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LBJ: The President Who Marked His Territory

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National Archives

Lyndon Baines Johnson wanted to be remembered as the greatest president who ever lived. With that grand ambition in mind (and an ego to match), he launched such sweeping social programs as Medicare, Medicaid, Head Start, public radio, public television, and food stamps. Regardless, Johnson will probably be best remembered for his blinding arrogance, and what many would point to as the result of it—the Vietnam War.

But here, we're choosing to remember Johnson not by the many political wheels he set into motion, but by the stuff he kept by his side—and close to his heart.

His Toilet

Johnson lived to dominate, and he used crass behavior to bend people to his will. At 6-ft., 3-in. tall and 210 lbs., he liked to lean over people, spitting, swearing, belching, or laughing in their faces. Once, he even relieved himself on a Secret Serviceman who was shielding him from public view. When the man looked horrified, Johnson simply said, "That's all right, son. It's my prerogative." His favorite power ploy, however, seemed to be dragging people into the bathroom with him—forcing them to continue their conversations with the president as he used the toilet.

His Car

When President Johnson was visiting his ranch in Texas, he'd invite friends down and take them for a joyride in his car. He'd drive down a steep incline toward the lake, pretend to lose control, and then yell, "The brakes don't work! We're going in! We're going under!" The car would splash into the lake, and as everyone else was screaming, Johnson would be doubled over laughing. Turns out, Johnson was the proud owner of an Amphicar, the only amphibious passenger automobile ever mass-produced for civilians.

His Presidential Buzzer

When people told stories about John F. Kennedy's great female conquests (and they often did), it made Johnson furious. He'd pound his fists on the desk and scream, "Why, I had more women on accident than he ever had on purpose!" And that may very well have been true. Johnson brought a lot of pretty young things back from Texas to work in the White House, even if they couldn't type. He even had a buzzer installed in the Oval Office so that the Secret Service could warn him when his wife was on her way.

His Helicopter Chair

LBJ loved riding in helicopters. He loved it so much, in fact, that his desk chair in the Oval Office was actually a vinyl helicopter seat—green with a built-in ashtray. In the event of a flood or an emergency water landing, the cushion could have doubled as a flotation device. No joke.

His Wife's Pecan Pie Recipe

Lady-Bird.jpgClaudia "Lady Bird" Johnson was her husband's most vital political ally. In the early days of their marriage, he could boss her into picking up his socks or shining his shoes, but by the time they moved into the White House, he couldn't give a speech without consulting her first. During the 1960 election, she traveled 30,000 miles campaigning for the Kennedy/Johnson ticket; and after they won, Bobby Kennedy said they couldn't have gotten Texas without her.

She played an even bigger role in the 1964 election. That July, Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act, which barred racial and religious discrimination in public places and the workforce. In doing so, Johnson betrayed many good ol' boys in the South, where he desperately needed votes. Enter Lady Bird. Armed with big hair and big makeup, the Texas native spewed Southern charm from Louisiana to South Carolina. And everywhere she went, she handed out her recipe for pecan pie. The hospitality worked. In 1965, Mrs. Johnson held the Bible as her husband was sworn into office.

His Monogrammed Towels

Everyone in the Johnson family had the same initials—Lyndon Baines, Lady Bird, and their daughters, Lynda Bird and Luci Baines. Don't think for a moment that it was a coincidence, either. They named the family dog Little Beagle Johnson.

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Hulton Archive/Getty Images
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History
Alexander Hamilton’s Son Also Died in a Duel
Alexander Hamilton
Alexander Hamilton
Hulton Archive/Getty Images

When Aaron Burr shot Alexander Hamilton on July 11, 1804, the scene must have been eerily familiar to the former Secretary of the Treasury. After all, his son died in a similar setting just three years earlier.

On November 20, 1801, 19-year-old Philip Hamilton and his friend Richard Price had a run-in with a young lawyer named George I. Eacker at Manhattan's Park Theatre. A supporter of Thomas Jefferson, Eacker had delivered a Fourth of July speech that harshly criticized the elder Hamilton, and his son was apparently determined to take revenge.

On that fateful day in November, according to biographer Ron Chernow, Price and the younger Hamilton "barged into a box where Eacker was enjoying the show ... [then] began taunting Eacker about his Fourth of July oration."

As onlookers started to stare, Eacker asked the two young men to go into the lobby, where he called the pair "damned rascals." Tempers rose, and although the trio went to a tavern in an attempt to settle their differences, they failed miserably. Later the same night, Eacker had a letter from Price challenging him to duel.

Customs of the time meant that Eacker had little choice but to accept or face social humiliation. He and Price met that Sunday in New Jersey, where the penalties for dueling were less severe than in New York. They exchanged four shots without injury—and considered the matter between them closed.

Philip Hamilton wasn't so lucky. Cooler heads tried to negotiate a truce with Eacker's second, but their efforts were also for naught. Once the duel had been scheduled for November 23 on a sandbar in today's Jersey City, the elder Hamilton advised his son to preserve his honor by wasting his first shot—by waiting until Eacker fired first or firing into the air, a move the French called the delope. The intent was to cut the duel short, and, if the other side fired to kill, plainly show they had blood on their hands.

Philip seemed to follow his father's advice. For about a minute after the duel officially began, neither man made a move. Then, Eacker raised his pistol, and Philip did too. Eacker fired, and Philip shot back, though it may have been an involuntary reaction to having been hit. The bullet tore through Philip's body and settled in his left arm. Despite being rushed to Manhattan, he died early the next morning.

On July 11, 1804, Alexander Hamilton and Aaron Burr also departed to New Jersey, this time Weehawken, to settle their infamous differences. This time, the elder Hamilton fired the first shot—and he aimed to miss. (According to his second, anyway.) Burr, on the other hand, seemed to have every intention of connecting with his target. He shot Hamilton in the stomach, and the bullet lodged in his spine.

Just like Philip, Hamilton died the next day.

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©Thomas Jefferson Foundation at Monticello
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Stones, Bones, and Wrecks
Inside the Kitchen of Thomas Jefferson's Acclaimed—and Enslaved—Chef James Hemings
 ©Thomas Jefferson Foundation at Monticello
©Thomas Jefferson Foundation at Monticello

James Hemings once prepared lavish dishes for America's founding fathers at Monticello, Thomas Jefferson's Virginia plantation. Though enslaved, he trained in France to become one of colonial America's most accomplished chefs. Now, archaeologists have uncovered the kitchen where Hemings created his elaborate banquets, LiveScience reports.

Researchers at Monticello are conducting a long-term effort, the Mountaintop Project, to restore plantation premises, including slave quarters, to their original appearance. Archaeologists excavated a previously filled-in cellar in the main house's South Pavilion, where they found artifacts like bones, toothbrushes, beads, and shards of glass and ceramics. Underneath layers of dirt, experts also uncovered the kitchen's original brick floor, remnants of a fireplace, and the foundations of four waist-high stew stoves.

"Stew stoves are the historic equivalent of a modern-day stovetop or cooking range," archaeological field researcher manager Crystal Ptacek explains in an online video chronicling the find. Each contained a small hole for hot coals; centuries later, the cellar floor still contains remains of ash and charcoal from blazing fires. Hemings himself would have toiled over these stoves.

During the colonial period, wealthy families had their slaves prepare large, labor-intensive meals. These multi-course feasts required stew stoves for boiling, roasting, and frying. Archaeologists think that Jefferson might have upgraded his kitchen after returning from Paris: Stew stoves were a rarity in North America, but de rigueur for making haute French cuisine.

Hemings traveled with Jefferson to France in the 1780s, where for five years he was trained in the French culinary arts. There, Hemings realized he was technically a free man. He met free black people and also learned he could sue for his freedom under French law, according to NPR.

And yet he returned to the U.S. to cook for Jefferson's family and guests, perhaps because he didn't want to be separated from his family members at Monticello, including his sister, Sally. He later negotiated his freedom from Jefferson and trained his brother Peter as his replacement. Hemings ended up cooking for a tavern keeper in Baltimore, and in 1801, shortly after turning down an offer from now-president Jefferson to be his personal chef, he died by suicide.

"We're thinking that James Hemings must have had ideals and aspirations about his life that could not be realized in his time and place," Susan Stein, senior curator at Monticello, told NPR in 2015. "And those factors probably contributed to his unhappiness and his depression, and ultimately to his death."

Hemings contributed to early America's culinary landscape through dessert recipes like snow eggs and by introducing colonial diners to macaroni and cheese, among other dishes. He also assisted today's historians by completing a 1796 inventory of Monticello's kitchen supplies—and he's probably left further clues in the estate's newly uncovered kitchen, says Gayle Jessup White, Monticello's community engagement officer—and one of James's relatives.

"My great-great-great-grandfather Peter Hemings learned to cook French cuisine from his brother James on this stove," White tells Mental Floss. "It was a spiritual moment for me to walk into the uncovered remains of Monticello's first kitchen, where my ancestors spent much of their lives. This discovery breathes life into the people who lived, worked and died at Monticello, and I hope people connect with their stories."

[h/t Live Science]

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