People keep up with American politicians and their families in a similar way to how they keep up with celebrities. And so if a President – or God forbid, their wife or child – commits even a minor indiscretion, there’s no doubt it’ll soon be plastered on the front pages of every newspaper. And yet, despite this, some fascinating facts and awe-inspiring scandals have long since fallen down the cracks of history. Let’s revisit 20 of the best.
20. Thomas Jefferson promised his dying wife he wouldn’t remarry
Childbirth was a big killer of women back in the 18th century, and it claimed Thomas Jefferson’s wife Martha in 1782. On her deathbed, however, Martha made Thomas promise he wouldn’t take another wife ever again. In fact, she told him that she couldn’t stand the thought of another woman playing mom to her babies. And in a way he did keep his word – Jefferson never actually married the next woman to bear him children…
19. Jefferson had children with a slave woman
In 1802 a rumor started to spread that Jefferson had fathered the children of one of his slaves, a woman called Sally Hemings. And although the Jefferson family denied it, DNA testing in 1998 revealed that Jefferson had almost certainly fathered at least one child with a woman he owned. That sort of thing wasn’t unheard of back then, but to us it seems appalling – especially since in public Jefferson was against slavery.
18. Woodrow Wilson and his family kept sheep on the White House lawn
No, the Wilsons weren’t massive sheep fans. Rather, the flock that grazed the grass around the Oval Office from 1918 to 1920 were actually helping with the war effort by providing wool. Moreover, they were a great symbol of solidarity between the First Family and the U.S. public. On the other hand, of course, they were sheep. And the newspapers delighted in the efforts that Woodrow had to go to keep them healthy and away from his flowers.
17. Alice Roosevelt was an anti-racist rebel
Alice Roosevelt was possibly the wildest, coolest First Daughter the White House has ever seen. She was the oldest child of Theodore Roosevelt and drove him to despair with her antics, which included puffing tobacco on the White House roof and keeping pet snakes. Plus she was also anti-racist: when a white man called her black chauffeur a “black bastard,” she responded by calling the man a “white son of a bitch!”
16. The Kennedys had a disabled daughter they kept hidden
Ever heard of JFK’s sister, Rosemary Kennedy? Well, there’s a good reason for that. Rosemary was born with learning difficulties, something that embarrassed her parents. In fact, her father ordered a lobotomy when she was 23, but it only left the poor girl in a far worse state. And so she was sent to a care home, her condition was covered up from the public, and her own mother didn’t even visit her for two decades.
15. Benjamin Harrison was afraid of electric lights
Benjamin Harrison and his wife Caroline were so afraid of the White House electric lights that they refused to touch them. To be fair, though, it was 1891 and they had only just been invented. Luckily, however, the Harrisons had servants who would operate the lights for them.
14. Warren Harding had an illegitimate child
Before he became President, Warren Harding had an affair with Nan Britton, a woman who was utterly obsessed with him. This resulted in a daughter, a scandal and a 1928 book called The President’s Daughter. In it, Britton claimed that she and Harding had enjoyed sexual encounters in the White House closet. And while that would never be verified, her daughter’s parentage was – and Harding was indeed the father.
13. Mary Lincoln was sent to a mental asylum
Mary Todd Lincoln was horrifically unfortunate. Not only did she witness her husband Abraham Lincoln being shot in front of her, she later lost three sons as well. And gradually her grief made her mentally ill, at a time when there was very little understanding of mental health. As a result, Mary was briefly placed into a mental asylum, which destroyed her relationship with her one surviving son.
12. Lyndon B. Johnson liked to show off his private parts
Lyndon B. Johnson had an unusual way of conducting White House business. He would happily go over policy matters with colleagues by the White House urinals while holding his penis. Moreover, he fondly referred to his member as, well, “Jumbo.” Sadly, however, no proof exists as to whether that nickname is accurate. In addition, Johnson would also pee in the parking lot and dictate to his staff while sitting on the toilet. Lovely.
11. Theodore Roosevelt banned Christmas trees from the White House
Theodore Roosevelt was so dedicated to the preservation of nature that he banned Christmas trees from the White House. But while this might sound like something the Grinch would do, Christmas trees were actually fairly controversial at the time. Not among Roosevelt’s own family, though; in 1902 his sons Archie and Quentin smuggled a Christmas tree in and were given an environmental lecture for their troubles.
10. James Buchanan may have been gay
America has yet to have a out non-straight President, but historians believe there’s a chance that James Buchanan may possibly have been gay. Before he took office in 1857 he was so close to senator William Rufus King that rumors spread. Plus, he remained unmarried for his entire life, and in his letters he referred to “wooing gentlemen.”
9. Lucretia Garfield sent her husband an invitation to his own wedding
The marriage between President James Garfield and his wife Lucretia wasn’t an overly passionate one. In fact, her family suggested she send him an invitation to their own wedding just to make absolutely certain he showed, which she did. Six years after the couple wed, moreover, it was revealed that he had had an affair with a teenage reporter. Perhaps she shouldn’t have bothered…
8. Franklin D. Roosevelt threw a Caesar-themed party after being called a dictator
In the opening months of 1934 new President Franklin D. Roosevelt was tired of critics calling him a dictator. And so he did the only sensible thing one could do under the circumstances: he threw a big Roman-style costume party at the White House and dressed as the famous dictator Caesar.
7. Ronald Reagan’s daughter claimed her mom abused her for years
In 1992 Ronald and Nancy Reagan’s daughter Patti published a book called The Way I See It. And in it, she asserted that her mother had physically abused her for years and her father had done nothing about it. The Reagans, however, released a statement saying that the accusations were “absolutely false.”
6. Grover Cleveland was accused of rape
Glover Cleveland was one of many presidents who fathered an illegitimate child. However, the mother of his baby claimed in an 1884 interview with the Chicago Tribune that what had happened between them had not been consensual. But while those who believed her condemned Cleveland in the strongest terms, he still won the election.
5. Harry Truman’s daughter helped create an action movie
Harry S. Truman became President in 1945, and in 1997 a curious after-effect happened: the Wesley Snipes White House crime movie Murder at 1600. The idea and the basic plot had come from Truman’s daughter Margaret, who had quite negative views about the people at the White House after living there for so long.
4. Theodore Roosevelt had a pet badger
Badgers make terrible pets, but no-one told President Roosevelt that. When he was offered a baby badger by a young fan, who said her brother Josiah had caught it, he took it and installed it in the White House. He named it “Josiah” after the boy who had captured it, but Josiah was not accustomed to the Presidential life and eventually had to be rehomed at Bronx Zoo.
3. Amy Carter has been arrested for protesting four times
Amy Carter has been arrested four times in her life for protesting injustices, and her father never minded at all. In fact, following her fourth arrest in 1987, Jimmy Carter told the New York Times that he was “very proud” of his daughter. These days Amy is married with a child and she doesn’t protest much, but she is on a human rights advocacy board.
2. Ronald Reagan’s first wife became a single mother
Ronald Reagan famously demonized single mothers, embedding the idea of the “welfare queen” deep in his supporters’ minds. But ironically his first wife, actress Jane Wyman, was a single mother to Reagan’s own children. Indeed, after the couple divorced in 1949 – something that also made Reagan the first divorced man to be elected President – it was she who raised the kids.
1. George H.W. Bush banned broccoli from the White House
In 1990 George H.W. Bush made a fabulously childish proclamation. According to the New York Times, the former President declared in 1990, “I do not like broccoli, and I haven’t liked it since I was a little kid and my mother made me eat it. And I’m President of the United States, and I’m not going to eat any more broccoli!” Unfortunately, the newspaper also reported that his wife was planning to serve him the green vegetable anyway.