The Early Wrestling Career of a Future President

By John Nalan

“They’re wrestling!” people cried. “Abe Lincoln is going to wrestle today!”

The shout went up all over New Salem, Illinois. There was going to be a wrestling match.

Jack Armstrong was the county wrestling champion. He was described as a local bully who led a group of troublemakers called the Clary’s Grove Boys. Armstrong was considerably shorter than his opponent at 5’8”, but was said to be as strong as an ox and as mean as a badger. No one had beaten him in years, so most people in the area figured Armstrong would beat the untested newcomer.

His opponent, new to town, was a tall, thin twenty-two year old. No one in the area had seen him wrestle, but judging from his unusual height of 6’4”, long limbs, and broad shoulders, people figured he would be a formidable challenge to the area’s best grapplers.

The newcomer? None other than Abe Lincoln, the future President of the United States.

It was September of 1831, and wrestling matches were a welcome relief from the dull routine of frontier life. Wrestling matches were big cultural events in early America. Men liked to challenge each other to contests of strength and power. Wrestling was an ideal way to do this without risking any severe injuries. Most towns and counties had recognized champions that generally defended their titles against all comers.

This match had been organized by Lincoln’s boss, Denton Offutt, who had cleared out a large space next to his general store for the match. However, although Offutt may have been interested in providing some entertainment to the community, his main motivation was gambling. He knew Armstrong was a highly regarded wrestler in the area and probably figured he could easily find people willing to bet with him. If Lincoln won, Offutt would make a lot of money. No one is sure how Offutt knew Lincoln was a tough wrestler, but I would guess he had both seen Lincoln’s strength while working in the general store’s back room and had heard the young man talk about some of his earlier matches.

Almost the whole town showed up at the general store to see the match between Armstrong and Lincoln. Before the match started, there was a raucous period of discussion and betting among the crowd. Only after the bets were established could the wrestling begin. Offutt was rumored to have bet as much as ten dollars on Lincoln and stood to make a tidy profit if his employee could manage to upset the local champion.

The match was wrestled according to the Catch-as-Catch-Can rules of the American frontier. More formal wrestling matches conducted on the east coast of the United States and in Europe at this time used the traditional Greco-Roman style that only allowed wrestlers to attack above the waist. Catch-as-Catch-Can was a simpler style that required less skill than Greco-Roman and rewarded brute strength and balance over technique. Any sort of move was allowed as long as it wouldn’t injure an opponent. Pretty much everything was legal except punches, kicking, eye gouging, and strangling. Since the style allowed wrestlers a lot more freedom in what they could do, it was eventually called freestyle wrestling. Because of its popularity in America, freestyle wrestling was included in the 1904 Olympics held in St. Louis, Missouri.

Outside the general store, the crowd in New Salem gathered in a large circle around the wrestlers, giving them plenty of room to move around without interference. Lincoln and Armstrong each removed their shirts and slowly moved to the center of the ring of spectators. The sun was high in the sky, and the excited cheering of the crowd lowered to a murmur as the two closely circled around each other, preparing to clinch. Lincoln stood a full eight inches taller than his opponent, but with his shirt removed, Armstrong’s large biceps and solid core were apparent for all to see.

The match couldn’t start until the two wrestlers had locked up in a collar and elbow tie. The object of the match was to knock an opponent off of his feet and onto his back. The wrestler who got the takedown was declared the winner. Wrestlers were also required to stay in contact with each other at all times. If one of the wrestlers broke off contact and backed away, that was considered a loss and the other wrestler was declared the winner.

After Lincoln and Armstrong locked up and started the match, the crowd erupting in cheers for every push, shove and advantage in position. Armstrong was used to finishing matches quickly. He attacked Lincoln aggressively, using his strength and power. Early in the match, he pushed Lincoln repeatedly around the circle trying to catch him in an arm throw or a hip toss. Even forcing Lincoln to trip and fall could lead to victory. Lincoln, however, was able to use his long arms and reach advantage to hold Armstrong off and frustrate him.

Lincoln continued to keep Armstrong at a distance, slowly aggravating the county champion. Finally, Armstrong’s irritation grew to the point where he started to stomp aggressively at Lincoln’s feet with his heels. Although this was probably illegal, no one called Armstrong on his cheating, and he began to take the upper hand in the match. Lincoln probably sensed that he needed to finish the match quickly. Suddenly he stepped in on Armstrong, grabbed him by the neck and lifted him off the ground.

Exactly what happened next is subject to some debate. Various eyewitness accounts say that Lincoln swung his opponent around like a ragdoll and then dropped him to the ground unconscious, thereby winning the match. Other accounts say that as Lincoln lifted his opponent off the ground, Armstrong’s gang, the Clary’s Grove Boys, swarmed the circle knocking Lincoln to the ground resulting in the match being considered a draw. Either way, as a newcomer to town, the wrestling match earned Lincoln the respect in the community that ultimately benefitted his political future This first documented match in New Salem set up Lincoln for a fascinating wrestling career.

The match established the future president as one of the top wrestlers in Illinois. Over the next few years, the young Lincoln was involved in many matches throughout the area, with his fame being widespread throughout central Illinois. Accounts from the time describe Lincoln as a “scientific wrestler” who relied on his skill and agility rather than pure strength.

Lincoln’s match with Jack Armstrong in New Salem, Illinois is the one most often described by historians as an example of the young Lincoln’s wrestling skill.

Throughout his storied career, there was another important match that shaped Lincoln’s wrestling life. It took place in 1832 in Beardsville, Illinois against Lorenzo “Hank” Thompson. The match happened when both were serving in the Illinois Militia during the Black Hawk Wars. Lincoln had been selected commander of his unit which was made up of soldiers from Sangamon County. Thompson was a big, curly-haired fellow who came from Union County in southern Illinois.

Both men had already earned good reputations throughout the regiment for their wrestling skills when the two units meet in Beardsville while drawing supplies for the war. Soldiers in the two units began arguing over which group would get the best camping spot. It was quickly suggested that Lincoln and Thompson should wrestle with the winner getting their choice of campsites.

It was agreed that the wrestlers would go two out of three falls, meaning that in order to win the match, one of the wrestlers would need to take his opponent down twice. Before the match could begin, soldiers from both units took the time to make bets against each other that their champion would win.

In the first fall, Lincoln tried to use his long reach and cunning to outlast and frustrate Thompson, but the other man’s strength was more than Lincoln could withstand and he was quickly thrown to the ground. Lincoln must have been stunned. By all accounts, this was the first time he had been thrown to the ground.

“He’s the most powerful man I ever had hold of,” Lincoln confessed during the break between falls. I don’t know if this caused any of Lincoln’s men to reconsider their wagers, but I imagine a few tried to weasel out of their bets.

The second fall lasted longer with Lincoln trying to adjust to Thompson’s incredible strength. The struggle drained both men. Each of the wrestlers went for a trip at the same time and tumbled to the ground. Thompson immediately jumped to his feet claiming victory, but the men in Lincoln’s unit claimed this was a dog-fall, meaning both men had fallen to the ground at the exact same time. Normally, a dog-fall resulted in the wrestlers starting again on their feet. However, Lincoln knew he had been defeated. Whether he felt Thompson had beaten him fair and square, or if he knew he did not have the energy to wrestle another round, Lincoln admitted defeat.

“Boys, give up your bets,” he said. “If this man hasn’t thrown me fairly, he could.” It was Lincoln’s only recorded loss in twelve years of wrestling.

Both of these matches give us insight into Lincoln’s life as a competitive wrestler around 1830. He was clearly one of the best wrestlers in Illinois at the time and appears to have been popular among the fans and gamblers of the day.

Thirty years after these bouts, Lincoln was, of course, elected president of the United States, making him one of the most famous wrestlers of all time. He was elected to the National Wrestling Hall of Fame in 1992 as a member of the initial class of Outstanding Americans.

I thought these would be interesting stories to tell because Abraham Lincoln’s name keeps coming up as a wrestler. However, I don’t think many wrestling fans, myself included, really understood the style of wrestling at the time and how good Lincoln was in his day. I hope you enjoyed reading the stories of Lincoln’s matches as much as I enjoyed researching them.

A lot of the information for this column was taken from the February 12, 1987, edition of the New York Times, the February 6, 1995, edition of Sports Illustrated, and the website that is run by the Lerner Institute.

This article first appeared in the May 2017 issue of The Guillotine as part of the ‘Things I Find Interesting’ column by John Nalan.

Would you like to receive the latest Minnesota wrestling news in your inbox?