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Lincoln impersonators rub gangly elbows in Ohio

COLUMBUS, Ohio — John Cooper’s obsession with being Abraham Lincoln began one score and five years ago. Its beginnings were humble.

Tall, lean, and bearded, the Ohio man already bore a passing resemblance to the Rail Splitter, or so he was told. One Halloween he donned a frock coat he found in his mother’s attic, and his wife fashioned a stovepipe hat out of cardboard. A little spray paint on his beard, and he was ready for trick or treat with the kids.

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He was so convincing that before long he was invited to come to schools in costume around Presidents Day. Then people started paying him to show up at their events in character to talk about the 16th president.

The rest is history.

But honestly, this is a huge weekend for the 62-year-old Cooper, who is helping to host a gathering of impersonators of the Great Emancipator in Columbus.

The 19th annual convention of the Association of Lincoln Presenters has attracted around three dozen Abes in chin beards and full regalia, along with 30 or so Mary Todd Lincolns and various other Civil War-era figures, including General Ulysses S. Grant.

In Columbus, the Lincoln impersonators will walk where he walked — and where he lay in state after he was assassinated in 1865. Lincoln gave speeches at the Ohio Statehouse in 1859 and 1861, and his casket rested in the building’s rotunda for six hours on its way from Washington back to Illinois for burial. More than 50,000 stood in line to pay their respects.

On Friday in the Ohio House chamber, Jerry Payn delivered word-for-word the speech given by Lincoln in the same room just before his inauguration in 1861.

Payn, a 74-year-old retired teacher from Wooster, Ohio, has been playing Lincoln since 1999 and does as many as 100 gigs a year. He says the key to being a great Lincoln is gaining in-depth knowledge of his life, speeches and writings.

The Lincolns have a certain spring in their step this year thanks to a wave of attention brought by the Steven Spielberg movie ‘‘Lincoln,’’ which earned an Oscar for Daniel Day-Lewis for his portrayal of Honest Abe. Some of the impersonators say the excitement has led to more work for them. They can earn several hundred dollars or more for appearances.

The Abes in Columbus range from well under 6 feet tall to Lincoln’s actual height of 6-foot-4. Some are barrel-chested, some are slight. There are gray beards and black beards, and one beardless Lincoln. The costumes vary greatly in extravagance.

‘‘We’re presenters. We’re not impersonators, necessarily,’’ says Robert Broski, 60, who lives near Los Angeles. ‘‘What’s important is getting across his character, his honesty, his integrity.’’

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