Abraham Lincoln: Biography, Facts & Things You Didn't Know

By Karen Harris

President Abraham Lincoln. (Alexander Gardner/Library of Congress/Corbis/VCG via Getty Images)

If you went to elementary school in the United States, you probably already know the basic facts about Abraham Lincoln, but there was a lot more to Honest Abe than what we learned from our social studies textbooks. History teachers often fail to mention, for example, that Lincoln likely suffered from depression as well as a disorder that made him so tall and lanky, considered sending freed slaves back to Africa, and had a terrific sense of humor.

Lincoln's Early Years

Illinois calls itself the "Land of Lincoln," but Abraham Lincoln was born in a tiny log cabin in Kentucky near Hodgenville. When the young Abe was seven, his father lost much of his land in a title dispute, and the family moved to Perry County, Indiana. Shortly thereafter, when Lincoln was nine, his mother fell victim to "milk sickness," a mysterious illness that swept through the Ohio River Valley in the early 1800s. It was later determined that many cows in the region had eaten white snakeroot, poisoning their milk, but at the time, nobody could explain how Nancy Lincoln died.

Abraham Lincoln's U.S. patent 6,469 tag. (David and Jessie/Wikimedia Commons)

He Had Some Interesting Hobbies

In 1848, the steamboat on which Lincoln was traveling home from Washington ran aground in shallow water and he had to help unload the cargo from the ship so it could be freed from the low shoals. He must have been really annoyed by this, because he decided to design a system of air chambers that could be attached to the sides of ships to keep them afloat in shallow water. In 1849, Lincoln applied for and received a patent for his invention, Patent No. 6,469. He remains the only U.S. president to have held a patent.

He may not have looked it, but Lincoln was incredibly strong, an attribute he used (in addition to his long limbs) to become an accomplished wrestler in his youth. Out of more than 300 matches, he lost only one. According to legend, Lincoln was once so hyped up after a victory that he taunted the crowd, "If any of you want to try it, come on and whet your horns!" No one took him up on the offer, and though Lincoln's wrestling career was short lived, he earned a spot in the National Wrestling Hall of Fame.

The site of the 1860 Republican National Convention in Chicago. (Alexander Hessler/Wikimedia Commons)

His Politics Weren't Always Uncontroversial

He might be remembered today as one of the most beloved political leaders in U.S. history, but not everybody loved Lincoln in his time. In fact, he failed in both of his campaigns for a seat in the U.S. Senate. To be fair, during his second bid in 1858, his opponent, Stephen Douglas, used questionable tactics to get votes, even trading liquor for them.

Not-so-honest Abe decided two could play at that game, and during his presidential campaign, he secretly bought a German-language newspaper that was popular among immigrants and directed the editors run favorable articles about him to secure the immigrant vote. Lincoln's campaign aides also printed thousands of fake tickets to the Republican convention so it would be packed with his supporters.

But perhaps Lincoln's most controversial move concerned one of his most admired: the Emancipation Proclamation. What a lot of people don't realize is that the decree that freed America's slaves didn't go so far as to grant them citizenship, and that's because Lincoln struggled to envision how they would fit into the national fabric of society. In an 1854 speech, he suggested, "They are kind of an alien group who have been uprooted from their own society and unjustly brought across the ocean. Send them back to Africa."

Casts of Lincoln's hands in the National Museum of American History. (Leonard Volk/Wikimedia Commons)

He Had Jokes

The popular modern perception of Abraham Lincoln is of a serious, studious president, but Lincoln also had a terrific sense of humor. He loved to match wits and often used comedy to lighten up the rather serious business he was often engaged in. His jokes could even be quite suggestive. For example, Lincoln liked to tell a story of a young farm boy who ran to his father and said, "Pa, come quick, the hired hand and sis are up in the haymow, he's a-pullin' down his pants, she's a-liftin' her skirts, and Pa, they're a-fixin' to pee all over our hay!" The father replied, "Son, you got your facts absolutely right, but you've drawn the completely wrong conclusion." Of the Civil War, Lincoln once noted, "No matter how much cats fight, there always seems to be plenty of kittens."

Though they might seem to indicate a more jovial disposition than we imagined, Lincoln's jokes were probably a mechanism to cope with his unrelenting depression. During his presidency, Lincoln was often described as "melancholy," openly wept in public, and had a fondness for sentimental poetry. He called the world a "grim, hard place full of misery" and even considered suicide when he was a teen. That wasn't his only health trouble: It's likely that Lincoln suffered from Marfan Syndrome, a rare connective tissue disorder that allows the patient's bones to grow longer than they otherwise would. Marfan patients are unusually tall and thin with abnormally long fingers, just like Lincoln.

Edwin Booth with his daughter, Edwina, c. 1864. (George Eastman House Collection/Wikimedia Commons)

His Death Was Even Weirder Than You Think

Just hours before heading to the theater to see Our American Cousin, the last decision he ever made, Lincoln formed the Secret Service. Why weren't they around to tackle John Wilkes Booth, then? For one thing, the organization wouldn't actually be up and running for a few more months, but its original purpose wasn't protecting the leaders of the free world but suppressing counterfeit currency. It took two more presidential assassinations for the Secret Service to realize their talents could be better used elsewhere.

In a weird coincidence, just a few months before his brother assassinated the president, Edwin Booth saved the life of Lincoln's son. On a crowded train platform in Jersey City, 21-year-old Robert Todd Lincoln fell into the path of an oncoming train, but before the worst could happen, Edwin Booth reached down to pull him to safety. Like his brother, Edwin Booth was a well-known actor, so the young Lincoln was both grateful and not a little starstruck. In another chilling happenstance, Ford's Theatre collapsed in 1892, killing 22 people, in the middle of Edwin Booth's funeral.

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Karen Harris

Writer

Karen left the world of academic, quitting her job as a college professor to write full-time. She spends her days with her firefighter husband and four daughters on a hobby farm with an assortment of animals, including a goat named Atticus, a turkey named Gravy, and a chicken named Chickaletta.