Nobody who seeks the highest office in the land – arguably the most powerful position in the modern world – can really be considered “normal.” They’re usually born with a silver spoon in their mouth and a terrifying, borderline sociopathic level of personal ambition. So perhaps it’s not that surprising that bizarre facts, stories and habits surround US presidents. Let’s take a look at some of the wildest stuff here…
10. Thomas Jefferson and John Adams both died on July 4, 1826
One of the most eerily coincidental events in American presidential history surrounds two of America’s Founding Fathers: Thomas Jefferson and John Adams. These two giants of early American politics were sometimes friends, sometimes fierce rivals, but their destinies were curiously intertwined. Both played instrumental roles in the drafting of the Declaration of Independence, both helped lead the fledgling USA during its revolution and helped design its government. And both, of course, served as U.S. President.
But you could say the same about a lot of Founding Fathers. What really binds these two guys together is that both Jefferson and Adams passed away on the same day: July 4, 1826 — the 50th anniversary of the signing of the Declaration of Independence. Adams’ last words reportedly were, “Thomas Jefferson survives.” Ironically, he was mistaken. Jefferson had died a few hours earlier.
9. Grover Cleveland’s secret surgery
Today’s politics has its fair share of secrets, but with smartphones in every hand and an internet that allows information to rocket around the planet before anyone can strangle it, it’s harder to keep things under wraps now that it probably ever has been. But that hasn’t always been the case. Let’s rewind to 1893. Grover Cleveland, the only U.S. president to serve two non-consecutive terms, was in the middle of a financial crisis when he discovered a troubling bump on the roof of his mouth. It was cancer. The last thing the country needed was panic over the president’s health. So, instead of going public, Cleveland and a team of doctors hatched a discreet plan.
They performed the surgery aboard a moving yacht, the Oneida, cruising through the Long Island Sound. With the pretense of a four-day fishing trip, Cleveland had a portion of his upper jaw and the tumor removed, all while the yacht gently rocked on the water. A rubber prosthetic was later placed in his mouth, and the secret was so well-kept that the public remained clueless until a quarter-century later when one of the surgeons finally spilled the beans. Imagine that story coming out about contemporary leaders now.
8. Andrew Jackson’s parrot
Andrew Jackson was a rough and tumble dude, famous for his fiery nature, duels, being on the $20 bill, ignoring the Supreme Court, and his horrendous treatment of indigenous Americans (oops, were we supposed to mention that part?). With such a boisterous personality, perhaps it’s not surprising that his pet parrot, Poll, picked up a bit of that same rebellious streak. During Jackson’s funeral in 1845, as mourners gathered at The Hermitage to pay their respects, Poll began to screech a barrage of expletives. The parrot’s irreverent outburst was so unexpected and inappropriate for such a somber occasion, that it had to be quickly removed from the scene.
The incident adds a touch of humor to an otherwise solemn event, making one wonder if the parrot was echoing Jackson’s sentiments from beyond the grave or simply giving one last audacious salute to its notorious owner. It sounds like something out of Arrested Development.
7. James Buchanan’s bachelorhood
It’s hard to imagine a president without a First Lady. That’s because only one POTUS has ever served while single. James Buchanan stands out in the annals of U.S. presidential history as the only president who never got married. Serving from 1857 to 1861, his bachelor status was a topic of much interest and speculation. Some historians believe that personal tragedies might have played a role in his decision to remain single. Buchanan was once engaged to Ann Coleman, but the relationship ended abruptly and tragically when she died suddenly in 1819, well before he got to the White House.
While the nature of his private life and reasons for his bachelorhood have been subjects of debate and curiosity, what’s certain is that his niece, Harriet Lane, took on the traditional duties of First Lady during his tenure. Serving as the White House hostess, she became a beloved figure of her time and is credited with establishing many of the roles and expectations associated with First Ladies today.
6. Abraham Lincoln’s wrestling career
Abraham Lincoln is one of the most famous Americans for a number of reasons. This scrawny self-educated guy was not just a president, but held the Union together against all odds during the Civil War and helped end the institution of slavery once and for all. Add to that impressive list the fact that he had quite a reputation as a formidable wrestler. Standing at 6 feet 4 inches, with long limbs and remarkable strength, young Lincoln was a force to be reckoned with on the wrestling mat. He took part in approximately 300 matches and is said to have lost only one.
His impressive skills earned him respect and even an informal title as the “wrestling champion” of his region in Illinois. Beyond just his physical prowess, Lincoln was also known to display great sportsmanship. He rarely boasted about his victories, but he wasn’t above using his reputation to intimidate political rivals. There’s even a famous anecdote that after one political debate, Lincoln challenged the crowd, asking if anyone wanted to “try it on” with him. It’s no wonder he couldn’t be beaten during the Civil War.
5. John Quincy Adams’ skinny-dipping
The sixth president of the United States, John Quincy Adams, had some rather unique morning routines. Among them was his fondness for early morning swims in the Potomac River, a habit he indulged in nearly every day. But what made this ritual even more unconventional was that Adams preferred to take these swims in the buff. Something presidents definitely couldn’t get away with in the age of smartphones and social media.
In a well-known anecdote from 1826, Anne Royall, a trailblazing journalist, sought an interview with the president. Having been previously refused, she decided to use Adams’ predilection for skinny dipping to her advantage. She went to his usual swimming spot and sat on his clothes, effectively forcing the president to talk with her if he wanted his attire returned. Consequently, Royall became the first woman to interview a sitting president, all thanks to Adams’ rather revealing habit.
4. Benjamin Harrison’s electricity fears
In the era when homes were transitioning from gas lamps to electric lights, President Benjamin Harrison found himself residing in the White House during this technological shift. In 1891, the White House was equipped with electricity for the first, a major advancement for the day. However, this newfangled innovation didn’t sit well with Harrison.
Despite the convenience it brought, Harrison was downright terrified of being electrocuted. He and his wife, Caroline, were so wary of the electric switches that they often refused to touch them, fearing they would get shocked. Consequently, they would sometimes go to bed with the lights on rather than risk touching the switches. They would often rely on staff to operate the lights for them.
It’s a humorous and humbling reminder that even presidents, with all their power and prestige, can have fears and apprehensions about the unknown, especially when faced with the rapid technological advancements of their time.
3. Rutherford B. Hayes’ controversial election
Politics is a nasty business now, but this isn’t the first time elections have been less than peaceful. The U.S. presidential election of 1876, pitting Republican Rutherford B. Hayes against Democrat Samuel J. Tilden, was arguably one of the most controversial and tumultuous in American history. Tilden won the popular vote by about 250,000, but he was one electoral vote shy of the necessary majority. Hayes, on the other hand, was 20 electoral votes short. The heart of the dispute lay in 20 electoral votes from four states: Florida, Louisiana, South Carolina, and Oregon. Both parties claimed victory in these states, leading to multiple sets of electoral vote returns being sent to Congress.
To address the issue, Congress set up the Electoral Commission, which, in a series of 8 to 7 votes (mirroring the party lines), awarded all disputed electoral votes to Hayes. Behind closed doors, a compromise was reached, known as the Compromise of 1877.
Democrats acquiesced to Hayes’s election, and in return, Republicans agreed to end military occupation in the South, essentially bringing an end to the Reconstruction era. Hayes became president, but the compromise had lasting implications, including the solidification of “Jim Crow” laws and the suppression of Black voting rights in the South for decades.
2. Rutherford B. Hayes’ telephone
In the rapidly changing world of the late 19th century, technology was making leaps and bounds. And the White House was in line to get upgraded with the latest tech of the day. Rutherford B. Hayes, the 19th president of the United States, holds the distinction of being the first sitting president to have a telephone installed in the White House in 1877, just a year after its invention. The White House’s telephone number was simply “1.” That’s right! If you wanted to reach the president, all you had to dial was a single digit. Today you’d have to do a bunch of things that we can’t say here because the secret service would put a bag over our heads in minutes.
The novelty of the device meant that not many people had telephones at the time. In fact, for a while, the only direct line from the White House was to the Treasury Department. Hayes is said to have been initially fascinated by the device, but with such limited connectivity, it wouldn’t become a crucial communication tool for the presidency until later years.
1. Calvin Coolidge’s fondness for animals
An adorable pet can put a nice face on any administration. But Calvin Coolidge, the 30th president of the United States, took things to a whole new level. Silent Cal, as he was often known, had a penchant for animals that went beyond the usual presidential dogs and cats.
His menagerie at the White House included a pair of raccoons named Rebecca and Reuben, which he originally received to be part of a Thanksgiving meal but chose to adopt instead. He also had a donkey named Ebenezer, a bobcat called Smoky, and several birds, like Enoch the goose and a pair of canaries named Nip and Tuck. And of course, there were the more conventional pets: multiple dogs of various breeds and a whole slew of cats. Imagine trying to concentrate on any job in that building with all of those animals running around. But hey, politicians tend to be surrounded by the sleaziest types of power hungry people. So we can’t say we blame Coolidge for preferring the company of animals instead.