Lincoln’s Yarns and Stories: “Don’T Kill Him with Your Fist”

Ward Lamon, Marshal of the District of Columbia during Lincoln’s time in Washington, was a powerful man; his strength was phenomenal, and a blow from his fist was like unto that coming from the business end of a sledge.

Lamon tells this story, the hero of which is not mentioned by name, but in all probability his identity can be guessed:

“On one occasion, when the fears of the loyal element of the city (Washington) were excited to fever-heat, a free fight near the old National Theatre occurred about eleven o’clock one night. An officer, in passing the place, observed what was going on, and seeing the great number of persons engaged, he felt it to be his duty to command the peace.

“The imperative tone of his voice stopped the fighting for a moment, but the leader, a great bully, roughly pushed back the officer and told him to go away or he would whip him. The officer again advanced and said, ‘I arrest you,’ attempting to place his hand on the man’s shoulder, when the bully struck a fearful blow at the officer’s face.

“This was parried, and instantly followed by a blow from the fist of the officer, striking the fellow under the chin and knocking him senseless. Blood issued from his mouth, nose and ears. It was believed that the man’s neck was broken. A surgeon was called, who pronounced the case a critical one, and the wounded man was hurried away on a litter to the hospital.

“There the physicians said there was concussion of the brain, and that the man would die. All the medical skill that the officer could procure was employed in the hope of saving the life of the man. His conscience smote him for having, as he believed, taken the life of a fellow-creature, and he was inconsolable.

“Being on terms of intimacy with the President, about two o’clock that night the officer went to the White House, woke up Mr. Lincoln, and requested him to come into his office, where he told him his story. Mr. Lincoln listened with great interest until the narrative was completed, and then asked a few questions, after which he remarked:

“‘I am sorry you had to kill the man, but these are times of war, and a great many men deserve killing. This one, according to your story, is one of them; so give yourself no uneasiness about the matter. I will stand by you.’

“‘That is not why I came to you. I knew I did my duty, and had no fears of your disapproval of what I did,’ replied the officer; and then he added: ‘Why I came to you was, I felt great grief over the unfortunate affair, and I wanted to talk to you about it.’

“Mr. Lincoln then said, with a smile, placing his hand on the officer’ shoulder: ‘You go home now and get some sleep; but let me give you this piece of advice—hereafter, when you have occasion to strike a man, don’t hit him with your fist; strike him with a club, a crowbar, or with something that won’t kill him.’”