During Abraham Lincoln’s campaign for the presidency, a dyed-in-the-wool Democrat named Valentine Tapley from Pike County, Missouri, swore that he would never shave again if Abe were elected. Tapley kept his word following Lincoln’s victory, and his chin whiskers went unshorn from November 1860 until he died in 1910, attaining a length of 12 feet 6 inches (3.8 m).
Having such a long locks required constant care and caution. Mr. Tapley couldn’t wear his beard down all the time, so most days he tied it in a knot and stuffed it into a silk bag that he wore beneath his vest. The Daily Capital Journal newspaper reported that, for obvious reasons, he would not “burn brush or work around a fire.”
Tapley turned down many offers of fame and fortune because of his beard. He got offers of as much as $5,000, about $125,000 in today’s dollars, to display his beard as far away as England, but refused to be a side show freak. Once he was asked by Pike County children to serve as the pole for a May Day dance, but he declined. “He cares very little for money and display, preferring his quiet farm life to that of the gaze of the curious,” the Jackson Herald wrote.
In spite of Tapley’s attempts to avoid the spotlight, in 1907 his beard became the subject of a national debate. A man named S.G. Brinkley from North Carolina claimed to have the world’s longest beard. It was only 7 feet long, but the Brinkley had the audacity to charge people who wanted to see it up to 25 cents each.
Missouri congressman, Champ Clark, who knew Tapley personally, heard Brinkley’s claims and decided to set the record straight. He wrote a letter to The Washington Post, and did an interview with the New York Times to defend Tapley’s facial hair.
Regarding Brinkley’s seven-footer, Congressman Clark said, “that’s not a beard at all. Pike County beards are the best on earth, and I am here to defend the claims of Pike County against any North Carolina beard ever sprouted. Missouri, in beards as in other good things, leads the world. The Missouri beard will take its place alongside of the Missouri mule as unapproachable and unapproached.”
Clark went on to state that he believed whiskers to be an excellent way to judge a man’s character. He said that Valentine Tapley’s facial hair was “soft as silk, and Tapley is mild mannered and thoroughly agreeable, one of those unanimous sort of fellows.” Another Pike County resident, on the other hand, was a “pugnacious kind of a fellow … a stubborn kind of man. His whiskers are right stiff, like a horse’s mane.”