Will the Real Jack Kelso Please Stand Up?

by Mary Turner

Well-educated, fat, lazy, reliable, utterly worthless, happy, and impractical genius—all of these words have been used in the literature on Abraham Lincoln to describe John “Jack” Kelso. Just exactly who was Jack Kelso and what kind of person was he? About the only thing all of the authors agree on is that Kelso had some degree of influence on Lincoln during his years in New Salem. He is the friend credited with introducing Lincoln to the poetry of William Shakespeare and Robert Burns, amongst others. It can be documented that Kelso and his wife, Hannah Turner Kelso, came to New Salem from Adair County, Kentucky, in 1831 with Hannah’s sister Nancy and her husband Joshua Miller. Miller bought two lots from James Cameron and his wife, and then built a double house that the Miller and Kelso families shared. Miller also built a smithy and served as the town’s blacksmith for the nine or ten years that the two families lived in New Salem.

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