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Some Strange Facts About US Presidents

Many of us have a strange tales to tell, stories of uncanny coincidences or premonitions. Yet,  US presidents are more likely to find themselves enmeshed in  weird and ironic circumstances. They live anomalous lives and are no strangers to the bizarre. Enjoy our list of strange facts about US presidents.

President Obama Entering the White House

Was George Washington Bulletproof?

During his days as a soldier and general, George Washington looked near certain death in the face on many occasions and always emerged unscathed. This was most obvious at the battles of Monongahela and Princeton.

In 1755, Washington fought with British and Colonial forces against French and Native American forces at the Battle of Monongahela. British and colonial officers were specifically targeted and most were killed or injured. 

When his British commanding officer, General Edward Braddock, was fatally wounded, Washington rode along the collapsing lines to steady the soldiers. He had two horses shot out from under him but remained uninjured even though men were falling all around him. He later wrote:

“By the miraculous care of providence, I have been protected against all human probability or expectation…”

“For I had four bullets through my coat and two horses shot under me, yet escaped unhurt.”

“Although death was levelling my companions on every side of me.”

On January 3, 1777 at the Battle of Princeton, Gen. George Washington, Commander-in-Chief of the Continental Army, led a counter attack against the British and rode to within thirty yards of enemy lines shouting, “Parade with me my fine fellows, we will have them soon!”

His men were aghast with fear. They felt certain he would be shot at any moment. Yet, once again, he survived unscathed.

Bullet Proof George Washington (4:23 minutes)

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Did George Washington Say, “I Cannot Tell a Lie”?

It’s unlikely that George Washington ever said, “I cannot tell a lie” but, If he did, he was lying. 

Ironically,  disinformation was Washington’s superpower.  Without his sophisticated intelligence gathering strategies and the seeding of disinformation, it’s very likely that the American Revolution would have failed by 1776.

At the time of his death in 1799, the public knew very little about the private life of President Washington. It was Washington biographer, Mason Locke Weems who pressed the case that Washington rose to high office as a consequence of his “Great Virtues”.

In 1806, the fifth edition of Weems’ The Life and Memorable Actions of George Washington first introduced the story of how six year old George chopped down a cherry tree and confessed the deed to his father:

“I can’t tell a lie, Pa; 
you know I can’t tell a lie.
 I did cut it with my hatchet.”

Synchronised Deaths: Adams and Jefferson

John Adams and Thomas Jeffersons, once friends and patriots, then rivals for the presidency, became amicable correspondents in their later years.

Both men were of great age – particularly for that time: Jefferson was eighty-three and Adams was ninety, so their deaths could not have been unexpected. 

However, for the second and third presidents of the USA to both pass away on July 4th, 1826, as their fellow Americans celebrated fifty years of independence is truly weird.

Following Jefferson’s death, John Tyler recounted that Jefferson had often expressed a desire to die on the 4th of July.

Five years later, James Monroe, the fifth president of the United States and next to die,  passed away on the 4th of July completing a hat trick of sorts.

Jefferson's Tombstone Doesn't Acknowledge His Presidency

Thomas Jefferson left precise instructions regarding his tombstone and epitaph. He even provided the design for his gravemarker and the words to be inscribed upon it. “Because by these,” he wrote, “as testimonials that I have lived, I wish most to be remembered.” 

“On the faces of the Obelisk the following inscription, and not a word more:”

“Here was buried
Thomas Jefferson
Author of the Declaration
of American Independence
of the Statute of Virginia for religious freedom
AND Father of the University of Virginia”

Madison Rejected Measures to Delay His Death Until July 4th

Many American’s viewed the deaths of both John Adams and Thomas Jefferson on Independence Day, 1826, as a sign of the new nation’s divinity. The death of James Monroe — the fifth US president — on Independence Day , 1831, seemed to provide confirmation. 

As James Madison lay dying in June, 1836, his doctor suggested that he take stimulants to delay the inevitable until July 4th.* Madison refused the offer and died on June 28, six days early. This raises an obvious question: if Madison’s life had been successfully prolonged, what further measures was his doctor prepared to take to make certain Madison died on July 4th?

Had the late president survived until July 4th, the second, third, fourth and fifth presidents of the USA would all have died on Independence Day.

* Andrews, E. (2019). 10 Things You May Not Know About James Madison. [online] HISTORY. Available at: https://www.history.com/news/10-things-you-may-not-know-about-james-madison [Accessed 16 Oct. 2019].

James Madison's Slave Wrote the First White House Memoir

Paul Jennings, James Madison’s slave wrote the first White House Memoir.

As a boy, Jennings had accompanied Adams to the White House to eventually serve as a footman and Madison’s manservant. Jennings purchased his freedom in 1847.

His memoir, A Colored Mans Reminiscences of James Madison, was published in 1865. In it, Jennings provides an eyewitness account of the evacuation of the White House during the War of 1812 and Dolley Madison’s heroic effort to rescue George Washington’s portrait.

John Quincy Adams Liked to Skinny Dip in The Potomac

The sixth president of the United States, John Quincy Adams, had some very odd hobbies and habits. Most notably:

  • He’d rose early each morning to skinny dip in the Potomac River.
  • He collected reptiles and kept an alligator in a bathroom close to the East Room of The White House.

Andrew Jackson Had A Fearsome Temper and Liked to Duel

Andrew Jackson, seventh president  the United States, had a temper described as volcanic. He was involved in a number of duels and challenged many men to more.

In  1806, Jackson challenged Charles Dickinson to a duel in writing. At the appointed time, Dickinson, an expert shot, fired first wounding Jackson in the chest. To the amazement of his second, Jackson remained on his feet, took aim and shot Dickinson dead. 

The musket ball that wounded Jackson was never removed and affected his health for the rest of his life.

Andrew Jackson’s Duelling Pistols

The National Museum

– 1926 –

Martin Van Buren Spoke English as a Second Language

Martin Van Buren, the eight president of the United States and first to be born a US citizen, spoke English as a second language. In fact, he didn’t learn to speak English until he went to school and never lost his Dutch accent.

Van Buren and his wife, Hannah, also raised in  Dutch home, prefered to speak Dutch at home and in the White House.

John Tyler Was the Only US President to Join the Confederacy

John Tyler became the ninth US president following the death of William Henry Harrison. He was America’s first unelected president and only president to support the confederacy.

Tyler was elected to the Confederate Congress as a representative from the State of Virginia but died before he could attend the first session.

Widely regarded as a traitor, Tyler’s death was not acknowledged by the federal government until the twentieth century.

The Curse of Tippecanoe (The 20 Year Presidential Curse)

The Curse of Tippecanoe is the name given to a freakish pattern of presidential deaths.

From William Henry Harrison to John F Kennedy, every president elected on a score year (a year divisible by twenty) died in office.

Tippecanoe was a nickname given to Harrison, the ninth president of United States, after he defeated  the Shawnee at the  Battle of Tippecanoe in 1811.

Presidents affected by the curse:

William H. Harrison: Elected 1840
Succumbed to Typhoid on April 4, 1841

Abraham Lincoln: Elected 1860
Assassinated  on April 15, 1865

James A. Garfield: Elected 1880
Assassinated  on September 19, 1881

William McKinley: Elected 1900
Assassinated  on September 14, 1901

Warren G. Harding: Elected 1920
Succumbed to a heart attack on Aug 2, 1923

Franklin D. Roosevelt: Elected 1940
Succumbed to a Cerebral hemorrhage on April 12, 1945

John F. Kennedy: Elected 1960
Assassinated  on November 22, 1963

Ronald Reagan, elected president in 1980, was critically injured by a gunman on March 30, 1981. He was close to death upon arrival at George Washington University Hospital but survived his injuries.

Did James Polk Work Himself to Death?

It’s amazing that Polk remains one of the lesser known US presidents. The circumstances of his election and accomplishments as a president are fascinating.

Elected in 1844, the eleventh and youngest president of the USA to that time, Polk was enthusiastic and full of vigour. Many scholars argue that achieved more then any other president during a single term, managing to to promote and execute almost every item on his agenda.

Polk had a reputation for being a tireless worker, working up to eighteen hours a day and spending ten to twelve hours at his desk. He rarely left Washington, and it’s been estimated that took less than thirty days off during his administration. He had this to say on the matter: 

“No President who performs his duty faithfully and conscientiously can have any leisure. I prefer to supervise the whole operations of the government myself rather than intrust the public business to subordinates, and this makes my duties very great.”

Polk did not run for reelection 1848. He left office frail and exhausted in March, 1849 to undertake a triumphant tour of the south. While on a Mississippi paddle steamer, he took ill and was hospitalised. It was feared he had contracted cholera. When a doctor assured Polk he did not have cholera, he left hospital to continue his tour. He finally arrived in Nashville where he was greeted enthusiastically on April 2. 

Polk passed away in June, barely three months after leaving office. It’s now widely accepted that cholera was the cause of death.

Polk Place

Polk Place

James Polk’s Home and Place of Death

Nashville, Tennessee

Demolished 1901

Abraham Lincoln, Grave Robbers and The Secret Service

On the night of his assassination, legislation to create the United States Secret Service lay on President Abraham Lincoln’s desk. You may be surprised to learn that the slain president’s involvement with the Secret Service did not end there.

The Secret Service was founded as a law enforcement agency attached to the Department of the Treasury in July, 1865. Its remit was to combat the counterfeiting of US currency which was prolific at that time. It had no role to play in presidential protection until 1894, except for a single  event — an attempt to steal the body of Abraham Lincoln.

Lewis Segles, a Secret Service informant, had infiltrated a gang of counterfeiters and learned of a plot to steal the body of President Lincoln and hold it for ransom. He reported the details to Patrick D. Tyrrell, Chief of the Chicago District Office of the Secret Service. 

On the night of November 7th, 1896, Swegles accompanied Terence Mullen, a saloonkeeper and Jack Hughes, a counterfeiter to Oak Ridge Cemetery in Springfield. Tyrrell and his Secret Service agents lay in wait close to The Abraham Lincoln Burial Site.

Mullen and Hughes used a file to open the padlock securing Lincoln’s burial chamber and easily broke into the white marble sarcophagus containing the president’s remains, but the would-be graverobbers were unable to move his coffin very far. They had given little thought to how they would exhume and escape with a 500-pound cedar-and-lead coffin.

Mullens and Hughes abandoned the coffin and raced back to Chicago after a hidden detective accidentally discharged his pistol. They were arrested by Tyrell a few days later in the salon in which they’d hatched their conspiracy.

 

Abraham Lincoln's Tomb

Abraham lincoln’s tomb

Oakridge Cemetery

Springfield, Illinois

Jackie's Premonitions That J.F.K. Jr. Would Die in a Plane Crash

Jackie Onassis had premonitions that J.F.K. Jr. would be killed in his own aircraft and restrained him from obtaining a pilot’s licence.* However, following the death of his mother, Kennedy (who had long dreamt of flying) commenced pilot training and acquired his licence in 1998.

On the evening of July 16, 1999, John F. Kennedy Jr. crashed his own aircraft, a Piper Saratoga, into the Atlantic Ocean near Martha’s Vineyard, Massachusetts. He was killed along with his wife, Carolyn Bessette, and sister-in-law, Lauren Bessette.

The Kennedy family has long been burdened by a sad history of aircraft crashes. Before the accident that claimed the lives of his son and daughter-in-law, three of President Kennedy’s siblings,  Joseph, Kathleen and Edward, were involved in fatal aircraft accidents in 1944, 1948 and 1964. Joseph and Kathleen were killed. Edward Kennedy, though badly injured, survived.

In 1968, Jackie Kennedy married Aristotle Onassis. His son, Alexander, died in a plane crash four years later. 

*Soltis, A. (2019). JACKIE FORESAW SON’S DEATH: BOOK BARES HER DYING PLEA ABOUT PILOT JFK JR.. [online] Nypost.com. Available at: https://nypost.com/2000/07/11/jackie-foresaw-sons-death-book-bares-her-dying-plea-about-pilot-jfk-jr/ [Accessed 12 Oct. 2019].

To Be Continued…

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