Abraham Lincoln wasn’t the person we imagine. In public, he might have been a famous orator who could stand in front of crowds and stir the spirits of thousands. But in private, he was a dark and troubled man.
For all the political troubles Lincoln shouldered without a word of complaint, he struggled to stand up to the weight of his personal problems. He battled suicidal thoughts, a deep depression, and a life full of tragedy and unhappiness. And it made him a very different man than the one suggested by his stoic face.
10 He Was Afraid To Carry Knives Because He Might Kill Himself
On the surface, Lincoln seemed like a fun-loving joker. He would go out with the mask of a smile on his face and crack filthy jokes, letting everyone think he was the cheeriest man alive. When he was alone, though, he struggled with crippling depression.
He told a friend that he “never dared carry a knife in his pocket” out of fear that he’d kill himself. It wasn’t an unwarranted fear—he very nearly did it more than once.
In winter 1840, Lincoln spiraled into a terrible depression. He was engaged to Mary Todd but had fallen in love with another woman named Matilda Edwards. He couldn’t bring himself to call off his wedding. But the emotional struggle was tearing him apart.
In the words of a colleague, “Lincoln went crazy as a loon.” Lincoln had a mental breakdown, becoming unable to work or do anything but sit and talk about how horribly miserable he was.
He may not have carried a knife in his own pocket on any day, but his friends couldn’t trust him to have a blade anywhere in his home during his dark moments. They went through his house, pulling out every kitchen knife and shaving razor, convinced that Lincoln would kill himself if he was left alone for a second.
9 He Jumped Out A Window
Lincoln still made it into the office a few times that winter, but his behavior wasn’t completely sane. One day in December 1840, in the middle of a legislative session, Abraham Lincoln jumped out the window.
It wasn’t exactly a suicide attempt. Lincoln and his party, the Whigs, were trying to keep the session from closing. They were about to lose a vote that would have forced the State Bank to make payments it couldn’t afford, and Lincoln knew the bank would go bankrupt if they didn’t stop the vote.
There was a loophole that could keep it from happening. If they had one less Whig in the building, Lincoln realized, the vote technically wouldn’t be valid. So he made sure there was one less Whig. He threw himself out the window.
Most people treated it as some political novelty act. Lincoln wasn’t hurt, and the Democrats joked it was because he was so tall that “his legs reached nearly from the window to the ground.”
Today, though, we know that Lincoln was suicidally depressed at this time in his life. He may have been helping his party, but there might be more than one reason why he jumped out that window.
8 He Stopped His First Political Speech To Fight Someone
Lincoln was a champion wrestler. He fought more than 300 matches and only lost one. For as much as he looked like a thin and lanky man, he was pure muscle up close. Nearly every description we have of him called him “sinewy” and “gifted with great strength.”
He put it to use. In 1832, when he was just 23 years old, Lincoln made his first political speech. He said only a few short words—because he wanted to fight someone.
Two people in the crowd had broken into a fight. Lincoln saw that a supporter who had egged him on to get on the stage was being attacked. The massive, 193-centimeter (6’4”) former wrestling champion and future president stopped talking, stepped down from the platform, and lifted up the troublemaker by the seat of his pants. Then Lincoln threw the man as hard as he could, making him go flying 4 meters (12 ft) according to one witness.
7 He Started A Riot
Lincoln liked to fight, and he would rise to any challenge. One farmer who lived near Lincoln’s home said that he once asked Lincoln if he could kill a hog with his bare hands. According to the farmer, the young Lincoln told him, “If you will risk the hog, I’ll risk myself.”
When a man named William Grigsby challenged him to a fight, though, Lincoln didn’t offer him as much respect as he gave hogs. Grigsby, he felt, wasn’t enough of a challenge to be worth his while. So Lincoln had Grigsby fight his stepbrother, John Johnson, to give Grigsby a chance.
Enough of a challenge for Johnson, Grigsby started winning. But Lincoln didn’t play fair. When he saw his stepbrother was losing, Lincoln picked up Grigsby and threw him into the crowd. Then he stared down every person there and yelled, “I’m the big buck of this lick! If any of you want to try it, come on and whet your horns!”
There were dozens of people there—and every one of them erupted into a massive fistfight. Some started swinging for Lincoln, and others swung in his defense. Soon, the whole street was in a riot, sparked by a man who would one day be on the back of the penny.
6 He Watched His First Love Die
Long before he’d met Mary Todd, Abraham Lincoln was in love with someone else: Ann Rutledge. He was still in law school when they met, and she was engaged to marry another man, John MacNamar. She and Lincoln fell in love, though, and Ann promised to break off her engagement with MacNamar.
At the time, MacNamar was in London and Ann insisted on telling him in person. While she and Lincoln waited for MacNamar to return, Ann caught typhoid fever and became deathly ill. Lincoln visited her every day.
“I can never forget how sad and brokenhearted Lincoln looked when he came out of the room from the last interview with Annie,” Ann’s sister, Nancy Rutledge, would later recall. “No one knows what was said at that meeting, for they were alone together.”
Ann died, and Lincoln had no choice but to move on. This, though, was one of the first times that Lincoln’s friends would truly worry about his suicidal thoughts. It was said that he was “insane for a year after Annie’s death, with grief.”
5 He Was Considered Hideous
When you picture the Gettysburg Address, you might want to picture Lincoln’s voice a couple of octaves higher. According to every description we have, Lincoln’s voice was “high” and “shrill.”
Lincoln’s voice grated on people, and his face wasn’t much better. He was considered hideous, and even Lincoln accepted it. Once, when accused of being “two-faced,” Lincoln famously snapped back, “If I had two faces, would I be wearing this one?”
It all must have worn on him. One story reveals that Lincoln had a little vanity about how he looked. In 1860, while he was running for president, Lincoln received a letter from an 11-year-old girl named Grace Bedell. “Let your whiskers grow,” Bedell told him. “All the ladies like whiskers, and they would tease their husbands to vote for you.”
Lincoln must have been excited by the idea of finally being seen as handsome. He started growing his beard that day. By Inauguration Day, he had the full beard he’s known for today. If Bedell questioned whether she’d convinced him to grow it out, she didn’t have to wonder for long. Shortly after getting into office, Lincoln asked to meet her.
“Gracie, look at my whiskers,” the president told the young girl. “I have been growing them for you.”
4 There Were Rumors That He’d Impregnated Three Women
Despite modern rumors that Lincoln was gay, he was seen as a ladies’ man in his own time. He was known for having a “strong passion for women” and described as a man who “could scarcely keep his hands off them.”
Rumors about Lincoln’s sex-crazed mind went around the town. One farmer claimed that Lincoln had asked him to let Lincoln know whenever a mare came in so that he could watch the horses breed.
That was only the start of it, though. There were also rumors that he was secretly the father of Mrs. Abell’s daughter—and Mrs. Duncan’s and Mrs. Armstrong’s children, too. At least three babies in town, if the rumors are to be believed, were Lincoln’s secret love children.
Later, when he became president, he invited Mrs. Armstrong—the alleged mother of his secret bastard child—to see him in the White House. Rumors perked up again, with the people in town spreading gossip that she was off to have an affair with Honest Abe.
Mrs. Armstrong, though, laughed them off by saying, “It was not every woman who had the fortune and honor of sleeping with a president.”
3 He Almost Cheated On Mary Todd With A Prostitute
During Lincoln’s year of depression in 1840, he visited a prostitute. His friend Joshua Speed hooked him up after Lincoln asked, “Speed, do you know where I can get some?” Speed, who had been a frequent visitor to one girl in town, wrote Lincoln a note, told him where to go, and promised he would get in.
At the time, Lincoln would have been dating Mary Todd. The date isn’t certain, but the two may already have been engaged. Lincoln, though, went through the darkest year of his life in 1840, and it seems that he tried to take a night’s refuge in a brothel.
However, he was still a poor man. When Lincoln made it in and found out that the night would cost him $5, he had to admit that he only had $3. “I’ll trust you, Mr. Lincoln, for $2,” the prostitute tried to reassure him. But Lincoln wouldn’t do it.
“I do not wish to go on credit,” Lincoln said, buttoning up his pants. “I’m poor, and I don’t know where my next dollar will come from, and I cannot afford to cheat you.”
Not wanting to waste the prostitute’s time, Lincoln tried to give her the $3 he had. But she wouldn’t take it. He left, refusing to accept her services if he couldn’t pay an honest rate. As he walked out, the prostitute said, “You are the most conscientious man I ever saw.”
2 He Nearly Fought A Duel With Broadswords
In 1842, Abraham Lincoln picked up a broadsword and nearly fought another man, 36-year-old James Shields, to the death.
Lincoln, who had fancied himself something of a writer, penciled up a short story that was mostly just two characters making fun of Shields. At one point, he had a character say, “Shields is a fool as well as a liar.” At another, he had Shields show up and apologize for not being able to marry every woman in Springfield by saying, “It is not my fault that I am so handsome and so interesting.”
The real-world Shields demanded an apology, and Lincoln refused. So Shields challenged Lincoln to a duel. Duel rules, though, meant that Lincoln got to pick the weapon and the place. So the massively tall Lincoln chose broadswords “of the largest size.” They would fight, he declared, with a 30-centimeter (12 in) plank between them, making it impossible for Shields to reach Lincoln.
He thought Shields would just give up, but the ever-prideful Shields went out to the field anyway to fight an unwinnable battle. Lincoln was ready to kill Shields if he had to. Lincoln only avoided cutting his career short with a homicide when one of Mary Todd’s relatives managed to convince the men to calm down.
1 He Nearly Left Mary Todd At The Altar
We mentioned earlier that Lincoln nearly left Mary Todd for Matilda Edwards. But he wasn’t the only one with his doubts.
Mary Todd was out flirting with other men as well—and likely doing more than just batting her eyes. She would later admit, “For two years before my marriage, that I doubtless trespassed many times.” Most of those trespasses were with a man named Stephen Douglas, and there’s every reason to believe that Lincoln knew exactly what his fiancee was up to.
Lincoln and Mary ended up getting married, though. At least one historian believes that happened because Mary got pregnant. Mary and Lincoln would meet up in private at a friend’s home. While we don’t know for sure what they did there, we know that one day Lincoln went from wanting to call it off to deciding he was going to marry her the very next day.
In a letter to a friend, Lincoln wrote that he “shall have to” marry Mary Todd. Given how quickly they got married, this strongly suggests that a baby was behind the decision.
Either way, Lincoln definitely wasn’t too happy on his wedding day. A witness said that Lincoln “looked as if he was going to the slaughter.” When someone asked Lincoln where he was going, he replied, “To hell, I suppose.”
If you want to know more about Abraham Lincoln, check out 10 Little-Known Stories Of Abraham Lincoln’s Assassination and 10 Reasons Lincoln Was Secretly A Terrible President.