America's 45 presidents count amazing speakers, brilliant thinkers and war heroes among them. And then there are… the rest. Since its founding, this country also has seen quite a few presidents who were -- how best to say it -- pieces of work. They could be greedy, drunken, sexually abusive, and much, much worse.
A few -- yes, really -- killed people. Themselves. Not with bombing runs or convenient wars. With their own two hands. Another slaughtered so many animals -- for fun! -- that we doubt he could remember them all.
Here are some of the most disturbing facts about America’s leaders, from George Washington’s slave-owning to Bill Clinton losing the nuclear codes..
Mr. President… and His 100-Plus Slaves
Before Donald Trump, George Washington was probably America’s wealthiest president - with much of that wealth built on the backs of slaves.
Washington’s relationship with slaves and slavery was nowhere near as pristine legend would have you believe. Washington owned well over a hundred slaves, and dramatically increased that lot when he married Martha Custis, who had inherited them from her first husband. His champions would insist that he treated slaves well, by the standards of the time. But in reality he had harsh demands and used physical punishment. And he ruthlessly pursued escapees.
Only later in life did Washington began to embrace abolition -- kinda. He did it in theory, but never in practice. He made the rare wish in his will to free his own slaves - but only after Martha’s death, or if she felt like it. It was Martha, realizing she was surrounded by people whose freedom hinged on her death, who freed George’s slaves in 1801 - two years after his death. And the slaves Martha inherited weren’t freed until years later.
The Vandal from Monticello
Before their friendship curdled into nasty rivalry during the election of 1800, John Adams and Thomas Jefferson spent a lot of time together. On a 1786 jaunt, the duo took to England and visited Shakespeare’s birthplace in Stratford-upon-Avon. While there, Jefferson took a piece of history with him. Literally. He chipped off a small piece of a chair said to have been used by the Bard himself. Decades later, the stolen chip, along with a note supposedly written by Jefferson (though possibly written by his son-in-law) went on display at Jefferson’s Monticello estate.
All Hail President of the Mole People!
Long before Flat Earth conspiracy Facebook Groups, the Hollow Earth theory was surprisingly popular among well-heeled, 19th century politicians. Rather than a solid inner core (which wasn’t discovered until 1936), the center of the earth was, as the theory went, a giant cave populated by a race of mole people.
The theory was so popular that two of its most well-known advocates lobbied Congress in the early 1820s to fund an expedition to make contact with the mole people. Congress refused, but the pair found an even more powerful patron in President John Quincy Adams. Adams was in a tough re-election campaign against Andrew Jackson, and was looking for a way to get popular support on his side. Unfortunately for the mole people, Adams lost to Jackson, who cancelled the mission before it could begin.
That’s One Duel-Happy Dude
Two years after Vice President Aaron Burr killed Alexander Hamilton in their famous duel, there was another future president who decided to follow the Way of the Pistol. Andrew Jackson was gravely insulted by fellow horse breeder Charles Dickinson, who called him a coward and bigamist. That couldn’t stand, so Jackson challenged Dickinson to pistols at dawn on May 30, 1806 -- long before his election in 1828.
Dickinson got the drop on Jackson and put a bullet in his chest, but Jackson stayed upright and took his turn. His gun misfired, but Jackson, in a show of poor dueling etiquette, shot again. Dickinson was hit in the chest and bled to death. It was just one of as many as 100 duels Jackson was involved in, but the only one where a man died.
Wrath of the Peacemaker
Former vice president John Tyler was the first person to assume office after a predecessor’s death. In this case, the boss had been William Henry Harrison, who lasted 31 days as president before dying of either typhoid fever or pneumonia.
But back then, the Constitution had no means to elect a new vice president once the old one had ascended to the highest office. Instead, the law called for an acting president to serve until a special election. And thanks to a highly malfunctional firearm, that’s almost what happened.
In February, 1844, President Tyler was taking a ceremonial cruise on the USS Princeton and lingered below decks, supposedly to hear his son-in-law sing a ditty. Meanwhile his cabinet went above, to see a demonstration of the Princeton’s massive 12-inch cannon, called the Peacemaker. The cannon blew up, gruesomely killing or maiming two dozen people, including the Secretary of the Navy, whose head was sheared off. If Tyler had gone up top with them, he likely would have died as well.
How to Get Fired by Your Own Party
Franklin Pierce was elected in 1852 as the fourteenth president. Sadly, his son Benny, 11, was killed in a train crash just two months before Inauguration Day. Benny was nearly decapitated after a train to Concord fell 20 feet down an embankment, right in front of the president-elect.
The Pierces had already lost two sons to illness. The death sent Pierce into an alcoholic spiral, and his term was marred by his own detachment, brutal violence between pro and anti-slavery forces (Pierce was fiercely pro-slavery) and a botched attempt to annex Cuba. His own party dropped him from the 1856 ticket, the Civil War broke out four years later, and Pierce died of cirrhosis of the liver in 1869.
Lincoln? Who Would Ever Want to Shoot Lincoln?
Before the Civil War, presidential security was usually limited to a small contingent of soldiers or bodyguards. During his time in office, it wasn’t unusual for Abraham Lincoln to ride alone at night through the streets of Washington. On one of these journeys, in August 1864, a rifle shot from an unknown location flew clean through Lincoln’s hat, and sent his horse running for its life – with the President on top. The next morning, the bullet-creased hat was found – but the shooter never was. Lincoln was convinced it was an accident, later telling a friend, “I can’t bring myself to believe that any one has shot or will deliberately shoot at me with the purpose of killing me.” Lincoln was shot dead eight months later.
“A Drunken Boor”
Before Lincon’s second inaugural in March 1865, his new vice president was so ill with typhoid fever that he supposedly drank three tumblers of whiskey to keep himself upright. (This counted as self-care back then.) The attempt failed, and a plotzed Andrew Johnson gave a bizarre speech where he personally insulted members of Lincoln’s cabinet one by one, except the Secretary of the Navy, whose name he forgot. Contemporaries wrote of Johnson disgracing himself, and newspapers the next day called Johnson a “drunken boor,” a “low sot,” and compared him to the horse of psychotic Roman emperor Caligula.
10,000 Cigars Is Mayyyybe Too Many
Ulysses S. Grant had an epic love of cigars. He routinely smoked as many as 20 per day, and even chewed the ends once there was nothing left to smoke. Grant’s love of cigars went viral thanks to cigar-chomping newspaper photos taken after the general led his troops to a critical victory at the Battle of Fort Donelson in February 1862. Afterwards, he was sent 10,000 cigars by friends and admirers, and while he gave many away, he just kept getting more.
After leaving office, Grant found himself both broke and dying of (naturally) throat cancer, so wrote his memoirs in a hurry. He died in 1885, having just finished a draft of the book that made his widow a millionaire.
The President Who Sold Lincoln’s Pants
After taking office upon the death of James Garfield in 1881, Chester A. Arthur set about a massive renovation of the White House. But Arthur was man of expensive taste, and the renovations would cost $2.7 million in today’s dollars, including the addition of a massive stained glass screen called “The Grand Illumination.”
To pay for it all, Arthur had 24 cart loads of White House belongings sold off at auction. Some of the irreplaceable items included furniture once belonging to John Adams, Abraham Lincoln’s pants, and a variety of china, mattresses, and decorative items. “The Grand Illumination” stood for just 20 years, when it was removed in 1902, and also auctioned off.
Not the Worst Thing Grover Cleveland Did
Grover Cleveland met his first wife when he was 27 years old... and she was a newborn. Frances Folsom was the daughter of a close friend of Cleveland’s, and grew up adoring the man she called “Uncle Cleve.” When Oscar Folsom died, Cleveland became France’s court-appointed ward, and supervised her upbringing. Shortly after she enrolled in college, the two began, um, corresponding, upon which Cleveland did the gentlemanly thing and asked Frances’ mother for permission to marry her. And they did, when he was 49 and she was 21. And the public took little note of either the relationship or the age gap. They remained married until Grover’s death in 1908.
The Worst Thing Grover Cleveland Did
Far more troubling than Cleveland’s marriage were the allegations that Cleveland raped and impregnated a sales clerk named Maria Halpin. On Dec. 15, 1873, Cleveland was sheriff of Erie County, New York, and courting Halpin. As history has it, they ran into each other on a street in Buffalo, and Cleveland asked Halpin to dinner. They ate, and Cleveland allegedly walked Halpin back to the boarding house where she lived. Then, according to Halpin, the future president sexually assaulted her. Halpin gave birth to a boy nine months later. Cleveland had the child removed from Halpin, and had her tossed into an insane asylum. She was let out quickly, but her life became grist for media speculation and political subterfuge until she died in 1902.
The Hangman of Buffalo
Cleveland first rose to prominence as Sheriff of that same Erie County. He became known as “the Hangman of Buffalo” after personally pulling the lever on the execution of two convicted killers. The first was Patrick Morrissey, who had drunkenly murdered his mother with a bread knife. Execution number two was John Gaffney, who had shot another man through the head during a card game. Both executions were something of a fiasco. Cleveland felt sick for days after the first. The second left the condemned man in agony for 23 minutes before he died.
Teddy’s Super-Fun Bloodbath
After leaving office in 1909, Theodore Roosevelt and his son Kermit went on an extended safari in Kenya, the Democratic Republic of Congo, and Sudan. In those days, the popular wisdom about conservation was that it people needed to cull wild animals to protect the greater population. And cull they did. Teddy and Kermit personally killed more than 500 animals, with TR taking down 296. The vast majority were preserved, supposedly to bring knowledge of the exotic wilds of Africa to America.
From a meticulous tally in Teddy’s book “African Game Trails,” we know the Roosevelts killed two dozen zebras, nine monkeys, four of something called a “saddle-backed lechwe (Mrs. Gray's)” and dozens of other species.
The President Who Was Totally Fake
President Woodrow Wilson suffered a stroke in October 1919 -- likely the result of poor health, a crushing tour schedule, and the stress of managing a post-Great War plan for lasting peace. So First Lady Edith Wilson took a ballsy step that wildly overstepped the bounds of constitutional law: For the next 17 months, she would act as a de-facto president. With the vice president intentionally kept out of the loop, Edith acted as gatekeeper for her husband, who never fully recovered. Edith’s role of selecting what got in front of her husband was never publicized. Congress found out about all this just before Wilson left office, and the newspapers never learned of the scheme. One fake interview with Wilson even won a Pulitzer Prize in 1921.
That’s What We Call a Problematic Fave
Long before the White House Family Theater was built in 1942, Woodrow Wilson held the first movie screening at the White House. His choice, shown on March 21, 1915, was the infamously racist epic “Birth of a Nation.”
Wilson’s personal view on race is heavily debated, with some scholars claiming he supported segregation only to preserve of social order, and others pointing to his loud praise of the Ku Klux Klan and his re-segregating of the federal workforce. As for the movie, Wilson is said to have quipped that it was “like writing history with lightning,” but even this quote has been disputed.
Pick a Card (Not That One)
Elected in 1920, Warren G. Harding had a reputation as a “handsome, semi-educated political hack with a modest taste for golf [and] a larger taste for women, liquor, and poker,” according to one major textbook.
His gambling was so outsized that his “Poker Cabinet” met twice a week for games; he was also known for drinking heavily at a time when Prohibition was in effect. Legend has it, at one of these get-togethers, Harding lost a game of “cold hand” (drawing one card and whoever has the highest wins). The winner was socialite Louise Cromwell Brooks, who then chose a set of 1880’s china as her prize. Harding had the china delivered the next day, and it’s never been seen since. He was dead of a heart attack after two years in office.
Dwight Eisenhower’s Alien Buds?
According to UFO conspiracy theorists, in 1954, President Eisenhower saved the country from war with various alien factions by signing a peace accord known as the “Greada Treaty.” That meeting at Holloman Air Force base in New Mexico was said to have been one of three Ike had with the grey alien faction of an endless interstellar war, leading to the exchange of space-tastic technology that makes up a “secret space program.”
While it sounds like a load of crap, at least one former government consultant has “confirmed” the theory, while Eisenhower’s own great-granddaughter Laura, something of a conspiracy theorist, says she was nearly drafted for a mission to Mars, and has spoken of numerous alien contacts with humans.
THE GREADA TREATY OF 1954— Prof. Robert Stewart (@ProfRobStew) June 5, 2019
PRESIDENT EISENHOWER & government decided to CIRCUMVENT the Constitution of the United States and FORM A TREATY with
OUR ALIEN BROTHERS (THE GREYS)
Our brothers agreed to EXPERIMENT ON HUMANS in exchange for #ALIEN TECHNOLOGYhttps://t.co/oB7qbWSDwz
Just Keep It in Your Pants
As a president/vice president combo, John F. Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson couldn’t have had more different personalities. Kennedy was quiet about his transgressions, while Johnson… was not. In fact, according to historians, Johnson could be such a problem that he could be seen urinating in congressional parking lots and grabbing his groin during House sessions. Later on, he reportedly developed a habit of whipping out his penis (which legend has it he had nicknamed “Jumbo”) in White House bathrooms, and yelling “have you ever seen anything as big as this?!”
Johnson’s crotch japes continued even as he ran for a second term in 1964, giving a press conference on Air Force One naked, exposing himself at least once during a one-on-one interview, and being caught on tape graphically describing the custom pants he wanted tailor Joe Haggar to make him.
LBJ called his "Jumbo." But never in a debate.— Mark Harris (@MarkHarrisNYC) March 4, 2016
Putting the "Service" In Secret Service
President Johnson’s time in the West Wing wasn’t just a Jumbo-waving frat party. He also spent his days drinking heavily, particularly his favorite brand of whisky, Cutty Sark. At his sprawling Texas ranch, Johnson would indulge his whims by driving guests around in a customized, open-topped Lincoln Continental, stopping only to stick a Styrofoam cup out the window. That was a signal to the Secret Service, which would quickly grab and refill the liquor, along with ice and soda, then run back to the golf cart they used to trail the president’s car.
The Lethal Trip That Wasn’t
Donald Trump’s poor relationship with the press doesn’t approach the loathing Nixon had for columnist Jack Anderson. Nixon had been dogged by Anderson’s reporting for decades. Among his many scoops: news of a quasi-legal loan to Nixon from Howard Hughes that likely cost Nixon the 1960 election.
After Nixon became president, Anderson broke a shady-campaign-contribution story, and Nixon had had enough. He allegedly ordered his infamous Plumbers unit to -- yes -- kill Anderson and make it look like an accident. Among the possibilities discussed were a staged car crash and a lethal LSD dose. The Plumbers eventually got caught up in Watergate, and Anderson survived the Nixon years unscathed.
Nixon bugged reporters, had the IRS audit them, & used the FCC to target, er, the Washington Post. Aides discussed murdering Jack Anderson. https://t.co/qnBRjPS3AS— Colby Cosh (@colbycosh) February 20, 2017
Brought low by the Vietnam War nightmare and the Watergate scandal, President Nixon soothed his nerves the way so many other powerful men have: getting drunk.
Before his eventual resignation, Nixon’s boozing had gotten so out of control that Defense Secretary James Schlesinger gave an astonishing, and almost certainly illegal directive: If Nixon either ordered a nuclear strike or some kind of military action within the United States, commanders should disregard it, until they got approval from either Schlesinger or the Secretary of State. There was genuine fear that Nixon would do the unthinkable to keep his power, though in the end, Nixon left in an orderly fashion.
....And Now, More UFOs
In 1969, a few years before becoming governor of Georgia, Carter witnessed what he described as a bright white object in the sky that closed in on him. The object supposedly flashed from white to blue to red, then back to white. Then it flew away at top speed, never to be seen again. Once he became governor, Carter was asked by the International UFO Bureau to file a formal report on his sighting, which he did. Carter stuck to the story even after leaving the White House. As recently as 2005, he told GQ without hesitation “I saw an unidentified flying object,” but that he didn’t believe it to be alien in nature, only some kind of secret terrestrial technology. Even as president, Carter was never able to learn the nature of what he saw, but his honesty has fueled conspiracy theories about a “secret space program” running parallel to NASA, which would explain what he saw.
Another President, Another Date With the Stars
Carter has always been a skeptic about the origin of his UFO experience, but Ronald Reagan went full-tilt into pseudoscience, regularly relying on the soothsayings of celebrity astrologer Joan Quigley. The Reagans began speaking with Quigley after the failed assassination attempt against the president in 1981, as rumors swirled that the astrologer had foretold the shooting.
Soon, Quigley was supposedly helping the Reagans schedule flights, speeches, and even the time he was sworn in for a second term. But the public association between Quigley and the Reagans wasn’t revealed until a 1988 tell-all book by a former Reagan staffer. At first, Quigley downplayed any relationship, but then wrote her own tell-all book, “What Does Joan Say?” The book was titled after a question that Ronald supposedly asked before making any major decisions. The Reagans denied the whole thing.
Anybody Seen the Nuclear Codes? Anybody?
The president can unleash nuclear hell in just a few easy steps, one of which involves using a small laminated card with codes to confirm his identity to senior commanders. This card is known as “the biscuit,” and to ensure the president doesn’t waste time in a crisis, the codes it carries must be verified from time to time by a Pentagon official.
Except, one time, it wasn’t -- for a month, because Bill Clinton had, according to reports, lost the biscuit. And, according to those same reports, nobody knew where it was. Knowing the card was gone, Clinton officials supposedly put off the Pentagon on several occasions, until the codes were eventually changed and a new card issued. What would have happened if Clinton had actually needed to use it to authenticate his identity, but didn't have it?
Thankfully, we never found out.
In 1998 or 2000 (accounts vary), Bill Clinton reportedly once misplaced his laminated nuclear use authentication codes card ("Biscuit"). /2— Stephen Schwartz (@AtomicAnalyst) December 24, 2016