until the match was arranged.

They met in the "greenwood" at a place called Wabash Point in Coles County. Employing the side hold, Lincoln threw Needham in two consecutive falls, winning the match. Needham was incensed. He challenged Lincoln to a fist fight. Skill in a combat sport does not necessarily translate into skill at streetfighting, and Needham doubtless thought that Lincoln would either back down or be thrashed.

Of course, Needham knew nothing about how Lincoln had single-handedly thrown a half dozen river pirates off of his flatboat on his recent trip to New Orleans. Lincoln told Needham that he did not want to fight, but if Needham insisted, he would give the wrestler a "thrashing." On second thought, Needham decided that it might not be such a good idea to engage Lincoln in a no-holds-barred contest.

This account is reconstructed from the text of early Lincoln biographies and from the excellent resource, Herndon’s Informants: Letters, Interviews, and Statements about Lincoln, Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 1998, page 439 (edited by Douglas L. Wilson and Rodney O. Davis.

I have gathered together many of the old accounts of the match and transcribed them onto a webpage. If you are interested in reading these accounts, you may access them HERE.

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