This piece was inspired by an episode of The Cooler, KQED’s weekly pop culture podcast. Give it a listen!
Weird Facts You Never Knew about the U.S. Presidents
Back in high school, U.S. History was not my thing. A bunch of white dudes in powdered wigs bickering? No thanks. But behind every boring textbook page is a treasure trove of super interesting facts. Did you know one of our presidents was murdered…by cherries? Or that another vandalized Shakespeare’s property? Or that a president’s cursing parrot was kicked out of a funeral? Believe it! Here are all the weird facts your history teacher really should have taught:
George Washington (1789-1797)
Despite popular myth, his dentures weren’t made of wood. They were made of hippopotamus ivory, bone, animal and human teeth, lead, brass screws and gold wire. So where did the wood theory come from? Some historians believe that Washington’s fondness for dark wine stained the fractures in his false teeth, giving off the look of grainy wood.
John Adams (1797-1801)
John Adams visited Shakespeare’s home in Stratford-upon-Avon with Thomas Jefferson, before they hated each other’s guts. While there, they chipped off a piece of one of Shakespeare’s chairs as a souvenir.
Years later, Adams was embroiled in an election battle against his Vice President Jefferson. Adams called him “a mean-spirited, low-lived fellow, the son of a half-breed Indian squaw, sired by a Virginia mulatto father” and, in an attack ad, warned of the consequences of a potential Jefferson presidency: “Murder, robbery, rape, adultery, and incest will be openly taught and practiced, the air will be rent with the cries of the distressed, the soil will be soaked with blood and the nation black with crimes.” And we thought the 2016 election cycle was out of control!
As Fate would have it, both Adams and Jefferson died on the same day, July 4, 1826, the 50th anniversary of the Declaration of Independence. You can’t make this stuff up.
Thomas Jefferson (1801-1817)
Vandalizing Shakespeare’s chair isn’t the only chair-related Jefferson trivia: he invented the swivel chair!
Something you wouldn’t expect from one of the most famous politicians in American history: Jefferson hated public speaking so much that he only gave two speeches in his presidency, one per term. He also started a tradition of sending State of the Union speeches as written documents to be read at Congress by a clerk (Woodrow Wilson reinstated the practice of delivering the speech in person in 1913).
James Madison (1809-1817)
Our smallest president stood at 5’4″ and weighed around 100 pounds. Aw!
James Monroe (1817-1825)
Due to his penchant for outdated Revolutionary War era dress, Monroe’s nickname was “The Last Cocked Hat.”
His first term was called the Era of Good Feelings because of the national unity that followed the end of the War of 1812. He ran unopposed for his re-election, something that has only happened one other time in U.S. history (George Washington).
The last surviving Founding Father, Monroe died on July 4th, 1831, five years after both Jefferson and Adams died and 55 years after the Declaration of Independence was signed.
John Quincy Adams (1825-1829)
The son of our Jefferson-hating second president, John Quincy Adams was known for skinny dipping in the Potomac River every morning. A reporter took advantage of this information and sat on his clothes until he would grant her an interview.
Andrew Jackson (1829-1837)
One popular rumor is that Jackson taught his pet parrot how to curse. It was all fun and games, until the parrot had to allegedly be removed from Jackson’s funeral because it wouldn’t stop cursing.
Jackson had a thing for taking it outside. He was involved in an estimated 100 duels, usually because someone said something negative about his wife. In 1806, he was shot in the chest during one of these duels. And in 1813, he took a bullet to the arm in a bar fight with a Senator.
Martin Van Buren (1837-1841)
Van Buren holds the title of the first president to be born in the U.S.
He had a lot of nicknames: “Sly Fox” because of his political prowess, “Little Magician” because he was only 5’6″ and “Red Fox of Kinderhook” because he had reddish hair and was from a town in upstate New York called Kinderhook. But the most long-lasting nickname goes to “Old Kinderhook,” which was used during his 1840 election campaign in the form of supporters carrying around signs marked OK. The abbreviation became popular around this time and we use it to this day.
William Henry Harrison (1841)
During his campaign, the opposition tried to cast him as someone who’d rather “sit in his log cabin, drinking hard cider.” Harrison took the criticism and made (spiked) lemonade; he handed out whiskey in bottles shaped like log cabins.
Harrison gave the longest inauguration speech ever (8,445 words over 90 minutes) on a wet, cold day in 1841. He fell ill soon thereafter and died 33 days into his presidency.
John Tyler (1841-1845)
After Harrison’s untimely death, there was disagreement over what power Tyler had as the surviving Vice President. He managed to convince everyone that he should just become president, paving the way for the 25th Amendment, which made the line of succession official.
Everyone pretty much hated him. He was expelled from his own party during his presidency, his entire cabinet (minus one person) resigned over his policies, and he was the first president who faced impeachment. One newspaper editor called him a “poor, miserable, despised imbecile” and The New York Times called him “the most unpopular public man that had ever held any office in the United States” in his own obituary! Upon his death, Lincoln didn’t issue a mourning proclamation and flags were not placed at half-mast.
James K. Polk (1845-1849)
Every party has a pooper and that pooper was Polk. He banned booze, card playing and dancing from the White House.
Zachary Taylor (1849-1850)
While celebrating the Fourth of July on the grounds where the Washington Monument would later stand, Taylor snacked on a bunch of cherries and washed it all down with iced milk (ew). Bacteria was present in either the cherries or the milk, leading to his death a few days later.
Millard Fillmore (1850-1853)
Fillmore married his schoolteacher (oo la la!). Other than that, most historians don’t really have much to say about him. Even the White House website calls him “an uninspiring man.” Ouch.
Franklin Pierce (1853-1857)
Another president most people don’t remember, Pierce was pretty unpopular while in office, leading to his own party refusing to renominate him. His reply to being cast out: “There is nothing left to do but get drunk.” His penchant for the hooch might explain his alleged arrest for running over an old lady with his horse.
James Buchanan (1857-1861)
Buchanan holds the record of being the only bachelor to be president, although he may not have been truly single. There was a lot of speculation about his sexuality and close relationship with Alabama Senator William Rufus King. The two lived together for more than 10 years, despite being rich enough to have their own homes. Andrew Jackson called them “Miss Nancy and Aunt Fancy” behind their backs. When King left for France in 1844, Buchanan wrote: “I am now ‘solitary and alone,’ having no companion in the house with me. I have gone a wooing several gentlemen, but have not succeeded with any one of them.”
Abraham Lincoln (1861-1865)
In addition to being a tall drink of water, Lincoln also serves tall drinks as a bartender. He was also a really good wrestler. He won all but one of approximately 300 matches. *fans self*
Andrew Johnson (1865-1869)
The first president to be impeached, Johnson didn’t have an easy time in childhood either. After his father died, his mother sent him and his brother out as indentured servants to a tailor. Johnson and his brother ran away two years later. The tailor put out a reward of $10 for their capture, but they were never apprehended. Using what he learned during his time with the tailor, he made all of his own suits as president.
Ulysses S. Grant (1869-1877)
Grant was supposed to be in Lincoln’s theater box on the night of his assassination, but changed plans at the last minute. He regretted not being there for the rest of his life because he believed he could have stopped it from happening.
Other fun facts about Grant: he couldn’t stand the sight of blood, which is ironic considering his Civil War history. And he dismantled the Ku Klux Klan during his presidency (they unfortunately regrouped decades later).
Rutherford B. Hayes (1877-1881)
The victor of one of the most disputed elections ever; he lost the popular vote by 250,000, but eked out an electoral college win by a single vote, earning him the nicknames “Rutherfraud” and “His Fraudulency.” Was also called “Granny Hayes” because he didn’t drink, smoke or gamble.
James A. Garfield (1881)
Garfield was ambidextrous and could write in Greek with one hand and in Latin with the other at the same time!
He was shot a few months into his presidency by an assassin and died 11 weeks later. Doctors tried using a newly invented metal detector by Andrew Graham Bell to locate the bullet, but the metal bedsprings kept messing up the results, leading the doctors to cut in the wrong places. On top of this, the doctors also introduced bacteria into Garfield’s body with their unsterilized, prying fingers.
Chester A. Arthur (1881-1885)
Arthur wanted the White House completely redecorated, but needed money to pay for all the new furniture. His solution: sell off 24 wagon loads of historical relics, including a pair of Lincoln’s pants and one of John Quincy Adams’ hats. The redecoration wasn’t the only luxury he took; he also owned elaborate clothing, including 80 different pairs of pants, earning him the nickname”Elegant Arthur.”
Grover Cleveland (1885-1889)
Upon the death of his law partner, Cleveland became the legal guardian to his friend’s 11-year-old orphaned daughter. 10 years later, they were married at the White House, making her the youngest First Lady ever at the age of 21 and making him the Woody Allen of the 19th century.
Benjamin Harrison (1889-1893)
The grandson of President William Henry Harrison, he was called the “human iceberg” by some for how stiff he was with people. Maybe people misread anxiety for stiffness though: He was the first president to have electricity in the White House and was so scared of being electrocuted that he refused to touch the light switches and was known to go to bed with all the lights on.
Grover Cleveland (1893-1897)
No, this isn’t a typo. Cleveland is the only president to hold the office for two non-consecutive terms. Here’s a fact that isn’t as creepy as the first. Part of Cleveland’s jaw was made of vulcanized rubber, as a result of a secret surgery on a friend’s yacht.
William McKinley (1897-1901)
McKinley considered carnations his good luck charm and wore them everywhere. On September 6, 1901, he gave a little girl the carnation from his lapel and was shot by an assassin a short time later. He died the following week.
Theodore Roosevelt (1901-1909)
On Valentine’s Day in 1884, both his first wife and mother died. A page from his journal from that day:
Unrelated to that super depressing diary entry: While delivering a speech, Roosevelt was shot and had this to say about it: “I don’t know whether you fully understand that I have just been shot. I give you my word, I do not care a rap about being shot; not a rap!” He finished his hour and a half speech with a bullet lodged in his chest.
In short, the dude was pretty great and worthy of having said greatness commemorated. A toy maker did just that by producing “Teddy Bears” in his honor, after news got out that Roosevelt refused to shoot a bear cub on a hunting trip.
William H. Taft (1909-1913)
Taft is most known for his waist line and supposedly getting stuck in a bathtub (historians say this didn’t really happen), but what people don’t talk about enough is his stuffed animal. Toy manufacturers believed Teddy Bears would fade out and wanted a replacement. They came up with Billy Possum. Unfortunately, the origin tale has nothing to do with Taft sparing a baby possum and everything to do with him scarfing down a huge possum dinner one night. Despite rude anti-Teddy Bear postcards like the one below, Billy Possum did not catch on.
Woodrow Wilson (1913-1921)
In 1919, incredible stress led to Wilson experiencing a series of strokes. He was left partially paralyzed and almost blind, but stayed in office until 1921. He relied heavily on his wife Edith Bolling Galt, a descendant of Pocahontas (!!!), for help, leading to her nickname as the “Presidentress.”
Warren G. Harding (1921-1923)
Harding had quite the wandering eye. He had an affair with his wife’s close friend, Carrie Fulton Phillips, which was revealed through a series of love letters. He also messed around with a woman named Nan Britton, who wrote a book called “The President’s Daughter” about how her daughter was Harding’s. In 2005, thanks to DNA testing, it was proven that he was in fact the baby daddy.
Calvin Coolidge (1923-1929)
Coolidge had a morning ritual of having someone rub Vaseline on his head while he ate breakfast. The unusual also extended to his choice of pets: two raccoons named Reuben and Rebecca, who would sometimes run around the White House.
Herbert Hoover (1929-1933)
Not to be outdone by Coolidge’s odd choice in pets, Hoover’s son had two pet alligators, who also ran around the White House grounds.
Hoover and his wife lived in China for a time and would speak Mandarin in the White House when they wanted to have a private conversation.
Rumor has it that Hoover requested his servants be “invisible.” Their choices: jump into closets to hide when Hoover entered a room or be fired.
Franklin D. Roosevelt (1933-1945)
FDR was obsessed with his dog, Fala. He insisted on being the only one who was allowed to feed him and even made Fala an honorary Army private during WWII. Fala was so popular with the press and the American public that he became the subject of a comic strip and MGM even made two movies about him. Fala is the only pet to be immortalized in a presidential memorial alongside his owner.
Eleanor Roosevelt didn’t have to change her last name when she married FDR because they’re cousins. Her uncle and his cousin “Teddy” Roosevelt walked her down the aisle.
But that’s not the only president he was related to! Also distant relatives: Washington, both Adams, Madison, Van Buren, both Harrisons, Taylor, Grant and Taft. Also: Winston Churchill.
FDR was really afraid of the number 13 and refused to have dinner with that number of people or leave for a trip on the 13th of any month.
His battle with what was then thought to be polio (new research suggests he actually suffered from Guillain-Barre Syndrome) is now widespread, but back then the public didn’t really know much about it or how bad his paralysis was. The media rarely mentioned it and the Secret Service allegedly yanked out the film from any photographers who tried grabbing a photo of him in his wheelchair.
Harry S. Truman (1945-1953)
He met his wife, Bess, in Sunday school when he was six. Talk about locking it down!
Dwight D. Eisenhower (1953-1961)
Ike changed the name of FDR’s presidential Maryland retreat from Shangri-la to Camp David. His reason: Shangri-la was “just a little too fancy for a Kansas farm boy.”
John F. Kennedy (1961-1963)
JFK received $1 million on his 21st birthday (all nine brothers and sisters got the same), but that generosity did not extend to the Harvard recommendation letter his father wrote for him. He wrote that Jack was “careless and lacks application.” He got in anyway.
Lyndon B. Johnson (1963-1969)
JFK’s unexpected assassination led to Johnson becoming president, but another factor that made his presidency possible was a fateful trip to the bathroom. Let me explain: While enlisted in the military during WWII, Johnson boarded a plane called the Wabash Cannonball for his one and only bombing mission in the South Pacific. But he had to use the bathroom really badly so he got off and took care of business. By the time he got back, the Wabash Cannonball had left. The plane ended up crashing and everyone on it perished.
Richard M. Nixon (1969-1974)
Nixon loved to bowl so much that he had a one-lane alley put in the basement of the White House.
Gerald R. Ford (1974-1977)
His real name was Leslie Lynch King, Jr.
Remember this for the next trivia night at your local bar: Ford is the only president to never be elected by the voting public to president or vice president (first Vice President Spiro Agnew resigned, followed shortly thereafter by Nixon).
Ford’s daughter Susan hosted her senior prom at the White House.
Two different assassins tried to take Ford’s life within over a span of 17 days. Both were women.
Jimmy Carter (1977-1981)
Carter appeared in an unlikely publication: Playboy. And he got a lot of grief for it because of the following remarks: “I’ve looked on a lot of women with lust. I’ve committed adultery in my heart many times. This is something that God recognizes I will do—and I have done it—and God forgives me for it.” It was during a presidential campaign too, which made the outcry even more pronounced. Carter refused to apologize.
Ronald Reagan (1981-1989)
Reagan regularly consulted with an astrologer, Joan Quigley, before making decisions and scheduling big events.
George H. W. Bush (1989-1993)
Bush inspired a Japanese word, “Bushusuru,” which means “to do the Bush thing.” What thing, you ask? Vomiting in public, as Bush did all over the Japanese Prime Minister in 1992.
William J. Clinton (1993-2001)
Bill has two Grammys (one for Best Spoken Word Album and another for Best Spoken Word Album for Children). Future EGOT?
George W. Bush (2001-2009)
W. was his high school’s head cheerleader.
Barack Obama (2009-2017)
While living in Indonesia, Obama had a pet ape called Tata.
His experience working at a Baskin-Robbins as a teen has made him hate ice cream.
In high school, he used to be called “O’Bomber” for his basketball skills.
While studying at Harvard, he applied to be featured in a black pin-up calendar. The all-female committee declined (and probably regret it every single day).
For even more presidential facts, get a load of this episode of The Cooler:
And for a hint as to who will be the next president on this list, read up on what YouTube astrologers are predicting: