30 Craziest Things U.S. Presidents Have Done
Let's all be thankful Grover Cleveland is no longer in the White House.
If you think our current president is a bit, well, unusual, it may ease your mind to know that he hardly has a monopoly on weird presidential behavior. Thanks to utterly bizarre tastes in pets to wild personal lives, several previous heads of government have done plenty of zany stuff worth remembering—or forgetting. For proof, see these 30 of the strangest things our presidents have said and done over the years.
Overdosed on Cherries
Zachary Taylor, after serving just 16 months in office, was killed by eating too many cherries. Specifically, at a Fourth of July celebration in the capital in 1850, Taylor chomped down on large amounts of cherries and gulped iced milk. The combination of the acidic cherries along with the milk is believed by some to have caused gastroenteritis, causing severe cramping, nausea, dehydration, and, eventually, death on July 9.
Plotted to Assassinate a Journalist
During Richard Nixon‘s peak paranoia he was obsessed and infuriated with Washington columnist Jack Anderson. So much so that the president consulted with aides about how to deal with the gadfly, including bumping him off. He considered putting poison in his medicine cabinet or exposing him to a huge amount of LSD by smearing it on his steering wheel. Fortunately, cooler heads (or simple logistics) prevailed and the plot was abandoned.
Gave Interviews on the Toilet
Lyndon B. Johnson was one of our most brazenly unapologetic presidents. He did things his own way and didn’t care what you thought about it.
One of his odd habits was to give interviews from the bathroom while going to the bathroom. Presidential biographer Doris Kearns Goodwin describes how “he just didn’t want the conversation to stop. If you were in the bedroom holding back when he went into the bathroom, he would just call you in and say, ‘come on in, I haven’t finished what I’m saying.'”
Urinated in Public
LBJ seemingly had no shame. As biographer Robert Caro describes, “He early became fabled for a Rabelaisian earthiness, urinating in the parking lot of the House Office Building as the urge took him. [And] if a colleague came into a Capitol bathroom as he was finishing at the urinal there,” that wouldn’t stop him from kicking off a conversation.
Taught His Parrot to Swear
LBJ had a famously foul mouth, but Andrew Jackson actually taught his parrot, Polly, to swear like a sailor. Legend has it that the cussing parrot had to be removed from his owner’s funeral when it “commenced swearing so loud and long as to disturb the people and had to be carried from the house.”
Claimed to Have Seen UFOs
During the 1976 Southern Governors Conference as he was running for president, Jimmy Carter described seeing a red and green orb in the sky outside Leary, Georgia, stating, “I don’t laugh at people any more when they say they’ve seen UFOs. I’ve seen one myself.”
Ditto: Also Claimed to Have Spotted a UFO
Carter wasn’t the only president who swore he saw something mysterious in the sky. His successor, Ronald Reagan, described his own alien encounter, which happened in a plane outside Bakersfield, California: “I looked out the window and saw this white light. It was zigzagging around…I said to [the pilot] ‘Let’s follow it!'”
Married His Adopted Daughter
Grover Cleveland met his wife shortly after she was born. She was the daughter of a family friend and he would act as her guardian when her father died in 1875 (though he wasn’t legally appointed) when she was just 11 years old. When she began college, the two began a romantic relationship and were wed when she was 21 years old—becoming the youngest first lady in history.
Personally Executed a Man
Yup, Grover Cleveland was one interesting guy. When sheriff of Erie County, New York (before becoming president), a man named Patrick Morrissey was convicted of killing his own mother. Cleveland opted to hang the guy himself.
As the Times said of the incident, “Thus it was that Sheriff Cleveland, standing behind a screen, some twenty feet away from the law’s victim, pushed the lever that dropped the gallow’s trap upon which poor Morrissey stood.”
Was a Licensed Bartender
Speaking of pre-presidential gigs, Abe Lincoln put in some time behind the bar, opening a shop called Berry and Lincoln with his friend William F. Berry, in New Salem, Illinois, in 1833. They served up wine for 25 cents a glass, rum for 18.75 cents, and whiskey for 12.5 cents. Things fell apart when Berry, an alcoholic, consumed much of the shop’s supply.
Introduced Waffles and Ice Cream to the U.S.
During the five years that Thomas Jefferson spent as American minister to France, he became enamored with Parisian cuisine. While there, he ordered his nineteen-year-old chef (and slave), James Hemings, to learn French cooking. Upon returning to Virginia and later as president, Jefferson hosted elaborate dinner parties with French dishes prepared by Hemings and those he taught, helping to popularize dishes such as parmesan cheese, macaroni and cheese, and ice cream.
Held a Patent
The only U.S. president to hold a patent is Abraham Lincoln, who developed a “manner of buoying vessels” that involved putting inflatable rubber bellows on the base of a ship, so when it ran aground, it could be filled with air and better able to move back to the water. Though the invention did not get past the development stage, Lincoln did whittle a model of his device while in his law office in Springfield, Illinois.
We’ve all got our weird phobias. For Benjamin Harrison, it was electricity that really made him jittery. Serving during the late 19th century, as major developments were being made in conduction, it was Harrison who introduced electric lighting into the White House—but he refused to actually touch the switches himself out of a fear of being electrocuted.
Lost the Nuclear Launch Codes
According to then-chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, at one time during his presidency Bill Clinton lost the personal ID code needed to confirm nuclear launches (also known as the “nuclear biscuit”) for months. “That’s a big deal,” said the chairman, “A gargantuan deal.”
Boxed and Wrestled at the White House
Teddy Roosevelt had some pretty tough hobbies. He started boxing back in his days at Harvard University and continued to practice after he entered the White House. Likewise, he would make wrestling part of his activities as president.
Lost Sight in One Eye While Boxing
Roosevelt’s boxing habit would backfire, however, in 1908, when one of his opponents landed a punch on his left eye, causing a hemorrhaging and eventually a detached retina, leaving him blind in his left eye.
“His doctors ordered him to stop at that point,” John Gable, executive director of the Theodore Roosevelt Association, told The Chicago Tribune. “But he kept it a secret. Only three or four of his closest confidants were ever aware that he had been blinded. They wanted to protect the identity of the other boxer as much as anything.”
Owned a Pair of Pet Lions
Calvin Coolidge adopted a menagerie of pets for the White House, from Ebeneezer the donkey to Smoky the bobcat. But perhaps the most inadvisable of his pets were a pair of lion cubs, a gift from the government of South Africa. They were named Tax Reduction and Budget Bureau.
Owned a Pet Black Bear
Teddy Roosevelt was perhaps the greatest lover of animals to occupy the White House, with dozens of pets adopted or gifted during his years in office. One notable creature was a small black bear from West Virginia, named Jonathan Edwards, after the religious leader (and ancestor or Roosevelt himself). It would eventually be donated to the Bronx Zoo.
Met with the KKK
While serving as judge of the county court in Kansas, Harry Truman sought to further his political career by meeting with the Ku Klux Klan, which at that time had been surging in popularity and had local political clout. However, when they urged Truman to cut ties with his patron Tom Pendergast because he was a Catholic, Truman rejected their overtures.
“They threatened to kill me,” Truman would later say. “And I went out to one of their meetings and dared them to try.”
Took Jogs to Fast Food Joints
When Clinton wasn’t losing the nuclear launch codes, he was going on jogs—sometimes up to three times a week. Unfortunately for his health, his favorite route was to the local McDonalds. And while Clinton’s frequent pit stops delighted McDonalds’ employees and customers alike, they were also a bit of a security nightmare. “The worst thing for the Secret Service is to take a sitting president into public when no one has been swept and anyone could be out there,” wrote one former Secret Service agent.
Rode in Al Capone’s Car
When Al Capone went to prison for evading taxes, the U.S. Treasury Department impounded his car. But rather than just leave it sitting in storage somewhere, the government turned it into a high-security presidential transport. Franklin D. Roosevelt used it frequently in the days following the attack on Pearl Harbor, when worries rose about his safety.
Opened a Whiskey Distillery
After leaving the presidency, George Washington wasn’t satisfied with just puttering around Mount Vernon, so he jumped into whiskey distillation. By 1799, during the final months of Washington’s life, it was the largest distillery in the country, producing 11,000 gallons of un-aged whiskey. Unfortunately, after the first president’s death, the business failed to continue in his absence.
Cocked His Head at All Times
James Buchanan had one eye set slightly higher than the other, which resulted in him cocking his head to one side at all times—even in presidential portraits—”in a perpetual attitude of courteous deference and attentive interest,” as his biographer would describe it.
John Quincy Adams made a daily ritual of going for a Potomac River swim in the buff. As he would describe in his diary in July 1818: “I rise usually between four and five—walk two miles, bathe in Potowmack river, and walk home, which occupies two hours—read or write, or more frequently idly waste the time till eight or nine when we breakfast—read or write till twelve or one, when I go to the office; now usually in the carriage—at the office till five then home till dinner. After dinner read newspapers till dark; soon after which I retire to bed.”
Firmly Believed in Astrology
Ronald Reagan was a believer in astrology, even employing Joan Quigley, an astrology consultant to offer advice and input on scheduling important events—though Reagan would clarify that astrology did not influence any policy decisions.
Didn’t Sweat an Assassination Attempt
You’d think that someone as high-profile as a president would be deeply nervous about the possibility of assassination, but when John Hinckley Jr. shot Ronald Reagan in 1981, the president cracked jokes, telling his wife, “Honey, I forgot to duck” and scrawling that he’d like written on his gravestone, “All in all, I’d rather be in Philadelphia.”
Fought More Than 100 Duels
Andrew Jackson loved going toe-to-toe with an opponent, and took part in more than 100 duels. He suffered injuries from them on several occasions, including a shot to the chest.
Married His Teacher
Millard Fillmore was hot for teacher. Going to school at a town adjacent to the one in which he grew up, he developed a crush on the teacher, Abigail Powers. They were only about two years apart in age and, as the Miller Center of Public Affairs puts it, “She loaned him books, challenged him to study difficult subjects, and cheered him on. Nathaniel Fillmore, meanwhile, finally saw that his son might have meant what he said about wanting to become a lawyer and arranged a clerkship with a local judge that would also allow Millard to study law. The teenager attacked the difficult bookwork with untiring relish, teaching school to support himself. He also began courting Abigail Powers. Impressed with his work ethic and aspirations, she accepted his engagement proposal in 1819.”
Was a High School Cheerleader
George W. Bush may not have had a stellar academic record, but he was an outstanding socializer, and that included a stint as head cheerleader in high school at Phillips Academy.
According to Nicholas Kristof, writing for the New York Times, “George initiated a series of humorous pep talks and skits in the weekly school assemblies, but school officials fretted that they simply drew attention to the cheerleaders rather than to the football team. G. Grenville Benedict, the dean of students, urged the cheerleaders to tone it down and perhaps call off the skits.”
Had Many, Many, Many Mistresses
John F. Kennedy had far more mistresses than his rumored dalliance with Marilyn Monroe. The 35th president is believed to have had affairs with at least a dozen women, if not far more.
Took the An Effortless Cognitive Exam
In January 2018, Donald Trump took a cognitive exam, and released the results to the public, in an effort to prove his fitness for office. Thing is, the exam, the Montreal Cognitive Assessment, isn’t exactly the SATs. Sample “questions” include: Draw a cube; connect the dots; identify the animal; and “repeat the sentence.”
Rode Mechanical Horses—in the Buff
Turns out, Coolidge was quite the animal lover. In addition to his adopted lions, he also loved horses. Unfortunately, he was allergic.
As a result, someone bought the president a mechanical horse as a gag gift. Coolidge missed the joke and installed the apparatus in a dressing room next to his bedroom. One day, he tried it out and decided he loved the thing. From then on, he rode the horse frequently—always wearing his hat, but not always wearing clothes.
Pretending to Crash Cars
Clearly, LBJ was quite the character. But how did he test the character of others? He pretended to get them into a car crash to see how they would react, obviously. Johnson was the owner of an Amphicar, a vehicle that operated as a car on land—and as a boat on water. He’d drive, then pretend to lose control of the vehicle, and career toward a body of water, freaking his guests out (naturally!) in the process. Of course, no one ever got hurt. And for more fascinating blasts from the pasts, here are 17 Crazy Historical Facts That Are Worth Repeating Over and Over.
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