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

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 4th July.* Madison refused the offer and died on 28th June, 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 Independence Day?

Had the late president survived until 4th July, 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.

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.

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 2nd April.

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

James Polk’s Home and Place of Death

Nashville, Tennessee

Demolished 1901

Zachary Taylor Refused to Vote in Every Presidential Election Until His Own

Zachary Taylor, a military commander known as “Old Rough and Ready”, refused to vote in presidential elections because he didn’t wish to cast his vote against a potential commander-in-chief.

Prior to 1848, Taylor had never expressed an interest in politics or his support for a political party. It was in that year that Taylor, popular in both the North and South, was approached by a number of political parties – including Whigs and Democrats – to become their presidential candidate

When pressed, Taylor confirmed his political views were most closely aligned with those of the Whigs.  He became their candidate at the 1848 Whig National Convention and chose Millard Fillmore to be his running mate.

Taylor defeated Lewis Cass and Martin Van Buren in the presidential election that followed and became the twelfth president of the United States.

Was Zachary Taylor the First US President to be Assassinated?

Zachary Taylor died after serving only four hundred and ninety-two days in office. Only William Henry Harrison and James Garfield had shorter tenures. On Independence Day, 1850, Taylor was attending a fundraising event at the incomplete Washington Monument. Contemporary reports indicate that he consumed large amounts of raw fruit and iced milk. He fell ill that evening and died five days later. His personal doctor diagnosed his illness as cholera morbus – a generic term for a diverse range of gastro-intestinal ailments, including dysentery and bloody diarrhoea. Almost immediately, rumours that Taylor had been poisoned by pro-slavery Southerners gained traction and persisted into the twentieth century. On 17th June, 1991, the remains of President Zachary Taylor were exhumed and taken to the Kentucky Medical Examiner’s Office. Tissue samples including teeth, hair and fingernails were removed and subjected independent examinations, including Neutron activation analysis at Oak Ridge National Laboratory. Reports concluded that Taylor died from natural causes – probably acute gastroenteritis (cholera morbis) as indicated by his personal physician. There was no indication of arsenic poisoning. It was further noted that harrowing treatments administered by his physicians had hindered any chance of recovery that Taylor may have had. More recently, Michael Parenti, a political scientist, has quoted a number of forensic pathologists to claim that the 1991 tests used to detect the presence of arsenic were flawed. Don’t expect this conspiracy theory to be put to bed any time soon.

The Zachary Taylor Mausoleum

Zachary Taylor Cemetery

Louisville, Kentucky

The Millard Fillmore Society Was Founded to Celebrate Fillmore's Anonymity

Founded in 1963, The Millard Fillmore Society met each year on Fillmore’s birthday to celebrate his anonymity and to present its Medal of Mediocrity.

Millard Fillmore became the thirteenth president of the USA upon the death of Zachary Taylor. Fillmore, a weak and indecisive president, lacked the leadership skills necessary for high office.

It’s been said that he had to be tormented in to making decisions and that the decisions he made were almost always disastrous.

His lack of leadership and judgement during a critical period in the relationship between Northern and Southern states helped plunge the nation into civil war.

Ironically, due the work of The Millard Fillmore Society, he is no longer an anonymous president and has been frequently compared to unpopular, modern incumbents.

Franklin Pierce: "The Hero of Many a Well Fought Bottle”

Franklin Pierce became the fourteenth US president after defeating Gen. Winfield Scott, candidate of the badly divide Whigs.  

Scott had been Pierce’s commanding officer during the Mexican-American war but was easy pickings in the 1852 presidential election. It would have been better for the USA if Scott had won. Pierce, like Fillmore before him and Buchanan after him, rank highly on almost every list of the worst US presidents. Together, they made The Civil War inevitable.

Pierce, a heavy drinker and president you wouldn’t want in charge of the nuclear codes, died from acute severe cirrhosis of the liver in 1869.

James Buchanan: A Bachelor President Known as ‘Doughface’

James Buchanan, the only US president to never marry, is often regarded as America’s worst president.

Known as ‘Doughface’ – a Northern politician who favoured Southern political positions – Buchanan refused to address the expansion of slavery or the rise of the group of states that was to become The Confederacy.

Buchanan was the fifteenth US president and last to hold office before the outbreak of The Civil War.

During his final years, Buchanan said:

“History will vindicate my memory from every unjust aspersion.” 

Good luck with that.

Presidents Lincoln and Buchanan Entering the Senate Chamber Prior to Lincoln’s Inauguration

The Capitol
Washington, D.C.

Andrew Johnson: The First US President to Be Impeached

Following a number of unsuccessful moves to impeach Johnson, the seventeenth president of the USA was finally impeached on 24th February, 1868.  It wasn’t even close – the vote was 128 to 47.

Eleven articles of impeachment were adopted. The most serious accusation facing Johnson was that he had challenged the constitutional legitimacy of Congress by violating the Tenure of Office Act.

On 16th May, the Senate found the president guilty by a vote of 39 – 19  on the 11th article of impeachment, which charged Johnson with firing Secretary of War, Edwin Stanton, in violation of the Tenure of Office of Act. However, as a two-thirds majority was required to convict the president, he was acquitted.

Ten days later, the Senate returned to decide on the second and third articles of impeachment. The results were identical, 35–19, and further proceedings were dismissed.

Accusations of deal-making and bribery were widespread. Yet, it’s possible the main reason Johnson survived was because his replacement would have been Ohio Senator, Benjamin Wade, the president pro tempore of the Senate. Wade supported women’s suffrage and other measures considered to be outrageous.

President Ulysses S. Grant Wrote a Memoir to Save His Wife from Poverty

Ulysses S Grant, legendary Civil War general and 18th president of the USA, was broke and worried about his wife’s prospects when he was diagnosed with cancer in 1884.

Mark Twain, Grant’s great friend and admirer, understood how parlous Grant’s heath and financial prospects were when he offered him an unheard of seventy-five percent royalty to publish a memoir. (Grant had already been considering a ten percent royalty offer from another publisher.)

President Grant died only a few days after completing his memoir, which focused his early life, The Mexican-American war and the Civil War.

Grant’s memoir was an instant bestseller and Mark Twain was pleased to present Julia Grant, the president’s widow, with approximately $450,000 in royalties, a great fortune at the time.

Grant working on His Memoir
Only Weeks Before His Death

Mt. McGregor, New York

June 27, 1885

15 thoughts on “Some Strange Facts About US Presidents”

  1. Hello. Thanks for summarizing such amazing list about US presidents. I didn’t know they did so many weird things.

    The thing that surprised me the most is the story of James Madison. I didn’t know that death can be avoided by taking stimulants. I imagine James Madison was in bed and the doctor ask him to delay his dead, it really weird. Do you think there’s a movie about his story?

    Good luck and I can’t wait too see some weird stories about Donald Trump too. 

    Reply
    • Hi, and thanks for taking an interest in my post. 

      I am not certain which stimulants Madison’s doctor had in mind – cocaine was certainly the most powerful available.

      Even in the nineteenth-century doctors had palliative care options available to them. It is possible cocaine was sometimes used to delay death when someone was fading, just as opioids may have been used to hasten death.

      A movie was made about Madison  – A More Perfect Union: America Becomes a Nation (1989).  However, it mainly deals with the Constitutional Convention of 1787.

      Cheers,

      Henri.

      Reply
  2. I must appreciate the efforts you’ve invested into this article, the amount of research and information you gathered, it’s very thoughtful of you to do this. US presidents are always having weird stories attached them one way or another, I’m very much aware of that of George Washington because I did a project that involved using a president and I chose him. I’ll share this article to other platforms so that they can also learn from it, thank you .

    Reply
    • Thanks for your kind words and interest. This post is still a work in progress. I’m trying to find at least one strange fact about each president that is not common knowledge.

      I hope you’ll check back soon.

      Cheers,

      Henri

      Reply
  3. Great men are called and they are to be remembered by their deeds, works and words. The United States is a big place and wide in human resources, so its no surprise learning about the past presidents and seeing how outstanding they were. 

    Of all that have been listed, the man that never tells a lie remains my favorite. I am glad I came across this post.
    .

    Reply
  4. What fascinating stories!  I really enjoyed your post.  I hope you do more that are similar.  You’ve unearthed so many little stories that most of us have never heard.  

    It makes you wonder,  doesn’t it, with so many coincidences about dates of death — that information is uncanny. And George Washington’s seeming indestructibility — makes you wonder if some other force was at work to make sure he stayed alive, as we really needed him.  Some things simply can’t be explained.

    Do more — very interesting reading.

    Reply
    • Hi Fran,

      I couldn’t agree more: some things just can’t be explained. The religious amongst us may refer to such events as miracles and Divine Intervention; religious skeptics may call them synchronicity.

      Perhaps, we should all be more willing to accept the gaps in our own knowledge and respect the beliefs of others.

      As Hamlet said: “There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy.”

      Cheers,

      Henri

      Reply
  5. Always a  good thing to learn new stuff like what you have here. I didn’t know so much about Polk. In fact, I used to think that he died while in office and didn’t have really much to do. It seems like he really was one of those hardworking ones and this is understandable since he is a very young man. 

    I like the fact that you have mentioned here all about Abraham Lincoln and the little secret to his assassination. Nice work.

    Reply
    • Thanks for your kind words, Henderson. 

      I too believe that Polk deserves to have a much more prominent place in US history.

      Cheers,

      Henri

      Reply
  6. This is really a big dig to the history of the state, and I must confess that they are well detailed and carry a lot of information believed to be of immense help. Wow! Simply superb and great. I believe every American should be made to read this and also understand the various rudiments that occurred then,  and probably have a link with now. The curse of Tippecanoe really shocked me because I never knew about the curse before now. Thumbs up to you

    Reply
    • Thanks for your kind words, Rodarrick.

      William Henry Harrison (Old Tippecanoe) holds many unique, presidential distinctions – even though he was only president for a month.

      1. He was the first president to die in office.

      2. He served the shortest term as president.

      3. He delivered the longest inaugural address in history. After editing, it was 8,445 words and took almost two hours to read. It was a hideously cold day and Harrison elected not to wear an overcoat or hat.

      4. Harrison’s campaign slogan – “Tippecanoe and Tyler, Too” – is regarded as the most memorable in US history. John Tyler, Harrison’s running mate and vice-president, became the tenth president of the United States following Harrison’s death.

      At the time of his death, it was believed that Harrison had succumbed to complications due to pneumonia. It is now believed that the cause of death was septic shock due to typhoid.

      Cheers,

      Henri

      Reply
  7. Wow, where to start? What a collection of strange and interesting facts about US presidents, almost none of which I knew (I’m British so my knowledge on the subject is limited). Each of these facts could be an article in themselves. I wonder if there are similar weird facts about British Prime Ministers? Really interesting, this has made me want to find out much more about US history, so thank you for sharing.

    Reply
    • Thanks for your interest in my post.

      Yes, I do intend to write a piece on strange facts about British Prime Ministers. They are no less fascinating.

      Take Margaret Thatcher for instance. In a 1973 BBC interview, she said: “I don’t think there will be a woman Prime Minister in my lifetime.”

      Two years later, Mrs Thatcher was elected leader of the Conservative Party and led her party to victory in the 1979 parliamentary elections when she became Britain’s first woman Prime Minister and the longest-serving Prime Minister of the twentieth century.

      And where to begin with Churchill? Despite his affection for the USA – his mother was an American – the country was bad luck for him. He met with serious misfortune on at least two occasions while visiting the US.

      1. During a lecture tour to the United States in 1931, Winston Churchill was struck by car and almost killed as he attempted to cross Fifth Avenue, New York.

      2. Following the attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941, Churchill traveled to the US to solidify his relationship with President Roosevelt. After addressing Congress, he suffered a heart attack at The White House on the evening of 27th December. It was a well-kept secret.

      Cheers,

      Henri

      Reply

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