From its cornerstone laid by George Washington to being set on fire by the British during the War of 1812, the building has a long history of wild events and eccentric tenants. Forty-five presidents have inhabited the White House; although there are 46 presidents in US history, George Washington never lived in the White House. Each US president had his own quirks and habits, and each family that has lived there has left its mark, some in more odd ways than others.
1. William Henry Harrison & Electricity in the White House
Built in 1792, the White House has gone through many changes inside and out. After all, it gets a new tenant every four to eight years. But one of the things new to the White House as it reached the nineteenth century was electricity. President Benjamin Harrison and his wife Caroline were the first to enjoy electricity in the White House. The house was refurbished under the watchful eye of Caroline after it was wired for electricity in 1891.
Electricity at that time was still very new, and most Americans were uncertain as to how safe it was to use. In fact, it was a decade later when electricity was put on display at the 1901 Pan-American Exposition in Buffalo as a readily available light source. The Harrisons were wary of the new technology. They were fearful of electric shock from touching the light switches. Instead, they would leave all the lights on when they left a room or even at night when they slept. Eventually, they would place White House staff in charge of turning the lights on and off.
2. Ulysses S. Grant Couldn’t Stand the Sight of Blood & Hated Uniforms
One of the finest Generals in United States history, Ulysses S. Grant, is known for his many victories on the battlefield. Being head of the Union Army during the Civil War might have been his greatest feat. But Grant did not start out as an exemplary recruit at West Point: he received many demerits for unkempt uniforms. His dislike for uniforms carried on throughout his military career. As a commander, Grant rarely carried a sword and often wore lower ranking soldiers’ clothing and dirty boots. Upon graduating from the esteemed military academy, Grant placed 21st out of 39 students.
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Not only did Grant have a strong disdain for uniforms, but he also had an aversion to guns. And the most unbelievable truth of Ulysses S. Grant’s life is that he hated the sight of blood. He refused to eat any type of meat unless it was charred. Rare or medium rare would not do! This contrasts sharply to the strong, bull-like leader he was portrayed as during the Civil War.
3. James Garfield Was Ambidextrous & Could Write in Multiple Languages at the Same Time
Officially, James Garfield was known to be the very first left-handed President; however, he was ambidextrous. Well-educated and a skilled public speaker, Garfield was able to write and speak multiple languages, including Greek, Latin, and German. His abilities as a teacher propelled him to be named president of the Eclectic Institute at just 26 years old. Garfield’s talents were widely known, and he was said to have been able to write a sentence in Latin with one hand while simultaneously writing the same sentence in Greek with the other.
Garfield was certainly a man of many talents, even serving as the Union’s youngest brigadier general during the Civil War. As he campaigned for President, Garfield addressed crowds gathered on his family farm in Mentor, Ohio.
One day in October 1880, a number of Germans were part of a crowd of over 5,000 people who had gathered to hear him speak. Garfield, ever the orator, addressed the crown in German, thus becoming the first American presidential candidate to deliver a campaign speech in a language other than English. Sadly, Garfield never saw the fruits of his labor come to fruition, as he was shot just four months into his presidential term. After suffering for three months with a bullet lodged internally, he succumbed to his injuries and died in September 1881.
4. Teddy Roosevelt Was Shot During a Campaign Stop & Insisted on Finishing His Speech
In 1912, President Theodore Roosevelt was on the campaign trail, running for a third term under the Progressive, or Bull Moose, party. During a stop in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, Roosevelt stood just outside of his hotel preparing for his speech when he was shot by saloon owner John Schrank.
Schrank believed Roosevelt to be un-American and therefore unworthy of the office of President, based on his support of desegregation and women’s suffrage. Schrank had an unusual dream which prompted him to stalk Roosevelt. He believed he saw the assassinated president William McKinley sit up in his coffin, point to Roosevelt, and say, “This is my murderer- avenge my death.” From that moment on, Schrank became obsessed with Roosevelt.
Schrank’s shot hit Roosevelt in the chest before the gathering mob of onlookers wrestled him to the ground. Fortunately for the President, the bullet lodged in his breast pocket where he was keeping his speech notes, 50 pages worth, as well as his metal glasses case. These objects helped to slow down the bullet and save the president from what would have been a definitive assassination.
Roosevelt continued to make his way to the auditorium to give his speech, unaware of whether he was bleeding or not, except for a quick cough into his hands to see if any blood showed up in his spittle. Upon arriving at the stage, he completed an 84-minute speech leading with the following intro:
“Friends, I shall ask you to be as quiet as possible. I don’t know whether you fully understand that I have just been shot; but it takes more than that to kill a Bull Moose. But fortunately I had my manuscript, so you see I was going to make a long speech, and there is a bullet — there is where the bullet went through — and it probably saved me from it going into my heart. The bullet is in me now, so that I cannot make a very long speech, but I will try my best.”
President Theodore Roosevelt was always a larger-than-life character, and this event helped solidify that reputation. But the bullet remained, as physicians decided it was riskier to remove the bullet than to allow it to remain lodged in his ribs. Thus, Roosevelt finished his third campaign with a bullet in his ribs. Ultimately, he would lose the election to his competitor, Woodrow Wilson, due to a split in votes between Roosevelt and his Republican rival, William Taft.
5. Unusual Pets in the White House
The White House is known for its constant change. As families come and go every 4-8 years, you will see changes in décor, additions due to a specific hobby, and even a plethora of animals living in the family quarters. Almost every president has had at least one pet, but not necessarily in the usual sense of the word.
Early in White House history, pets were not limited to domesticated dogs and cats, fish, or reptiles. Instead, exotic creatures were often gifted to the president by foreign dignitaries. And depending on the hobbies and upbringing of the president, woodland creatures were also considered to be part of the parade of pets in and out of the White House.
Some of the more interesting pets to have inhabited the White House were horses Tex and Macaroni, owned by John F. Kennedy, as well as a raccoon named Rebecca and owned by President Coolidge. Many presidents chose to have talking parrots, but none was more well-known than the parrot owned by Andrew Jackson named Poll. Upon his death, the bird had to be removed from his funeral for swearing! From dogs, cats, and parrots, to cows, turkeys, sheep, and goats, the White House lawn has seen its fair share of animals on display.
In the 1800s and early 1900s, it was not unheard of to have zoo animals residing on the White House grounds. Theodore Roosevelt began the tradition of keeping a wide array of pets in the White House with his zebra, parrot, bears, lion, hyena, coyote, rats, badger, and one-legged rooster. An avid hunter and outdoorsman, Roosevelt respected all creatures and even allowed his daughter Alice to have a garter snake named Emily Spinach.
However, President Coolidge wins the award for the widest array of animals during his presidency. He had a bear cub, two lion cubs, a wallaby, an antelope, Peking ducks, Rebecca the Raccoon, as well as Billy the pygmy hippopotamus. Talk about a zoo!
Strangely enough, the list does not end there. Two US presidents kept alligators as pets: John Quincy Adams and Herbert Hoover. Adams kept his alligator in the White House bathroom, gifted to him by the Marquis de Lafayette. Hoover also had a pet opossum named Billy.
Warren Harding had a squirrel named Pete as one of his pets. Andrew Johnson did not technically have any pets in the White House but became rather fond of a family of white mice living there. He would leave food out each night for them.
James Buchanan reportedly had a pair of bald eagles as pets and was gifted a herd of elephants! Thomas Jefferson had a pair of bear cubs in addition to his multiple mockingbirds. Similarly, Martin Van Buren was gifted a pair of tiger cubs from the Sultan of Oman. Eventually, Congress forced him to send the cubs to a zoo for safekeeping.
Woodrow Wilson had a flock of sheep for grazing the white house lawn in lieu of mowing the grass during World War I, as well as a ram named Old Ike that reportedly chewed tobacco. He wins the award for the strangest pet story yet!
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