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The Great Emancipator

Updated: Oct 25, 2021

Here is a connection to another President. This one is through the Holmes line. Since everyone probably knows a lot about Abraham Lincoln, I will not go through his life history, but share some hopefully little known facts about him.

1. He is enshrined in the Wrestling Hall of Fame. Thanks to his long limbs he was an accomplished wrestler as a young man, being defeated only once in approximately 300 matches. He is featured in the National Wrestling Hall of Fame’s “Presidential Grapplers” exhibit with eight other U.S. Presidents who wrestled, including George Washington, John Adams and Theodore Roosevelt. However, his grappling exploits earned him an "Outstanding American" honor by the museum.

2. He created the Secret Service hours before his assassination. On 14 April 1865, Abe signed legislation creating the U.S. Secret Service. That evening, he was shot at Ford’s Theatre. Even if the Secret Service had been established earlier, it would not have saved him. The original mission of the law enforcement agency was to combat widespread currency counterfeiting. It was not until 1901, after the assassination of two other presidents, that the Secret Service was formally assigned to protect the commander-in-chief.

3. John Wilkes Booth’s brother saved the life of Abe’s son.

A few months before John Wilkes Booth assassinated Abe, the president’s oldest son, Robert Todd Lincoln, stood on a train platform in Jersey City, New Jersey. A throng of passengers began to press the young man backwards and he fell into the open space between the platform and a moving train. Suddenly, a hand reached out and pulled the president’s son to safety by the coat collar. Robert Todd Lincoln immediately recognized his rescuer: famous actor Edwin Booth, brother of John Wilkes. (In another eerie coincidence, on the day of Edwin Booth’s funeral, 9 June 1893, Ford’s Theatre collapsed, killing 22 people.)

4. Abe is the only president to have obtained a patent.

Benjamin Franklin is not the only American political leader who demonstrated an inventive mind. After being aboard a steamboat that ran aground on low shoals and had to unload its cargo, Abe, who loved tinkering with machines, designed a method for keeping vessels afloat when traversing shallow waters through the use of empty metal air chambers attached to their sides. He obtained Patent No. 6,469 in 1849 for his design.

5. Abe personally test-fired rifles outside the White House.

He was a hands-on commander-in-chief who, given his passion for gadgetry, was keenly interested in the artillery used by his Union troops during the Civil War. He attended artillery and cannon tests and met at the White House with inventors demonstrating military prototypes. Although there was a standing order against firing weapons in the District of Columbia, Abe test-fired muskets and repeating rifles on the grassy expanses around the White House, now known as the Ellipse and the National Mall.

Abe's Spencer repeating rifle used for target practice at the White House (Smithsonian Institution)

6. Poisoned milk killed Abe’s mother. When Abraham was 9 years old in 1818, his mother, Nancy, died of a mysterious "milk sickness" that swept across southern Indiana. It was later learned that the strange disease was due to drinking tainted milk from a cow that had ingested poisonous white snakeroot.

7. He never slept in the Lincoln Bedroom. When he occupied the White House, the 16th president used the current Lincoln Bedroom as his personal office. It was there that he met with Cabinet members and signed documents, including the Emancipation Proclamation. The room still contains a few pieces of office furniture from Abe's time along with a handwritten copy of the Gettysburg Address.

8. He did not move to Illinois until he was 21.

Illinois may be known as the Land of Lincoln, but it was in Indiana that the 16th president spent his formative years. He was born in a Kentucky log cabin in 1809, and in 1816 his father, Thomas, moved the family across the Ohio River to a 160-acre plot in southern Indiana. He did not migrate to Illinois until 1830. He was the first president born beyond the boundaries of the original 13 states.

9. He came under enemy fire on a Civil War battlefield.

When Confederate troops attacked Washington, D.C., in July 1864, Abe visited the front lines at Fort Stevens on two days of the battle, which the Union ultimately won. At one point the gunfire came dangerously close to the president, even wounding a Union surgeon standing next to him on the Fort Stevens parapet. Legend has it that Colonel Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr., then the President’s aide-de-camp and future Supreme Court justice, barked, "Get down, you fool!" Abe ducked down from the fort’s parapet and left the battlefield unharmed. He was the second sitting president to come under direct fire from an enemy combatant (James Madison was the first on 24 August 1814 at the Battle of Bladensburg).

10. He spoke with a ­high-pitched voice.

One might think that such a tall, imposing man as Abe had a deep voice. But he did not. His voice was described as "high-pitched and reedy." People who heard him speak said his voice was at times "unpleasant", but for most listeners, the power of his words soon outweighed any discordant note in his delivery.

11. He loved animals.

He was the first president to take a presidential portrait of his dog, Fido, a yellowish, mixed-breed dog with floppy ears and a stubby tail. Abe received an unexpected gift of two kittens from Secretary of State William Seward, Tabby and Dixie and he doted on them.

An official in the Treasury Department, Mansell B. Field, even mentioned Lincoln's love of cats in his memoirs writing: "He was fond of dumb animals, especially cats. I have seen him fondle one for an hour. Helplessness and suffering touched him when they appealed directly to his senses, or when you could penetrate through his intelligence to them." Abe's friend Caleb Carman likewise recalled that Abe would pluck one of the cats from the ground and "talk to it for half an hour at a time." When Tabby jumped up on the table during a formal dinner, Mary Lincoln was horrified to see the president feed the cat with his fork. But Abe did not care, saying, "If the gold fork was good enough for former President James Buchanan, I think it is good enough for Tabby." At one point during his first term, Abe was said to have observed in frustration, “Dixie is smarter than my whole cabinet! And furthermore she doesn’t talk back!”

Abe had a special affinity for stray cats and was known to bring them home on occasion. Mrs. Lincoln even referred to cats as her husband’s “hobby.” At General Ulysses S. Grant's headquarters in City Point, Va., during the siege of Petersburg in March 1865, he found his attention distracted by the sound of mewing kittens. Admiral David Porter wrote later that he was struck by the sight of the president "tenderly caressing three stray kittens. It well illustrated the kindness of the man’s disposition, and showed the childlike simplicity which was mingled with the grandeur of his nature." Porter recalled that Abe stroked the cats’ fur and quietly told them, "Kitties, thank God you are cats, and can’t understand this terrible strife that is going on." Before leaving a meeting in the officers’ tent that day, Lincoln turned to a colonel and said, “I hope you will see that these poor little motherless waifs are given plenty of milk and treated kindly.”

The Lincolns' other White House pets included rabbits, turkeys, horses, and two goats named Nanny and Nanko. Abe had a hard time saying no to his children when they wanted to add a new animal to the family.

Fido, 1860 photo

12. His pocket contents were kept a secret for 111 years.

The contents of Abe’s pockets on the night of the assassination were not revealed until 12 February 1976. He wore a new black, Brooks Brothers' overcoat to the theater, a gift from the company to celebrate his second inauguration. After he died, his personal belongings were given to his son Robert and later passed down to his daughter, Mary "Mamie" Lincoln Isham, who donated them to the Library of Congress in 1937. The box remained unopened and unexamined until it was opened on what would have been his 167th birthday. Inside his coat were a number of items. It contained two pairs of spectacles, a chamois lens cleaner, an ivory and silver pocketknife, a large white Irish linen handkerchief, slightly used, with "A. Lincoln" embroidered in red, a gold quartz watch fob without a watch, a new purple silk-lined, a leather wallet containing a pencil, a Confederate five-dollar bill and several news clippings about unrest in the Confederate Army, emancipation in Missouri, the Union party platform of 1864, and an article on the presidency by John Bright (a Quaker and member of Parliament who was opposed to slavery and was a passionate supporter of Abraham Lincoln).


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