Thursday, May 24, 2007
Jack Armstrong Jevne: Wasn’t Named After the Radio Hero
By ROGER M. GRACE
“Jack Armstrong Jevne,” born Dec. 27, 1874, was the full name of the son of Hans Jevne, Norwegian-American founder of Los Angeles’s premier retail/wholesale grocery operation.
“Jack Armstrong” is hardly a Norwegian name…and the conferring of a given name of “Jack” rather than “John” wasn’t any more common then than now.
It’s a sure bet he was not named after “Jack Armstrong, all-American boy.” That fictional character had not been conjured up prior to his debut on radio in 1933.
Why did Hans and Mina Jevne choose the name for their son? My speculation is that he was the namesake of a Jack Armstrong with whom Abraham Lincoln wrestled in 1831. That happened in New Salem, Ill., shortly after Lincoln moved there and became a clerk in a grocery store.
The January, 1896 edition of McClure’s Magazine recites:
“Denton Offutt, Lincoln’s employer, was just the man to love to boast before… a crowd. He seemed to feel that Lincoln’s physical prowess shed glory on himself, and he declared the country over that his clerk could lift more, throw farther, run faster, jump higher, and wrestle better than any man in Sangamon County. The Clary’s Grove Boys, of course, felt in honor bound to prove this false, and they appointed their best man, one Jack Armstrong, to ‘throw Abe.’ Jack Armstrong was, according to the testimony of all who remember him, a ‘powerful twister,’ ‘square built and strong as an ox,’ ‘the best-made man that ever lived;’ and everybody knew the contest would be close.
Lincoln won. As Carl Sandburg tells it in “Abraham Lincoln: The Prairie Years”:
“As Armstrong lay on the ground, a champion in the dust of defeat, his gang from Clary’s Grove started to swarm toward Lincoln, with hot Kentucky and Irish epithets on their lips. Lincoln stepped to where his back was against a wall, braced himself, and told the gang he was ready for ’em.
“Then Jack Armstrong broke through the front line of the gang, shook Lincoln’s hand and told the gang Lincoln was ‘fair,’ had won the match, and, ‘He’s the best feller that ever broke into this settlement.’ ”
“As the Clary’s Grove Boys looked Lincoln over they decided he was one of them….Yes, he belonged; even though he didn’t drink whisky nor play cards, he belonged. They called on him to judge their horseraces and chicken fights, umpire their matches, and settle disputes. Their homes were open to him. He was adopted.”
This incident was, in later years—after Lincoln became an historical figure, and a revered one—to find its way into just about every biography written of the 16th president. But long before then, the episode was no doubt told and retold among the populace of the area. Sandberg’s book happens to note that in Sangamon County, there “was a settlement of Norwegians.”
Jack Jevne was born in Chicago, located in Cook County, in the northern part of the state. Sangamon County is in Central Illinois, 187 miles away, about 10 hours by horseback.
It was in 1866 that Hans and Carl Jevne came to Chicago from Norway to help their older brother, Christian Jevne, operate his grocery store. The store specialized in goods imported from Norway, drawing Norwegian-American customers from all points, far and near…no doubt including Sangamon County.
It cannot be imagined that Hans Jevne had not heard of the 1831 wrestling bout, of Armstrong interceding to prevent Lincoln from suffering a beating at the hands of rowdies, of the close friendship that developed between Lincoln and Armstrong. The latter became a first sergeant in the Black Hawk War under Captain Lincoln. During the days before Lincoln went to Springfield to open a law practice, “Mr. Lincoln had no friend more intimate than Jack Armstrong, and none that valued him more highly,” according to “The Life of Abraham Lincoln: From His Birth to His Inauguration as President,” published in 1872.
There is an affinity between Norwegians and Lincoln. My maternal grandfather, born in Erfjord, Norway, told many a tale about him. Lincoln was down-to-earth, honest, hard-working—i.e., Norwegian-like.
“The honest pride and satisfaction of the Norwegians in the thought that their people, though not then numerous, nearly all ‘voted right’ in 1860 is to this day a vital element in that people’s public morale,” according to “The Honest Who Elected Lincoln?”, an article by Joseph Schafer in the October, 1941 issue of “The American Historical Review.”
By the way, while you may very well not have heard of Armstrong, you have no doubt encountered recitations of attorney Lincoln in 1858 clearing a client of a murder charge by reference to an almanac, showing there was not sufficient moonlight for a witness to have seen what he recited. The client was William “Duff” Armstrong, son of Jack Armstrong and his widow, Hannah. (Lincoln charged no fee in that case.)
Copyright 2007, Metropolitan News Company
MetNews Main Page Reminiscing Columns