Uncouth and Scratchy: Calling All Abes
Come February 12, people like Gene Griessman and Dennis Boggs are ultra-busy (and itchy). They're both dedicated Lincoln impersonators, complete with the twangs, stovepipe hats, and button-fly wool pants.
Association of Lincoln Presenters 12th Convention, Cincinnati (April 2006)
Photo: Association of Lincoln Presenters
Abraham Lincoln was born this day two centuries ago in a log cabin near Hodgenville, Kentucky, destined to become one of the most revered icons of rural America. Yet during his lifetime, Lincoln was so unpopular that he nearly lost his second run for the presidency, failed two times to carry his home state of Kentucky and suffered at least two debilitating bouts of depression.
So why now, 200 years after his birth, do tall, bearded men from Alaska to Georgia buy black stovepipe hats, dress up in black frockcoats and scratchy woolen button-front pants, go out in public and pretend to be Lincoln?
Lincoln has endured because he was a great president, perhaps the greatest president: he freed the slaves and saved the union. His assassination added to his mystique. And while the centennial of his birth in 1909 received a tepid celebration, Lincoln’s image has gradually improved, even in Kentucky where he has long been regarded with ambivalence.
Abe Lincoln 'rastling
Source: Presidents R Us
“In a largely agricultural America, it didn’t hurt for people to think he was one of them,” said Gene Griessman, a retired Georgia sociology professor, who presents Lincoln as a motivational speaker to corporate clients. Lincoln carefully cultivated and refined the stories of his log cabin birth, his youth behind a plow and young adulthood in the hard labor of splitting rails.
"He could write eloquently. I mean, the Gettysburg Address is poetry," said Griessman. But he notes that as a public speaker, Lincoln, “would talk like a person on the frontier." Honest Abe "traded on his rural roots.”
Lincoln made it clear that he had no intention of spending his life as his father had, in the backbreaking monotony of farm labor. Yet the trappings of rurality went with him to the White House.
Even after being elected President, Lincoln continued, in his reedy tenor, to say “heered” for “heard” and “seed” for “saw.” While Lincoln stayed true to his inner plowboy, the hick shtick was not well accepted in Washington. Lincoln was considered so unsophisticated that he recruited his secretary of state and presidential rival William Seward, a college-educated New Yorker, to tutor him in matters of manners and diplomacy.
“He was considered uncouth, and he knew it,” Griessman said.
Dennis Boggs , who worked in the grocery business around Nashville for 30 years before going full-time as a Lincoln impersonator, finds that Lincoln has a special appeal for rural people.
“He stayed a country boy all his life, much to the dismay of his wife, Mary Todd, who grew up in Lexington, Kentucky, in a well-heeled society family,” Boggs said. “Mary Todd was horrified when Lincoln answered the front door of the White House, sometimes with no jacket and wearing bedroom slippers.”
Being Lincoln has become a cottage industry, and during this bicentennial year presenters like Boggs are heavily booked. At the 1995 convention of the Association of Lincoln Presenters, there were 76 Abes and 22 Marys. That number has risen to a current 166 Abes and 49 Marys in 38 states. (The number of Abes, by the way, dwarfs the smattering of Stephen Douglas, Ulysses Grant and Matthew Brady impersonators.)
Photo: Meet Mr. Lincoln
With Civil War reenactments, classroom history lessons, patriotic events and historic sites, the demand for living Lincolns is strong.
“You know, I’m Abe, 24-7,” said Boggs, who like Lincoln stands 6 feet 4 inches and weighs about 190 pounds. He was wearing his civvies when touring the Andersonville National Historic Site, the notorious Confederate prison where more than 13,000 Union soldiers died. A park service employee hooked him and said, “Hey, we need to talk to you.” Boggs just completed a show there.
There’s even a cottage industry in dressing President Lincoln. Glenda Schroeder of Signal Mountain, Tennessee, has made dozens of Civil War era costumes and knows in detail what it takes to dress the 16th president.
While the exact cost of making a suit of Lincoln’s clothes depends on the cut and the fabric, Schroeder said $2,000 would not be out of line for a high-quality Lincoln outfit, including the undershirt and knee-length under shorts, a pullover shirt and tuxedo placket with ¾ inch tucks and a detachable collar. Pants have five-button fly-front openings, buttons inside to accommodate suspenders and a “v” in back with eyelet lacing so they could expand with the wearer during the many years they were expected to be in service. On top of all of that is a black vest and a frockcoat.
The top hat can cost anywhere from $70 to as much as $500 at pricy Civil War outfitters like Dirty Billy’s in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania.
Abraham Lincoln (?) cycling
in Rapid City, South Dakota's
Festival of Presidents, 2007
Presenters, while taking on the persona of Lincoln, seem to reflect the complexity the Civil War era. Jim Sayre, a widely-respected Lincoln presenter from Lawrenceburg, Kentucky, sometimes performs opposite Clint Howard, of Frankfort, Kentucky. Howard and his wife not only portray Abe Lincoln and Mary Todd, but also Confederate President Jefferson Davis and his wife, Varina.
“Sometimes we do a Lincoln/Davis debate, which never happened, but we use documents that show what each of them thought on issues like states rights, secession and habeus corpus, and we use that to put these two gentlemen, both Kentuckians, face-to-face,” Sayre said. “I love it, because I always win.”
In the end, though, it isn’t the clothes, the money or even the debates that keep the presenters going. It is the thrill of bringing the epitome of the American dream to life.
“I have never experienced anything like it,” said Dennis Boggs, a full-time Lincoln impersonator. “The first time I portrayed Lincoln in front of a school group, they were in total belief that I was Lincoln, and I was hooked.”