As arguably the most famous American in history, Abraham Lincoln’s life has been well documented. Almost everyone has heard the tale of how he was born in a log cabin, and how he was tall, honest and self-educated. He’s praised for his Emancipation Proclamation that freed the slaves and celebrated for his perseverance in keeping the United States one nation, and not a country divided between North and South.
Yet there’s a great deal that many people don’t know about the 16th president. Here are five unusual facts about Abraham Lincoln, some as strange as what you’d see in an episode of the X-Files.
5. Booth Saved Lincoln … in a Manner of Speaking
Robert Todd Lincoln, the president’s son, often recounted an incident from late 1864 in which he fell off a train platform into the path of a slow-moving train. He was quickly yanked back onto the platform by a man he immediately recognized as one of the most famous Shakespearean actors of that era. The actor’s name? Edwin Booth, whose brother, John Wilkes Booth, would assassinate the president months later. Robert was in Washington when his father was assassinated. Coincidentally, he was an eyewitness when President Garfield was shot and killed in 1881 and was on the scene when President McKinley was assassinated in 1901.
4. Lincoln Held Séances in the White House
Lincoln and his wife, Mary Todd Lincoln, had four sons. The oldest, Robert, was the only son to reach age 19. Lincoln and his wife were so distraught after their 11-year-old son Willie died from fever in 1862 that they held séances in the White House in an effort to speak with their dead son. Lincoln was deeply interested in many sorts of psychic phenomenon. Lincoln even reported being present at a séance in which a piano mysteriously floated around a room. Mediums who worked with Lincoln stated that he held extraordinary psychic powers.
3. Lincoln Supported Cockfighting
Cockfighting, which originated in Asia before spreading to ancient Greece and Rome, is widely considered animal brutality and is illegal throughout the United States and most of Europe. It was, however, legal in the U.S. in the 19th century. Lincoln loved cockfighting and participated in the sport at an early age. Furthermore, he even officiated several cockfights, indicating his deep affiliation with the blood sport. Lincoln allegedly justified his love for the sport by saying, “As long as the Almighty permitted intelligent men, created in his image and likeness, to fight in public and kill each other while the world looks on approvingly, it’s not for me to deprive the chickens of the same privilege.” Again, it should be noted that cockfighting was not illegal at the time and didn’t carry the stigma it does today.
Lincoln is also reported to have once said, “I am in favor of animal rights as well as human rights. That is the way of a whole human being.” A number of animal rights organizations have frequently attributed that quote to Lincoln. However, some researchers point out that no mention of that quote can be found in the historical records.
2. Lincoln Had a Mediocre Career in the Illinois Militia
In April 1832, Sac Indian chief Black Hawk led a band of more than 1,000 indians east across the Mississippi River from Iowa into Illinois. Although the group’s intentions were peaceful — they wanted to resettle on their tribe’s ancestral lands — white settlers were alarmed. Illinois Gov. John Reynolds sent out the call for volunteers and a 23-year-old Abraham Lincoln quickly signed up. He was immediately given the rank of captain in the Illinois state militia. Lincoln and his company of men never saw actual combat in what came to be known as the Black Hawk War, although Lincoln helped bury victims of the war’s first major engagement, the Battle of Stillman’s Run.
When Lincoln’s one-month enlistment was up, he left the militia, but quickly reenlisted as a private when the call went out again for more volunteers. Once again, Lincoln did not see any action and he was mustered out of the militia July 10 after less than three months of service. Accounts vary as to Lincoln’s effectiveness as a leader and soldier. Some historical accounts praise his leadership qualities, while others paint him as an ineffectual leader. In one incident while he was captain, men under his command came into possession of stolen whiskey and proceeded to get so drunk they were unable to march the next day. Although Lincoln knew nothing of the whiskey incident, he was nonetheless reprimanded. In another incident, he was punished for firing his gun too close to camp.
1. Lincoln Had Some Strange Dreams and Visions
Lincoln took his dreams very seriously and he reportedly had numerous visions that came mysteriously to fruition. According to an account published in the July 1865 edition of Harper’s Monthly magazine, one of the president’s former assistants recalled an incident from the morning after Lincoln’s 1860 election. An exhausted Lincoln awoke and caught a glimpse of himself in the mirror. Staring back at him were two faces. One was normal, but the other appeared deathly pale. Lincoln discussed the incident with his wife, who reportedly told him that she interpreted it to mean that he would be elected to two terms, but he would die during his second term.
A week prior to being assassinated, Lincoln reported having a nightmare in which he found himself walking through a solemn White House. When he heard the sound of sobbing, he followed it to the East Room. There, he saw military guards standing over a catafalque draped in black. Upon asking the guard who had died, the guard responded that the president had been murdered. It wasn’t the last portent of his own death Lincoln would have. According to the 1963 book, “The Lincoln Nobody Knows,” author Richard N. Current noted that on April 14, 1865, during a cabinet meeting, Lincoln reported having had an unsettling dream in which he had seen himself sailing “in an indescribable vessel and moving rapidly toward an indistinct shore.” Lincoln was assassinated that night.