“That reminds me…” When Lincoln uttered those three simple words, you knew it was time to get comfy. Honest Abe had an endless supply of jokes, tall tales, and anecdotes, including these folksy classics.
1. The Perfect Woman
The President told of a southern Illinois preacher who, in the course of his sermon, asserted that the Saviour [sic] was the only perfect man who had ever appeared in this world; also that there was no record, in the Bible or elsewhere, of any perfect woman having lived upon the earth. Whereupon there arose in the rear of the church a persecuted-looking personage who, the parson having stopped speaking, said "I know a perfect woman, and I’ve heard of her every day for the last six years.’" "Who was she?" asked the minister. "My husband’s first wife," replied the afflicted female.
— Story relayed by soldier-turned-publisher James Grant Wilson (1832-1914)
2. Equestrian Put-Down
At an editors' banquet held in 1856, Lincoln—not being a journalist—felt rather alienated. Addressing his audience, he compared himself to the ugly horseman. This fellow, while riding one day, happened upon a woman who curtly remarked, “Well, for land sake, you are the homeliest man I ever saw.”
“Yes, madam, but I can’t help it,” he responded.
“No, I suppose not,” she allowed, “but you might stay at home.”
3. The Stranger’s Jackknife
Self-deprecating humor came naturally to Lincoln; once after being called "two-faced," he quipped, “If I had two faces, why would I be wearing this one?” He also told this story, which was relayed by portrait painter Francis B. Carpenter (1830-1900):
[While riding a train,] I was once accosted … by a stranger, who said, "Excuse me, sir, but I have an article in my possession which rightfully belongs to you." "How is that?" I asked, considerably astonished. The stranger took a jackknife from his pocket. "This knife," said he, "was placed in my hands some years ago with the injunction that I was to keep it until I found a man uglier than myself. I have carried it from that time to this. Allow me now to say, sir, that I think you are fairly entitled to the property.”
4. Hard Lemonade
Out in Sangamon County, there was an old temperance lecturer, who was very strict in the doctrine and practice of total abstinence. One day, after a long ride in the hot sun, he stopped at the house of a friend who proposed making him a lemonade. As the mild beverage was being mixed, the friend insinuatingly asked if he wouldn’t like just the least drop of something stronger, to brace up his nerves after the exhausting heat and exercise. "No," replied the lecturer, "I couldn’t think of it; I’m opposed on principle. But," he added, with a longing glance at the black bottle that stood conveniently at hand, "If you could manage to put in a drop unbeknownst to me, I guess it wouldn’t hurt me as much."
— Story relayed by the Cincinnati Gazette
5. George Washington’s Water Closet (NSFW)
Daniel Day-Lewis fans might recognize this gem from a hilarious scene in Lincoln (2012):
The original story—among Lincoln’s most irreverent—went something like this: Ethan Allen (1738-1789) was a Revolutionary War hero who “had occasion to visit England” shortly after peace was declared. During this trip, Allen’s British hosts pelted him with jokes about “Americans and General Washington in particular and one day they got a picture of General Washington” which was conspicuously hung up in an outhouse. Though he couldn’t have missed this painting, Allen never mentioned it. Eventually, the Brits asked if he’d spotted Washington’s likeness in the privy. Allen had, and added, “it was a very appropriate [place] for an Englishman to keep it … there is nothing that will make an Englishman sh*t so quick as the sight of Genl. Washington.”
6. The Prize Hog
I used to know [an old farmer] out in Illinois. He took it into his head to go into hog-raising, so he sent out to Europe and imported the finest breed of hogs that he could buy. The prize hog was put in a pen and the farmer’s two mischievous boys, James and John, were told to be sure not to let it out. But James let the brute out the very next day. The hog went straight for the boys and drove John up a tree. Then it went for the seat of James’ trousers, and the only way the boy could save himself was by holding onto the porker’s tail. The hog would not give up his hunt, nor the boy his hold. After they had made a good many circles around the tree, the boy’s courage began to give out, and he shouted to his brother: "I say John, come down quick and help me let go of this hog!"
— Story supposedly told to Pennsylvania Governor Andrew Curtin (1817-1894).
Noted history buff Gregory Peck got to retell this yarn while taking his own stab at playing Lincoln in HBO’s 1982 miniseries The Blue and the Gray:
7. Somebody Call a Barber…
Even presidential nominees get bad hair days. After the 1860 RNC wrapped up, Lincoln recalled, newspaper boys couldn’t resist poking fun at his mop.
When I was nominated, at Chicago, an enterprising fellow thought that a great many people would like to see how Abe Lincoln looked, and, as I had not long before sat for a photograph, this fellow having seen it, rushed over and bought the negative. He [published copies] … and, so active was their circulation, they were selling in all parts of the country. Soon after they reached Springfield I heard a boy crying them for sale on the streets. "Here’s your likeness of Abe Lincoln!" he shouted. "Buy one, price only two shillings! Will look a good deal better when he gets his hair combed!”
— Story relayed by War Department telegrapher Albert B. Chandler (1840-1923)
8. Tell ‘Em What They Wanna Hear
[A horse was] sold at the cross-roads near where I once lived. The horse was supposed to be fast, and quite a number of people were present at the time appointed for the sale. A small boy was employed to ride the horse backward and forward to exhibit his points. One of the would-be buyers followed the boy down the road and asked him confidentially if the horse had a splint. "Well, mister," said the boy, "if it's good for him he has got it, but if it isn't good for him he hasn't."
— Story relayed by Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton (1814-1869)
9. There’s No Place Like Springfield…
Illinois presently calls Springfield her capital, thanks, in no small part, to a campaign spearheaded by then-state senator Lincoln. Yet, despite having lived there for over 22 years, the future president occasionally made punchlines at his city’s expense.
One time—Lincoln would say—a visitor had arrived in town to deliver some lectures. Learning that he’d need to get the secretary of state’s permission first, he arranged for a meeting. “What are your lectures about?” asked the secretary. “They’re about the second coming of the Lord,” the visitor replied.
“Don’t waste your time,” said the secretary, “If the Lord’s seen Springfield once, He ain’t coming back."
10. Well, Aren’t You a Pistol?
A law-abiding citizen once found himself looking down the barrel of a gun. According to Lincoln, this attacker severely underestimated his target, who lunged forward and took the weapon. “Stop!” hollered the crook. “Give me back that pistol; you have no right to my property!”
11. A Revolutionary Relic (NSFW)
[There once was a man] who had great veneration for Revolutionary relics. He heard tha[t] an old lady… had a dress which she had worn during the Revolutionary War. He made a special visit to this lady and asked her if she could produce the dress as a satisfaction to his love of aged things. She obliged him by opening a drawer and bringing out the article in question … the relic hunter took the old dress and kissed it heartily.
The practical old lady rather resented such foolishness over an old piece of wearing apparel and she said: "Stranger, if you want to kiss something old, you had better kiss my ass. It is sixteen years older than that dress.”
— Story relayed by Secretary of the Interior John Palmer Usher (1816-1889)