I am researching and writing a book about Abraham Lincoln’s most famous trial, the Almanac Trial, in which a young man by the name of William “Duff” Armstrong was accused of the murder of Pres Metzker. As the story goes, Lincoln broke down the testimony of the chief witness against Armstrong with a brilliant cross-examination. The witness claimed to have seen the killing by the light of a brightly shining moon which was high overhead. Lincoln confronted the perjurer with an almanac which showed the moon was on the horizon, making it impossible for the witness to see through the thick growth of beech trees. By some accounts, Lincoln broke the witness’s spirit so completely that he staggered from the courtroom. We would probably not even remember the trial if it had not become an issue during Lincoln’s campaign for president. Lincoln’s supporters touted the trial as demonstrating his remarkable abilities. His detractors argued that Lincoln perpetrated a fraud upon the court by using a faked almanac. Controversy has surrounded the trial ever since, with some saying that Lincoln performed as a paragon of both virtue and skill to exonerate an innocent young man, while others claim that he repeatedly engaged in underhanded tactics to trick the jury into acquitting a murderer. I don’t want to talk about the trial itself in this blog. It should take a book-length treatment to sort out all the conflicts in evidence. Instead I want to talk about a wrestling match that Lincoln contested as a youth and how that wrestling match led the mature Lincoln to become involved in the trial.
As a young man Lincoln moved to Sangamon County, Illinois, where he took a job as a store clerk. It was the first job he ever held which did not call for back-breaking manual labor. At the time, Lincoln was 6’4” tall and weighed 214 pounds. Interestingly, when he was president, he weighed in at around 185 pounds. As men become older and less active, they tend to gain weight rather than lose it. What caused the sedentary, middle aged Lincoln to weigh 30 pounds less than the young, physically active Lincoln? I believe that extra 30 pounds was muscle. Lincoln the lawyer didn’t need to carry as much muscle as Lincoln the log splitter.
Indeed, one of the things that so impressed the citizens of Sangamon County was his strength, and apparently Lincoln didn’t mind flexing his muscles for his admirers. Two of his exploits border on the unbelievable. Lincoln helped a friend escape a gambling debt by offering the creditor double or nothing on a wager that he could lift a barrel of whiskey and drink from the bung hole. An empty whiskey barrel weighs around 110 pounds. A full barrel contains 40 gallons. Assuming whiskey weighs about the same as water (8 pounds to the gallon), that means Lincoln would be lifting and drinking from a tankard which could weigh no less than 110 pounds and no more than 430 pounds. Of course, he didn’t lift and drink the whiskey as you would lift and drink from a pitcher. He squatted, bear hugged the barrel, and hoisted it onto his knees, much as a World’s Strongest Man competitor begins to lift an Atlas Stone. From that position, Lincoln was able to hoist the barrel into a tilting position so that whiskey could pour out of the bung hole and into his mouth. The part of this story that I find hardest to believe is the claim that after he filled his mouth with whiskey, he spit it out. You may wonder what all this has to do with a wrestling match. Be patient, I’m getting to the point.
Lincoln’s second feat is just as impressive. It is a well-attested fact that he lifted a box of rocks weighing in at a little over a thousand pounds. Zydrunas Zavickas, who has won multiple World’s Strongest Man titles, set the strongman competition world record for the deadlift at the Arnold Classic just this year—1117 pounds. Probably fewer than 1/10 of one percent of the humans on planet Earth can lift such a weight. Lincoln didn’t do a deadlift, he did a somewhat “easier” lift called a harness lift. He mounted a platform over the weight, squatted over the weight wearing a harness, the harness was attached to the box, and all he had to do was simply stand up and make the weight come clear of the ground.
Newcomers to small towns can expect to be tested, and if the newcomer is a man, the testing is sometimes done in hand-to-hand combat. Jack Armstrong, the leader of a gang of roughnecks known as the Clary’s Grove Boys, had enjoyed the reputation of being the strongest man in Sangamon County before Lincoln arrived. Lincoln threatened Armstrong’s reputation in another area as well. Armstrong was considered the best wrestler in the county, but Lincoln had recently defeated a famous wrestler by the name of Daniel Needham. It was only a matter of time before Lincoln would be called upon to prove himself. Lincoln’s employer, Denton Offutt, made a tense situation worse by loudly proclaiming that his young clerk could outlift, outrun, and outwrestle any man in Sangamon County. Offutt was finally given an ultimatum to put up or shut up, and he wagered ten dollars that Lincoln could throw Jack Armstrong. Having been pushed into the match by his employer, Lincoln resolved to do his best.
There are, of course, a number of different styles of wrestling—sumo, freestyle, folkstyle, Greco-Roman, and many more. It appear that the style of wrestling common in Illinois at the time of the match was a form known as “collar and elbow” wrestling, a style invented in Ireland. There was no ground fighting in the pure Irish style, but once it had migrated to America, it evolved to include ground fighting. Apparently at the time Lincoln and Armstrong wrestled, the sport didn’t have a ground fighting element. The object was simply to throw your opponent to the ground. Armstrong was undoubtedly a strong man, but he was a normal size for that day and age. At probably no more than 5’9”, he ceded at least a seven inch height advantage to Lincoln, and his arm span could not possibly have equaled Lincoln’s. As the saying goes, a good big man will defeat a good little man, and that is apparently what happened. We cannot be certain of the outcome, because the eyewitnesses to the match give conflicting stories. Some have Lincoln winning, some have the men agreeing to a draw, and some have Armstrong throwing Lincoln by cheating. No witness reports that Armstrong defeated Lincoln by fair means.
Whatever happened, the match culminated in Armstrong and Lincoln becoming fast friends. Lincoln was a frequent guest in Armstrong’s home and came to be treated almost as family. He ate at the Armstrong’s table, Armstrong’s wife Hannah patched Lincoln’s clothes, and Lincoln rocked their infant son William to sleep at night. When William grew up, he developed into every bit the ruffian that his father had been, and then one fateful night outside a camp meeting in Menard County, Illinois, he fought Press Metzker. At least one witness swore that young Armstrong struck Metzker in the face with an improvised weapon known as a slungshot--a heavy weight on the end of a rope or some other flexible handle. Metzker died from his wounds, and William was arrested for his murder. Jack Armstrong died while the case was pending, and Lincoln volunteered to defend William.
When the case was won, Lincoln refused to accept any payment, telling Hannah Armstrong that he would do anything he could to help her in any situation. It was not long before she had occasion to ask for Lincoln’s help. When the Civil War began, all her sons were inducted into the Union Army. Hannah wanted and needed her son William back home to take care of things. She wrote Lincoln a letter asking for her son back, and Lincoln immediately sent orders to muster William Armstrong out of the army so that he could return home.