REVEALED: Mary Todd Lincoln was a Shopaholic! (and other First Lady facts)

Today we're re-excerpting from Cormac O'Brien's terrific piece in mental_floss.

The First to Walk Like a Crab: Julia Dent Grant (first lady, 1869"“1877)

JuliaGrant.jpgJulia Dent Grant was cross-eyed her entire life. While that never stopped her from being a tomboy in her youth, or—remarkably—from developing into an accomplished equestrienne, it did lead to some embarrassing White House moments. At the galas she was fond of throwing, Julia had a habit of standing in the corner to avoid bumping into people. When she did manage to move, she did so in a noticeably sideways gait that some likened to the motion of a crab, often knocking into furniture.

The First to Clean Her Clothes Long-Distance: Bess Truman (first lady, 1945"“1953)

149.jpgUpon finding out that she was going to become first lady, Bess Truman had the exact same reaction as her predecessor, Eleanor Roosevelt: She wept. Apparently, anything that kept Bess away from her home in Independence, Mo., was cause for despair. She had been in school in Kansas City when her father committed suicide in 1903 (his drinking and debt had finally overwhelmed him), and thereafter had done everything possible to stay close to her family. Despite her attempts, Bess never got used to life in Washington; she even preferred the Laundromats back home. Upon moving to D.C., she was so unimpressed with the city's cleaning establishments that she insisted on having her laundry mailed to Kansas City for washing.

The First to Sell White House Manure for Cash: Mary Todd Lincoln (first lady, 1861"“1865)

mary_todd_lincoln.jpgDuring Abe's re-election campaign in 1864, Mary Todd Lincoln fretted—but not out of hope for her husband's success. An infamous shopoholic, Mary had run up tens of thousands of dollars in department store debt. Should Abe win, she could sit on the expenses for a while. But should he lose, the couple's transformation into ordinary citizens would leave her no option but to tell him. And, as it turned out, Mary knew all too well how Abe would react to her spending habits. When she had overspent the congressional appropriation for White House furnishings within months of moving into the mansion, it left Abe fuming. So, rather than turning to her husband for financial aid, Mary resorted to more creative tactics, such as selling off excess manure purchased for the fertilization of White House grounds and firing some of the mansion's staff.
7 More After the Jump!

The First to Make Fun of the President's Libido: Grace Coolidge (first lady, 1923"“1929)

Calvin and Grace Coolidge didn't have one of the more romantic marriages on White House record. Fortunately, they had a sense of humor about their love life. According to biographer Carl Sferrazza Anthony, the couple once visited a chicken farm in Maryland, where the first lady witnessed a rooster copulating with a hen. Upon asking the farmer if the rooster did that often, Grace was informed that he did it several times a day. "Tell that to the president," she responded, and the farmer did just that. "To the same hen?" Calvin inquired. "No, Mr. President," said the red-faced farmer. "Tell that to Mrs. Coolidge," said the president.

The First to Throw Glass in Stone Houses: Martha Washington (first lady, 1789"“1797)

martha-washington-2-sized.jpgGeorge Washington might have been America's first president, but he could never claim the title of Martha's first love. Prior to Georgie, Martha had been married to a wealthy Williamsburg plantation heir named Daniel Parke Custis, who was a scandalous 20 years her senior. While blissful for the most part, Martha and Daniel's short marriage was saddled by the antics of Custis' cantankerous father-in-law, John Custis IV, whom Martha absolutely abhorred. Shortly after Daniel died (only seven years into their marriage), she paid a not-so-friendly visit to the Williamsburg mansion that had been John's main residence and auctioned off the remainder of her father-in-law's valuable possessions. Everything, that is, except for his priceless collection of hand-blown wineglasses. Those she proceeded to smash in a spectacular act of vengeance.

The First to Don a Party Hat: Dolley Madison (first lady, 1809"“1817)

One thing is certain about Dolley Madison: The girl knew how to throw a party. From the moment she stepped foot in the White House, the stiff, humorless receptions of her predecessors became a thing of the past. At Dolley's affairs, people mingled, joked, laughed, and treated themselves to ice cream. Such graces were indispensable, but not only to her husband. Dolley once got two congressmen, John Eppes and Thomas Randolph, to call off their duel over a nasty political argument. When husband James died in 1836, she moved back to the capital to resume her role as First Entertainer and was even granted an honorary seat in Congress (by unanimous vote, no less). In fact, until her death in 1849, it was customary for newly inaugurated presidents to call on Dolley to receive her blessing.

The First to Be Suspected of Murder: Margaret Taylor (first lady, 1849"“1850)

When Zachary Taylor passed away unexpectedly in 1850, it hit his wife hard. On several occasions, Margaret, saddened to the point of hysteria, pawed the preserving ice from his corpse so that she could gaze upon his frozen face. She also did something slightly more questionable: She refused to have him embalmed. Such an unorthodox demand raised eyebrows, and a rumor quickly circulated that Margaret wanted to prevent anyone from learning that she'd poisoned her husband. Not until 1991, when historians convinced Taylor's descendants to exhume his remains, were the rumors finally put to rest.

The First to Show No Fear: Lou Henry Hoover (first lady, 1929"“1933)

Lou Hoover wasn't afraid to get her hands dirty. Posted in China during the Boxer Rebellion in 1900, Lou actually joined in the action, delivering tea and other supplies to troops by bicycle. In fact, on one trip, a stray bullet flattened her tire. But even the Hoovers' residence in China wasn't safe from danger. One day, Lou was playing solitaire when a shell burst through the window in the adjoining room and nearly blew the staircase apart. When a group of witnesses rushed in to check on her safety, they saw her calmly sitting at the table with her cards. She then asked them to join her for tea. Not surprisingly, Lou's obituary mistakenly appeared in a Peking newspaper. Upon reading it, she was thrilled to discover that the editors had devoted three columns to her. "I was never so proud in my life," she quipped.

The First to Lose a Fiancé to a Train: Nancy Reagan (first lady, 1981"“1989)

81_Nancy-Reagan-Head-Shot.jpegIf Nancy and Ronald Reagan are known for their intensely romantic relationship, it may be because of their decidedly tragic romantic pasts. The two met when Ronald was recovering from his divorce from starlet Jane Wyman, and Nancy was coping with the loss of her fiancé, who'd been atomized by a train while crossing a railroad track. And even then, their relationship didn't get off to the most fairy-tale start. Their courtship lasted two years, during which Nancy became pregnant with their first child. Actor/friend William Holden and his wife Ardis were the only guests present at their 1952 wedding.

The First to Go Gray: Barbara Bush (first lady, 1989"“1993)

Barbara Bush got her trademark gray hair at quite an early age. Unfortunately, the cause was tragic. In 1953, the Bushes' first daughter, Robin, contracted leukemia. The little girl spent eight months in a New York hospital, attended by her parents, until she died. By the time of Robin's death, Bar's hair had gone gray. The change likely didn't bother her much, though; the former first lady had a great sense of humor about her appearance. A master of self-deprecating humor, she once said of her predecessor, Nancy Reagan, "As you know, we have a lot in common. She adores her husband; I adore mine. She fights drugs; I fight illiteracy. She wears a size three "¦ so's my leg."

0505.jpgIf you liked this article, be sure to pick up Cormac's wonderful history guides here, and the back issue of mental_floss here.

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College Board Wants to Erase Thousands of Years From AP World History, and Teachers Aren't Happy
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One would be forgiven for thinking that the Ides of March are upon us, because Julius Caesar is being taken out once again—this time from the Advanced Placement World History exam. The College Board in charge of the AP program is planning to remove the Roman leader, and every other historical figure who lived and died prior to 1450, from high school students’ tests, The New York Times reports.

The nonprofit board recently announced that it would revise the test, beginning in 2019, to make it more manageable for teachers and students alike. The current exam covers over 10,000 years of world history, and according to the board, “no other AP course requires such an expanse of content to be covered over a single school year.”

As an alternative, the board suggested that schools offer two separate year-long courses to cover the entirety of world history, including a Pre-AP World History and Geography class focusing on the Ancient Period (before 600 BCE) up through the Postclassical Period (ending around 1450). However, as Politico points out, a pre-course for which the College Board would charge a fee "isn’t likely to be picked up by cash-strapped public schools," and high school students wouldn't be as inclined to take the pre-AP course since there would be no exam or college credit for it.

Many teachers and historians are pushing back against the proposed changes and asking the board to leave the course untouched. Much of the controversy surrounds the 1450 start date and the fact that no pre-colonial history would be tested.

“They couldn’t have picked a more Eurocentric date,” Merry E. Wiesner-Hanks, who previously helped develop AP History exams and courses, told The New York Times. “If you start in 1450, the first thing you’ll talk about in terms of Africa is the slave trade. The first thing you’ll talk about in terms of the Americas is people dying from smallpox and other things. It’s not a start date that encourages looking at the agency and creativity of people outside Europe.”

A group of teachers who attended an AP open forum in Salt Lake City also protested the changes. One Michigan educator, Tyler George, told Politico, “Students need to understand that there was a beautiful, vast, and engaging world before Europeans ‘discovered’ it.”

The board is now reportedly reconsidering its decision and may push the start date of the course back some several hundred years. Their decision will be announced in July.

[h/t The New York Times]

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Nate D. Sanders Auctions
Sylvia Plath's Pulitzer Prize in Poetry Is Up for Auction
Nate D. Sanders Auctions
Nate D. Sanders Auctions

A Pulitzer Prize in Poetry that was awarded posthumously to Sylvia Plath in 1982 for her book The Collected Poems will be auctioned on June 28. The Los Angeles-based Nate D. Sanders Auctions says bidding for the literary document will start at $40,000.

The complete book of Plath’s poetry was published in 1981—18 years after her death—and was edited by her husband, fellow poet Ted Hughes. The Pulitzer Prize was presented to Hughes on Plath’s behalf, and one of two telegrams sent by Pulitzer President Michael Sovern to Hughes read, “We’ve just heard that the Collected Plath has won the Pulitzer Prize. Congratulations to you for making it possible.” The telegrams will also be included in the lot, in addition to an official congratulatory letter from Sovern.

The Pultizer’s jury report from 1982 called The Collected Poems an “extraordinary literary event.” It went on to write, “Plath won no major prizes in her lifetime, and most of her work has been posthumously published … The combination of metaphorical brilliance with an effortless formal structure makes this a striking volume.”

Ted Hughes penned an introduction to the poetry collection describing how Plath had “never scrapped any of her poetic efforts,” even if they weren’t all masterpieces. He wrote:

“Her attitude to her verse was artisan-like: if she couldn’t get a table out of the material, she was quite happy to get a chair, or even a toy. The end product for her was not so much a successful poem, as something that had temporarily exhausted her ingenuity. So this book contains not merely what verse she saved, but—after 1956—all she wrote.”

Also up for auction is Plath’s Massachusetts driver’s license from 1958, at which time she went by the name Sylvia P. Hughes. Bidding for the license will begin at $8000.

Plath's driver's license
Nate D. Sanders Auctions

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