lincoln portrait Young Lincoln portrait

by Albert Kaplan

Let us read William Herndon's account beginning with a description of Thomas Lincoln, Abraham's father: "He (Thomas Lincoln) was, we are told, five feet ten inches high, weighed one hundred and ninety-five pounds, had a well-rounded face, dark hazel eyes, coarse black hair, and was slightly stoop-shouldered. His build was so compact that Dennis Hanks used to say that he could not find the points of separation between his ribs ... was sinewy, and gifted with great strength, was inoffensively quiet and peaceable, but when roused to resistance a dangerous antagonist."

"It was a wild region, with many bears and other wild animals still in the woods" wrote Lincoln in the Fell autobiography. More details are found in the sketch he furnished John L. Scripps. "He (Thomas Lincoln) settled in an unbroken forest, and this clearing away of the surplus wood was the great task ahead. Abraham, though very young was large of his age, and had an ax (axe) put into his hands at once: and from that till within his twenty-third year he was almost constantly handling that most useful instrument - less, of course, in plowing and harvesting seasons."

Herndon reports, "By the time he had reached his seventeenth year he had attained the physical proportions of a full-grown man. He was employed to assist James Taylor in the management of a ferry boat across the Ohio River near the mouth of Anderson's Creek, but was not allowed a man's wages for the work. He received thirty-seven cents a day for what he afterwards told me was the roughest work a young man could be made to do."

"In June the entire party, including Offut, boarded a steamboat going up the river. At St. Louis they disembarked, Offut remaining behind while Lincoln, Hanks, and Johnson started across Illinois on foot. At Edwardsville they separated. Hanks going to Springfield, while Lincoln and his step-brother following the road to Coles Country, to which point old Thomas Lincoln had meanwhile removed. Here Abe did not tarry long, probably not over a month, but long enough to dispose most effectively of one Daniel Needman, a famous wrestler who had challenged the returned boatman to a test of strength. The contest took place at a locality known as "Wabash Point". Abe threw his antagonist twice with comparative ease, and thereby demonstrated such marked strength and agility as to render him forever popular with the boys of the neighborhood."

"He enjoyed the brief distinction his exhibitions of strength gave him more than the admiration of his friends for his literary or forensic efforts. Some of the feats attributed to him almost surpass belief. One witness declares he was equal to three men, having on a certain occasion carried a load of six hundred pounds. At another time he walked away with a pair of logs which three robust men were skeptical of their ability to carry. "He could strike with a maul a heavier blow - could sink an axe deeper into wood than any man I ever saw." is the testimony of another witness."

(Interrupting Herndon's account for a moment to quote from Browne's biography of Lincoln, on page 53, quoting Dennis Hanks: "My, how he could chop! His ax would flash and bite into a sugar-tree or sycamore, and down it would come. If you heard his fellin' trees in a clearin' you would say there was three men at work by the way the trees fell.")

"They (the Clary's Grove boys) conceded leadership to one Jack Armstrong, a hardy, strong, and well-developed specimen of physical manhood, and under him they were in the habit of "cleaning out" New Salem whenever his order went forth to do so. Offut and "Bill" Clary - the latter skeptical of Lincoln's strength and agility - ended a heated discussion in the store one day over the new clerk's ability to meet the tactic of Clary's Grove, by a bet of ten dollars that Jack Armstrong was, in the language of the day, "a better man than Lincoln". The new clerk strongly opposed this sort of an introduction, but after much entreaty of Offut, at last consented to make his bow to the social lions of the town in this unusual way. He was now six feet four inches high, and weighed, as a friend and confident, William Green, tells with impressive precision, "two hundred and fourteen pounds". The contest was to be a friendly one and fairly conducted. All New Salem adjourned to the scene of the wrestle. Money, whisky, knives, and all manner of property were staked on the result. It is unnecessary to go into the details of the encounter. Everyone knows how it ended: how at last the tall and angular rail-splitter, enraged at the suspicion of foul tactics, and profiting by his height and length of his arms, fairly lifted the great bully by the throat and shook him like a rag ...."

"Mr. Lincoln's remarkable strength resulted not so much from muscular power as from the toughness of his sinews. He could not only lift from the ground enormous weight, but could throw a cannonball or a maul farther than anyone in New Salem."

"No little of Lincoln's influence with the men of New Salem can be attributed to his extraordinary feats of strength. By an arrangement of ropes and straps, harnessed about his hips, he was enabled one day at the mill to astonish a crowd of village celebrities by lifting a box of stones weighing near a thousand pounds." (Interrupting Herndon's account again, on page 154 of Ward H. Lamon's "The Life of Lincoln", one reads "Lincoln has often been seen in the old mill on the river bank to lift a box of stones weighing from one thousand to twelve hundred pounds."

In 1998 the University of Illinois Press published "Herndon's Informants", edited by Douglas L. Wilson and Rodney O. Davis. On page 7 is a May 28, 1865 letter to William H. Herndon from his cousin, J. Rowan Herndon. An excerpt, as written, follows: "... he was By fare the stoutest man that i ever took hold of i was a mear Child in his hands and i considered my self as good a man as there was in the Cuntry untill he Come about i saw him lift Betwen 1000 and 1300 lbs of Rock waid in a Boxx ..."

Continuing Herndon's account: "There is no fiction either, as suggested by some of his biographers, in the story that he lifted a barrel of whisky from the ground and drank from the bung; but in performing this later almost incredible feat he did not stand erect and elevate the barrel, but squatted down and lifted it to his knees ..."

"When he walked he moved cautiously but firmly; his long arms and giant hands swung down by his side. He walked with even tread, the inner sides of his feet being parallel. He put his whole foot flat down on the ground at once, not landing on the heal; he likewise lifted his foot all at once, not rising from the toe, and hence he had no spring to his walk. His walk was undulatory - catching and pocketing tire, weariness, and pain, all up and down his person, and thus preventing them from locating. The first impression of a stranger, or a man who did not observe closely, was that his walk implied shrewdness and cunning - that he was a tricky man; but in reality it was the walk of caution and firmness."

"From Lincoln’s campaign biography we read the following: “In the autumn of 1816 when Abraham was eight years old, his father determined to quit Kentucky. Already the evil influences of slavery were beginning to be felt by the poor and the non-slave-holders. But the emigration of Thomas Lincoln is, we believe, to be chiefly attributed to the insecurity of the right by which he held his Kentucky land; for, in those days, land titles were rather more uncertain than other human affairs. Abandoning his old home, and striking through the forests in a northwesterly direction, he fixed his new dwelling-place in the heart of the "forest primeval" of what is now Spencer County, Indiana. The dumb solitude there had never echoed to the ax, and the whole land was a wilderness."

"The rude cabin of the settler was hastily erected, and then those struggles and hardships commenced which are the common trials of frontier life, and of which the story has been so often repeated. Abraham was a hardy boy, large for his years, and with his ax did manful service in clearing the land. Indeed, with that implement, he literally hewed out his path to manhood; for until he was twenty-three, the ax was seldom out of his hand, except in the intervals of labor, or when it was exchanged for the plow, the hoe, or the sickle."

"Returning to Herndon:  “Mr. George Close, the partner of Lincoln in the rail-splitting business, says that Lincoln was, at this time, a farm laborer, working from day to day, for different people, chopping wood, mauling rails, or doing whatever was to be done. The country was poor, and hard work was the common lot; the heaviest share falling to the young unmarried men, with whom it was a continual struggle to earn a livelihood. Lincoln and Mr. Close made about one thousand rails together, for James Hawks and William Miller, receiving their pay in homespun clothing. Lincoln's bargain with Miller's wife, was, that he should have one yard of brown jeans, (richly dyed with walnut bark) for every four hundred rails made, until he should have enough for a pair of trousers. As Lincoln was already of great altitude, the number of rails that went to the acquirement of his pantaloons was necessarily immense."

The primeval forest of America is no more, nor the men and boys who cleared it. Abraham Lincoln's father, Thomas, was a man of extraordinary strength. "... he could not find the point of separation between his ribs ..." describes a muscularity virtually unknown in the world today. And, Abraham's strength was molded, no less than his father's, by the hardest, sustained physical labor known.

Mr. Offut boasted that there was no stronger man in the State of Illinois than his clerk, Abraham Lincoln. And, we read in Richard N. Current's "The Lincoln Nobody Knows" the following: "The strongest man I ever looked at" recalled an Illinoisan who had helped Lincoln with his bath when he was in Galesburg to debate with Stephen A. Douglas (1848)." My favorite description is that of Elliot Herndon, William H. Herndon's brother. He succinctly summed up young Lincoln: "I would say he was a cross between Venus and Hercules".

Continuing to quote Richard N. Currrent, we read, "A couple of years before starting the beard he had referred in public, in his self-deprecating way, to his 'poor lean, lank face.'" His nose was prominent and slightly askew, with the tip glowing red, as Herndon noticed. His heavy eyebrows overhung deep eye-caverns in which his eyes - sometimes dreamy, sometimes penetrating - were set. His cheekbones were high, his cheeks rather sunken, his mouth wide, his lips thick, especially the lower one, and his chin upturned. On the right cheek, near his mouth, a solitary mole stood out. His skin was sallow, leathery, wrinkled, dry, giving him a weather-beaten look. He had projecting - some said flapping - ears. His hair was thick and unruly, stray locks falling across his forehead."

"The foregoing list of traits hardly adds up to a flattering sum. The physical Lincoln, the external man, was made for caricature, was the delight of cartoonists. But there was more, far more, to Lincoln's appearance than all this. He cannot fairly be depicted by a mere catalogue of his peculiarities. To the people he met he made an impression which no such inventory can convey."

"At first glance, some thought him grotesque, even ugly, and almost all considered him homely. When preoccupied or in repose he certainly was far from handsome. At times he looked unutterably sad, as if every sorrow were his own, or he looked merely dull, with a vacant gaze. Still, as even the caustic Englishman Dicey observed, there was for all his grotesqueness, "an air of strength, physical as well as moral, and a strange look of dignity" about him. And when he spoke a miracle occurred. "The dull, listless features dropped like a mask." according to Horace White, an editor of the Chicago Tribune. "The eyes began to sparkle, the mouth to smile, the whole countenance was wreathed in animation, so that a stranger would have to said, "Why this face, so angular and somber a moment ago, is really handsome!" "He was the homeliest man I ever saw." said Donn Piatt, and yet there was something about the face that Piatt never forgot. "It brightened, like a lit lantern, when animated."

"Here was a Lincoln the camera never caught. When he went to the studio and sat before the lens he invariably relapsed into his sad, dull, abstracted mood. No wonder, he had to sit absolutely still, with his head against the photographer's rack, while the tedious seconds ticked by. It took time to get the image with the slow, wet-plate process of those days. There was no candid camera, no possibility of taking snapshots which might have recorded Lincoln at his sparkling best. "I have never seen a picture of him that does anything like justice to the original." said Henry Villard, the New York Herald reporter. "He is a much better looking man than any of the pictures represent."

"The portrait painters were hardly more successful. "Lincoln's features were the despair of every artist who undertook his portrait." his private secretary John G. Nicolay declared. A painter might measure the subject, scrutinize him in sitting after sitting, and eventually produce a likeness of a sort. But "this was not he who smiled, spoke, laughed, charmed." said Nicolay. The poet Walt Whitman commented after getting a close-up view: "None of the artists or pictures have caught the subtle and indirect expression of this man's face." And again, some years after Lincoln's death: "Though hundreds of portraits have been made, by painters and photographers (many to pass on, by copies, to future times), I have never seen one yet that in my opinion deserved to be called a perfectly good likeness: nor do I believe there is really such a one in existence."

"The word pictures do much to supply what the photographs and paintings missed, yet these descriptions also fail to show the man complete. All who tried to describe him admitted that the phenomenal mobility and expressiveness of his features, the reflections of his complex and wide-ranging personality, were beyond the power of words. "The tones, the gestures, the kindling eye, and mirth-provoking look defy the reporter's skill." the reporter Noah Brooks confessed after seeing Lincoln deliver the Cooper Union speech (1860)."

"Beyond a certain point Lincoln's appearance not only defied description; it also baffled interpretation. "There is something in the face which I cannot understand." said Congressman Henry L. Dawes of Massachusetts. And the leader of the German-Americans in Illinois, Gustave Koerner, remarked: "Something about the man, the face is unfathomable. In his looks there were hints of mysteries within."

Here is a rare description of Lincoln in the early 1840's, taken from the October 3, 1955 issue of "Lincoln Lore": "The summer edition of the Journal of the Illinois State Historical Society has contributed an extremely valuable world portrait of Abraham Lincoln preliminary to his congressional term. Harmon Y. Reynolds edited the "Masonic Towell" published in Springfield, Illinois and shortly after the assassination of the President prepared an editorial for the issue of May 15, 1865, which opened with the statement that he had known Lincoln "ever since 1840". The paragraph in which he described Lincoln in the early forties follows:"

"The people are accustomed to look upon Mr. Lincoln as he appeared when elected President. The pictures and photographs that meet the eye everywhere, even when flattering him, by no means do justice to his appearance in early manhood. The first time we saw him to know him, he rose to address the House. His figure was tall, and his face sufficiently full to relieve the prominences so noticeable in later life. Although dark, yet his face was fresh, almost to floridness, his eye was brilliant and speaking (sparkling), his hair was heavy and well-dressed, and greatly added to his appearance. No man in the house seemed to care so little for dress, and yet no one dressed in better taste. Humor, mercy, and talent were ineffaceably delineated upon his countenance."

Lincoln described how, in the early 1840's, he appeared to voters who knew him only by his appearance. In a letter to Martin M. Morris, dated March 26, 1843, he wrote, "It would astonish if not amuse, the older citizens to learn that I (a stranger, friendless, uneducated, penniless boy, working on a flatboat at ten dollars per month) have been put down here as the candidate of pride, wealth, and aristocratic family distinction."

I will now close this review by briefly mentioning the daguerreotype image of the young man. Forensic science confirms its bonefides. The young man is Lincoln. In fact, there is no possibility he is not Lincoln. Because as a child Lincoln suffered a traumatic blow to the head with consequential facial deformities, we are offered unique points of identification which, if present in the Kaplan daguerreotype, would be ponderous evidence. And, it is all there, clearly, plainly. These unique, trauma-induced peculiarities of Lincoln's face (masterfully analyzed by Dr. Edward J. Kempf., "Abraham Lincoln's Organic and Emotional Neurosis", American Medical Association Archives of Neurology and Psychiatry, April 1952, Volume 67, Number 4, pp. 419-433; and "Abraham Lincoln's Philosophy of Common Sense", New York Academy of Sciences, 1965, Volume I, Chapter I, pp. 1-18.) are seen, unmistakably, in the daguerreotype.