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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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Scientific Reports, Fernando Ramirez Rozzi
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Stones, Bones, and Wrecks
Humans Might Have Practiced Brain Surgery on Cows 5000 Years Ago
Scientific Reports, Fernando Ramirez Rozzi
Scientific Reports, Fernando Ramirez Rozzi

In the 1970s, archaeologists discovered a site in France containing hundreds of cow skeletons dating back 5000 to 5400 years. The sheer number wasn't surprising—human agriculture in that part of the world was booming by 3000 BCE. What perplexed scientists was something uncovered there a few decades later: a cow skull bearing a thoughtfully drilled hole. Now, a team of researchers has released evidence that suggests the hole is an early example of animal brain surgery.

Fernando Ramírez Rozzi, a paleontologist with the French National Center for Scientific Research, and Alain Froment, an anthropologist at the Museum of Mankind in Paris, published their findings in the journal Nature Scientific Reports. After comparing the opening to the holes chiseled into the skulls of humans from the same era, they found the bones bore some striking similarities. They didn't show any signs of fracturing from blunt force trauma; rather, the hole in the cow skull, like those in the human skulls, seemed to have been carved out carefully using a tool made for exactly that purpose. That suggests that the hole is evidence of the earliest known veterinary surgery performed by humans.

Trepanation, or the practice of boring holes into human skulls, is one of the oldest forms of surgery. Experts are still unsure why ancient humans did this, but the level of care that went into the procedures suggests that the surgery was likely used to treat sick patients while they were still alive. Why a person would perform this same surgery on a cow, however, is harder to explain.

The authors present a few theories, the first being that these ancient brain surgeons were treating a sick cow the same way they might treat a sick human. If a cow was suffering from a neural disease like epilepsy, perhaps they though that cutting a hole in its head would relieve whatever was agitating the brain. The cow would have needed to be pretty special to warrant such an effort when there were hundreds of healthy cows living on the same plot of land, as evidenced by the skeletons it was found with.

Another possible explanation was that whoever operated on the cow did so as practice to prepare them for drilling into the heads of live humans one day. "Cranial surgery requires great manual dexterity and a complete knowledge of the anatomy of the brain and vessel distribution," the authors write in the study. "It is possible that the mastery of techniques in cranial surgery shown in the Mesolithic and Neolithic periods was acquired through experimentation on animals."

Either way, the bovine patient didn't live to see the results of the procedure: The bone around the hole hadn't healed at all, which suggests the cow either died during surgery or wasn't alive to begin with.

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History
How the Log Cabin Became an American Symbol
iStock
iStock

Many Americans have a special fondness for the log cabin, viewing it as the home of heroic pioneers, or at least a great weekend escape. But it wasn’t always this way. The log cabin was originally disdained here in America—and it took decades of pop culture and political shifts to elevate the structure to the vaunted status it holds today.

THANK THE SWEDES

While there’s plenty of imagery portraying log cabins in the English colonies of Plymouth and Jamestown (established in Massachusetts and Virginia, respectively), these depictions couldn’t be further from the truth. The English had no history of log cabins—they preferred more “refined” frame houses, and would sometimes squat in subterranean dugouts until they could be built. In fact, the log cabin was first constructed in the New World in the short-lived colony of New Sweden, established in the Delaware River Valley in 1638. Such structures had been around continental Europe for centuries, and the Swedish colonists were simply using a skill that had been passed down through generations.

Log cabins might have remained a Swedish anomaly in the New World had it not been for the German and Scots-Irish who adopted them after arriving in the mid-1700s. But none of these log cabins looked much like the quaint, cozy structures we revere today. They often had dirt floors, were crawling with lice and other pests, and were prone to drafts; as one traveler remarked around 1802, the gaps between logs were "filled up with clay, but so very carelessly, that the light may be seen through in every part." Yet as uncomfortable as these cabins were, they offered impoverished immigrants an invaluable slice of freedom. Cheaper and far easier to construct than finer homes, the log cabin thus became the go-to home for newcomers to the New World, helping millions of desperate refugees turn their dreams of settling in America into a reality.

But the practicality of the structure did nothing for the log cabin's public image, or that of its inhabitants. Benjamin Franklin wrote that there were only two sorts of people, "those who are well dress'd and live comfortably in good houses," and those who "are poor, and dirty, and ragged and ignorant, and vicious and live in miserable cabins or garrets." Dr. Benjamin Rush, Surgeon General of the Middle Department of the Continental Army and a signatory to the Declaration of Independence, said the cabin dweller was “generally a man who has out-lived his credit or fortune in the cultivated parts."

As for cabins themselves, they were generally seen as “rude” and “miserable,” and no self-respecting American would deign to live in one. Not permanently, at least. Cabins back then were temporary stepping stones meant to be abandoned once something better could be afforded; barring that good fortune, they were to be covered with clapboard and added to as the cornerstone for a finer home.

LOG CABIN PRIDE

But the log cabin and its inhabitants’ public image got a makeover after the War of 1812. The nation had just defeated the British for a second time, and Americans were feeling good, forging their own identity and distinguishing themselves from the old world. Log cabins—ubiquitous and appropriately rustic—started taking on an all-American sheen.

Soon enough, writers and artists were portraying them in a positive light. One notable example is James Fenimore Cooper’s 1823 novel The Pioneers, where the house of protagonist Natty Bumppo is described as being “a rough cabin of logs.” That scene in turn is thought to have inspired artist Thomas Cole’s 1826 painting, Daniel Boone Sitting at the Door of His Cabin on the Great Osage Lake. Together, these works helped spark an entire movement that saw the pioneer as a hero. Log cabin dwellers were no longer disdained for their rough edges; these same edges were what made them romantic and distinctly American.

A "Harrison & Tyler" woodcut used in the 1840 campaign
A "Harrison & Tyler" woodcut used in the 1840 campaign
Library of Congress // Public Domain

Similar shifts occurred in the political realm during the 1840 election. President Martin van Buren faced an uphill battle for reelection that year, and a politically aligned newspaper thought it could give him a leg up by launching a classist attack against rival William Henry Harrison: “Give [Harrison] a barrel of Hard Cider, and settle a pension of $2000 a year on him, and my word for it, he will sit the remainder of his days in his Log Cabin.” In other words: Harrison was an ignorant hick.

It was a lie—the wealthy Harrison actually lived in a mansion—but most of the public didn’t know it, and his rivals assumed voters would scorn Harrison’s poverty. They were wrong: Millions of Americans still lived in log cabins, struggling day-in-and-day-out, and they were not impressed. (“No sneer could have been more galling,” John McMaster wrote in his 1883 A History of the People of the United States from the Revolution to the Civil War.)

In no time at all, Americans rich and poor were displaying their Harrison love and log cabin pride by holding cabin raisings and patronizing specially-constructed log cabin bars, marching in massive parades with log cabins pulled by teams of horses, and purchasing heaps of Harrison-themed, log cabin-stamped merchandise, including tea sets, hair brushes, and hope chests. With his eye on the prize, Harrison gamely played into this fib, telling frenzied crowds that he’d rather relax in his log cabin than run for president, but that he had heeded their call to run for the White House. That fall, he won handily.

Though Harrison died 32 days into his term, his log cabin campaign became a reliable template for candidates in the years ahead. Franklin Pierce downplayed his family’s wealth in 1852, instead focusing on a brief time spent in a log cabin as a baby. James Buchanan did the same in 1856, and Lincoln’s log cabin youth was brought up consistently come 1860. “Like President Harrison, Mr. Lincoln has spent about one third part of his life in a log cabin,” one biography read.

"Across the Continent: Westward the Course of Empire Takes its Way" by Frances Flora Palmer
"Across the Continent: Westward the Course of Empire Takes its Way"
Frances Flora Palmer, Library of Congress

Log cabins became an even more persistent presence in the arts, culture, and commerce in the decades ahead, making cameos in iconic images like Frances Flora Bond Palmer’s 1868 painting Across the Continent: Westward the Course of Empire Takes its Way, in which the cabin is the symbol of an ever-expanding American empire. The log cabin also figured into tales high and low, such as The Log-Cabin Lady—a prescriptive memoir about escaping low-class drudgery—and The Log-Cabin Bishop, an uplifting account of a man who brought religion to the frontier. The Log Cabin Library dime novels even peddled swashbuckling adventures to young boys.

FALSE MEMORIES

Most powerful in terms of ingraining log cabin adoration in young Americans, though, were the scores of false histories that projected the log cabin back onto Plymouth and Jamestown. Historians of the late-19th century had heard so much about the log cabin that they just assumed it was key to American growth and expansion, leading to assertions like John G. Palfrey’s 1860 claim, “[Settlers] made themselves comfortable in log-houses,” and images like W.L. Williams 1890s painting, Plymouth in 1622. The latter shows the colony as a smattering of log cabins and was widely distributed to elementary school classrooms, cementing the image of a cabin-laden Plymouth.

A set of 1970s Lincoln Logs
A set of 1970s Lincoln Logs
Tinker*Tailor loves Lalka, Flickr // CC BY-NC 2.0

From then on, the log cabin was portrayed as the ultimate proverbial rag from which the rich nation of the U.S. had emerged, as when historian Warder Stevens declared in 1916, “The story of America is written in log cabins.” It’s this tradition of myth-making and believing that inspired subsequent outpourings of log cabin nostalgia: Lincoln Logs in the interwar years, log cabin chic of the 1990s, and today’s reality programs showing urbanites fleeing to the woods.

These days, the log cabin is emblazoned on money and sewn onto flags; it fascinates modern artists like Will Ryman (who created a gold-resin-covered log cabin at the New Orleans Museum of Art); and it appears in music of all genres, from country crooner Porter Wagoner’s 1965 track “An Old Log Cabin for Sale” to T-Pain and Lil Wayne’s 2008 romantic rap “Can’t Believe It.” That said, perhaps the log cabin itself is the nation’s greatest rags-to-riches story; it went from being sneered at as a poor immigrants’ hovel to being revered as an American icon. Not bad for something that writer John Filson, discussing Boone’s home circa 1784, described as “not extraordinary.”

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