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11 Notable Presidential Pardons

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As George W. Bush's second term winds to a close, he's being inundated with requests for pardons. Article II, Section 2 of the United States Constitution grants the President "power to grant reprieves and pardons for offenses against the United States." With a stroke of his pen, the man in charge can make legal trouble disappear.

As one might expect, this practice can be a bit controversial, so presidents as far back as George Washington have waited until their final days in office to sign pardons. It's not yet clear who Bush will pardon in his last few hours in the Oval Office, although he's already pardoned 171 people over the course of his presidency. Some high-profile prisoners are asking for consideration, including the "American Taliban" John Walker Lindh and the brother of New York Giants kicker Lawrence Tynes, who's incarcerated on drug trafficking and witness intimidation charges. While we wait to see who Bush pardons, let's take a look at some of history's more notable ones:

1. George Wilson

In 1829, George Wilson and an accomplice received death sentences for murder and robbing mail trains. His accomplice quickly took a trip to the gallows, but Wilson had influential friends in Washington. These friends beseeched Andrew Jackson for leniency on behalf of their friend, and Old Hickory relented. In 1830, he pardoned Wilson for his capital crimes; the mail robber would only have to serve a twenty-year term for his other misdeeds. It sounds like great news for Wilson, but when authorities presented him with the pardon, Wilson perplexingly refused to accept it.

After much legal back-and-forth, Wilson's case came before the Supreme Court, which ruled that since the pardon was a bit of property, there was no legal way to force Wilson to accept it. Like his accomplice, Wilson was hanged.

2. Richard Nixon

Nixon resigned in the wake of the Watergate scandal on August 9, 1974, and just under a month later newly installed President Gerald Ford gave his predecessor a full and unconditional pardon for any crimes he may have committed while in office. While many observers decried the pardon as evidence of some backdoor dealing between Ford and Nixon, Ford went on national television to explain that he felt the pardon provided the best way for the country to move on and close the discussion of Nixon's antics. Many Americans didn't buy this explanation, though; even Ford's own press secretary resigned in disgust. Ford conceded that the unpopular pardon probably hurt his chances for reelection in the 1976 presidential race.

3. Peter Yarrow

This name may not be immediately familiar, but you'd probably recognize Yarrow's voice if he sang "Puff, the Magic Dragon." As one-third of the folk outfit Peter, Paul and Mary, Yarrow dominated the music and protest scenes of the 1960s. Yarrow had legions of young fans, but unfortunately, some were a bit too young. In 1970 he was convicted of taking "improper liberties" with a 14-year-old fan, an error for which he spent three months in jail. On his last day in office, though, Jimmy Carter granted Yarrow a pardon. Yarrow, for his part, admitted he made a huge mistake and later contritely said, "It was an era of real indiscretion and mistakes by categorically male performers. I was one of them. I got nailed. I was wrong. I'm sorry for it."

4. George Steinbrenner

Many modern fans may know Steinbrenner solely as the big-mouthed, big-spending owner of the Yankees, but in 1974 "the Boss" was also in a spot of legal trouble due to his shadowy connection with Richard Nixon's reelection campaign. After receiving 14 criminal indictments, Steinbrenner pleaded guilty to making illegal campaign contributions and obstructing justice. The plea resulted in Steinbrenner coughing up a $15,000 fine, and Major League Baseball suspended him for a total of 15 months. In the closing days of his second term, though, Ronald Reagan pardoned Steinbrenner for these offenses.

5. Junior Johnson

Johnson was one of NASCAR's first stars in the 1950s and 1960s, and he later became a wildly successful team owner in the sport. However, despite all of his triumphs at the track, Johnson had old legal problems hanging over his head. In 1956, federal agents caught the rising NASCAR star working a moonshine still in North Carolina; the arrest was particularly galling to Johnson because he was a legendary moonshine-running driver. He received a two-year sentence for the crime and spent 11 months in federal prison. Once Johnson got out of jail, he resumed his dominance of the NASCAR circuit, but he was bothered by the loss of his voting rights as a convicted felon. In late 1986, Ronald Reagan pardoned Johnson for his moonshining past.

6. Rick Hendrick

Johnson's not the only racing figure who has received a pardon, though. Hendrick, the owner of the Hendrick Motorsports team that's included such famed drivers as Jeff Gordon, is also the owner of a giant chain of auto dealerships. During the import-crazed 1980s, getting Hondas in your inventory often meant bribing Honda execs to send you a larger allocation of the popular cars. Hendrick played this game for his dealerships, and in the process gave execs thousands of dollars in cars, cash, and even houses. In 1997, he pleaded guilty to mail fraud in connection with these shenanigans. His sentence included a $250,000 fine, a year of home confinement, three years of probation, and an order to stay away from his racing team. In December 2000, Bill Clinton pardoned Hendrick.

Other Notable Pardons...

7. Patty Hearst: The heiress-turned-militant spent almost two years in prison for her part in a 1974 bank robbery before Jimmy Carter commuted her sentence in 1979. Bill Clinton later gave Hearst a full pardon on the final day of his presidency in 2001.

8. Every Confederate Soldier: On Christmas Day 1868, President Andrew Johnson declared a general amnesty that unconditionally pardoned everyone who'd fought for the Confederacy during the Civil War.

9. Roger Clinton: Bill Clinton's half-brother spent a year in prison after pleading guilty to cocaine distribution charges in 1984. When Clinton issued a flurry of 140 pardons on his last day in office, his little brother was on the list. Roger didn't seem to appreciate his second chance, though; less than a month later he was arrested for drunk driving and disturbing the peace.

10. Samuel Mudd, Edmund Spangler, and Samuel Arnold: These three convicted conspirators in the assassination of Abraham Lincoln served time for their crime, but all three received pardons from Andrew Johnson in 1869.

11. Brigham Young: Young doggedly fought against U.S. troops during an armed conflict as federal forces tried to install non-Mormon officials in the state. According to some accounts, Young considered burning Salt Lake City to the ground and taking off for Mexico, but he eventually decided to peacefully step down as governor instead. President James Buchanan later pardoned Young for his role in the fracas.

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Harris and Ewing, Library of Congress
14 Facts About Margaret Sanger
Harris and Ewing, Library of Congress
Harris and Ewing, Library of Congress

Born in 1879, activist Margaret Sanger sparked both revolution and controversy when she began pushing for legalized access to birth control and founded the Planned Parenthood Federation of America. Sanger remains a controversial figure even today, more than 50 years after her death.

1. SHE BLAMED HER FATHER FOR HER MOTHER'S DEATH.

Sanger was born Margaret Louise Higgins, the sixth of 11 children. Her mother, Anne Purcell Higgins, also had seven miscarriages, for a grand total of 18 pregnancies within 22 years. She suffered from poor health for much of that time, and when Anne died of tuberculosis at age 50, Margaret was just 19 years old. According to TIME Magazine, Margaret confronted her father at her mother's coffin and said, "You caused this. Mother is dead from having too many children."

2. SHE WANTED TO BE A DOCTOR.

Margaret Sanger sitting at a table.
Harris and Ewing, Library of Congress

Sadly, medical school was too expensive, so instead she entered a probationary nursing program in 1900. In early 1902, she met architect William Sanger. The two got married later that year and moved to Hastings-on-Hudson, New York, a suburb about 20 miles away from New York City. They had three children.

3. HER HOUSE CAUGHT FIRE, LEADING HER TO MOVE TO THE CITY.

After the Sangers' house in Hastings-on-Hudson caught fire, Sanger stopped enjoying life in the suburbs. By 1911 the couple had decided to start a new life in Greenwich Village, where Sanger joined the Women's Committee of the New York Socialist Party. There, she met fellow radicals and reformers—like novelist Upton Sinclair, anarchist Emma Goldman, art patron Mabel Dodge Luhan, and intellectual Max Eastman—who supported her ambitions to help working women.

In New York City, Sanger decided to jump back into her career by working as a visiting nurse in the Lower East Side tenements. She often treated women who attempted to give themselves abortions because they didn't have the money to care for another child. Dismayed by the poor health and poverty she saw among immigrants there, she developed opinions that would later lead to her advocacy for birth control.

4. SHE BELIEVED BIRTH CONTROL WAS A FREE SPEECH ISSUE.

Soon after arriving in Greenwich Village, Sanger began writing sex education columns for the New York Call, a socialist newspaper. Her frank discussion of women's sexuality and reproduction offended some readers. In 1913, politician and post office official Anthony Comstock censored her column because he considered her usage of words like syphilis and gonorrhea too vulgar.

A year after her column in the New York Call was banned, Sanger launched The Woman Rebel, an eight-page monthly newsletter advocating contraceptive use. Operating under the slogan "No gods, no masters," Sanger used the newsletter to openly defy Comstock's eponymous 1873 laws. (The Comstock laws made it illegal to use the United States Postal Service to send anything containing information about contraceptives or anything else deemed obscene.) She was indicted in August 1914, but she fled to Europe to avoid arrest. She would eventually return to the United States to face trial, but in February 1916 the prosecution dropped the charges.

5. SHE WAS AGAINST ABORTION.

Despite her advocacy for family limitation, Sanger disliked the idea of abortion. She believed proper education and legalized contraceptives would reduce the need for the procedure. In her 1938 autobiography, Sanger described her experience treating Sadie Sachs, one of the women in the East Side tenements. In 1912, Sachs's husband called for Sanger's help after he found Sachs unconscious from a self-induced abortion. After three weeks of treatment from both Sanger and a local doctor, the only advice the doctor could offer Sachs was to avoid "any more such capers" and have her husband sleep on the roof.

Three months later, Sachs became comatose from another self-induced abortion, and Sachs's husband again reached out to Sanger for help. The woman died within 10 minutes of Sanger's arrival. Frustrated by the lack of resources and information available to lower-class women, Sanger resolved to make changes. From that time forward, she wrote, she wanted to "do something to change the destiny of mothers whose miseries were as vast as the skies."

6. SHE POPULARIZED THE TERM BIRTH CONTROL.

Sanger is often credited for coining the term, but that honor actually goes to Robert Parker, a friend of hers who helped create The Woman Rebel. In her 1979 biography on Sanger, author Madeline Gray described Parker as a polio victim who studied yoga with the hopes of gaining more control over his partly paralyzed hand. Gray wrote:

"It occurred to him that control might apply to birth as well. 'Birth control,' he mused. 'Birth control … I think I like it.' They all liked it. As they put on their hats and left, they agreed that birth control was the best name for the movement."

Otto Bobsien, another of Sanger's colleagues, was the first to use the term to proclaim the start of the Birth Control League of America, a new organization he later said "never had more than a nominal existence." In 1915, when Sanger was away in Europe, Bobsien joined the National Birth Control League and offered the fledgling organization use of the movement's new name. When Sanger returned from Europe later that year, she helped popularize the term, considering it more straightforward than phrases like "family limitation."

7. SHE OPENED THE FIRST BIRTH CONTROL CLINIC IN THE U.S.

Historical image of Margaret Sanger standing on a street in New York City
Sanger outside of her trial on January 30, 1917.
Bain News Service, Library of Congress

In October 1916, Margaret Sanger opened a birth control clinic in Brooklyn with the help of her sister, Ethel Byrne, and interpreter Fania Mindell. It was the first of its kind in the U.S., and she modeled it after a Dutch clinic she had visited while evading American police. In the Netherlands, Sanger had learned about pessaries and diaphragms and became convinced they were more effective than the suppositories and douches she promoted in the United States. Sanger brought that new knowledge to her Brooklyn clinic, which served more than 100 women on its first day. For a cover charge of 10 cents, Sanger gave every woman a pamphlet of her New York Call column on "What Every Girl Should Know," a lecture on the female reproductive system, and instructions on several types of contraceptive use. The clinic closed just nine days later when Sanger was once again arrested for violating the Comstock laws. Sanger immediately attempted to reopen the clinic after being released on bail, but, as she wrote, she was promptly re-arrested and charged as a public nuisance.

8. SHE ONCE TOLD A JUDGE SHE COULDN'T RESPECT EXISTING LAWS.

Sanger and Byrne's court trials began in January 1917. Sanger's sister was tried first and sentenced to 30 days in a workhouse, but she immediately went on a hunger strike; Byrne fasted for a week before being force-fed by prison staff. When Sanger went to trial on January 29, she was supported in court by several Greenwich Village socialites and about 50 of the women she'd treated in the Brooklyn clinic. Presiding Justice John J. Freschi offered her a lenient sentence if she promised to obey the law, but Sanger responded by saying, "I cannot respect the law as it exists today." Sanger was found guilty and Freschi also sentenced her to 30 days in a prison workhouse.

In 1918, Sanger appealed the court decision and won a victory for the birth control movement. Although the court upheld Sanger's conviction and she still had to serve her 30 day sentence, Judge Frederick E. Crane of the New York Court of Appeals also ruled that doctors could prescribe contraceptives and disseminate information about birth control under certain conditions. Sanger ran with the new loophole in 1923, when she established a new clinic staffed largely by female doctors. The new clinic operated alongside the American Birth Control League. Almost two decades later, in 1939, the league and the clinic merged, forming the Birth Control Federation of America, and in 1942 this new organization officially became known as the Planned Parenthood Federation of America.

9. THE ROCKEFELLERS ANONYMOUSLY SUPPORTED HER CAUSE.

In the mid-1920s, John D. Rockefeller Jr. anonymously donated $10,000 to the American Birth Control League to fund research into contraceptives. Rockefeller's son, John D. Rockefeller III, continued his father's early support of Sanger's work, albeit more publicly. The Rockefeller Brothers Fund donated money to Planned Parenthood until 1981, when it decided to start funding agricultural research—which was decidedly less controversial—instead.

10. LIKE MANY WELL-KNOWN INTELLECTUALS OF HER DAY, SANGER SUPPORTED EUGENICS.

Many historians believe Sanger's support of eugenics was part strategic and part ideological. Sir Francis Galton, a cousin of Charles Darwin's, initiated the Western eugenics movement by suggesting that traits like "talent and character" could be passed down to children through intentional breeding. Several British and American academics latched onto the idea, including figures like Theodore Roosevelt, John D. Rockefeller Jr., and Alexander Graham Bell. Sanger's support for sterilizing the diseased and "feebleminded" legitimized the birth control movement by aligning her ideas with those of contemporary intellectuals.

Sanger's belief in eugenics was a little different from other intellectuals', though. Eugenicists, she said, believed a woman's first duty should be to the state, and that all "fit" women should bear children. Sanger, on the other hand, thought a woman's first duty should be to herself. She contended the primary reason for birth control was to prevent pregnancies among women who couldn't support a child financially. Sanger believed her ideal of economic eugenics was morally superior to the views posed by traditional eugenicists.

The modern-day Planned Parenthood doesn’t hide Sanger's controversial support of the eugenics movement, but it doesn't endorse it, either. In a document published in 2016 [PDF], the organization said, "We believe that [those ideas] are wrong. Furthermore, we hope that this acknowledgement fosters an open conversation on racism and ableism—both inside and out of our organization."

11. HER BOOKS WERE AMONG THE FIRST BURNED BY NAZIS.

In May 1933, Nazis sanctioned the burning of more than 25,000 books deemed "un-German." Sanger had published at least nine books by that point, and they were all among that number, as were titles by Jack London, Ernest Hemingway, Sigmund Freud, Albert Einstein, and dozens of others. Sanger's books, which advocated for women's choice in everything from childbirth to politics, directly contradicted everything the Third Reich believed. Adolf Hitler supported traditional gender roles and wanted to maintain high birth rates, ideas Sanger decried in her books.

12. HER NIECE WAS PART OF THE INSPIRATION FOR WONDER WOMAN.

A panel of a Wonder Woman comic from 1978.
Tom Simpson, Flickr // CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Olive Byrne, Sanger's niece, was involved in a polyamorous relationship with Wonder Woman creator William Moulton Marston and his wife, Elizabeth Holloway Marston. Marston credited both Olive and Elizabeth as his muses, according to historian Jill Lepore. In her 2014 book The Secret History of Wonder Woman, Lepore wrote that Marston based part of Wonder Woman's costume on the silver bracelets Olive often wore. Lepore also suggested Sanger herself may have been an influence on the popular comic book character. Feminist movements in the early 1900s often symbolized female oppression with chains, and Sanger was quick to adopt such symbolism with books like Motherhood in Bondage. Wonder Woman's use of chains and ropes as weapons echoed Sanger's vision for female liberation.

13. SHE WAS NOMINATED FOR THE NOBEL PEACE PRIZE 31 TIMES.

Margaret Sanger received 31 nominations for the Nobel Peace Prize between 1953 and 1963. In 1960 alone, she received 20 nominations from 16 university professors and four members of India's parliament (Sanger took several trips to India, where she worked with people like Gandhi to discuss birth control).

14. SHE LIVED JUST LONG ENOUGH TO SEE HER LIFE'S WORK COME TO FRUITION.

Planned Parenthood's publicity director looks over a poster in 1967.
H. William Tetlow, Fox Photos/Getty Images

Two important legal milestones happened after Sanger founded the American Birth Control League in 1921. In December 1936, the 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals effectively overturned all federal restrictions on birth control, making it legal for doctors throughout the United States to provide access to contraception. On the state level, contraception was legal in some form or another everywhere except Connecticut, Mississippi, and Massachusetts. In 1965, Griswold v. Connecticut overturned the state laws preventing married women from accessing birth control. Griswold v. Connecticut later served as precedent for cases like Eisenstadt v. Baird (1972), which gave unmarried couples unrestricted access to contraception; Roe v. Wade (1973), which legalized abortion; and Carey v. Population Services International (1977), which made it legal for doctors and pharmacists to distribute contraceptives to minors.

Sanger died on September 6, 1966, about a year after the Supreme Court decided on Griswold v. Connecticut. The next day, Alaska Senator Ernest Gruening spoke about Sanger in Congress. In an address to the president, Gruening said Sanger was "a great woman, a courageous and indomitable person who lived to see one of the most remarkable revolutions of modern times—a revolution which her torch kindled."

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10 Facts About Gerald Ford
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STR/AFP/Getty Images

Former president Gerald Ford (1913-2006) had the unenviable task of following a disgraced Richard Nixon, the first man to resign from the presidency, in the wake of the Watergate scandal. During his relatively short 895 days as president, Ford had to attempt to restore American confidence in the Oval Office. For more on our 38th president, take a look at some of the more unusual facts about his early years, his political feats, and why he once considered being a co-president with Ronald Reagan.

1. HE WASN’T BORN GERALD FORD.

Ford was born Leslie Lynch King Junior, son to Leslie Lynch King and Dorothy King, on July 14, 1913 in Omaha, Nebraska. After his parents got a divorce, his mother remarried a paint salesman named Gerald Rudolff Ford. After his mother remarried, the future president was referred to as “Junior King Ford.” According to his autobiography, around the age of 12, Ford found out that Ford Sr. wasn’t his biological father. But the fact didn’t sink in until 1930, when King visited him. Ford recalled their conversation as “superficial.” His birth-father handed him $25 and disappeared. The future President legally changed his name to Gerald Ford in 1935.

2. HE WAS A SEXY MALE MODEL.

A young Gerald Ford poses while wearing his football uniform
Michigan University/Getty Images

Ford was always on the lookout for ways to earn money to make his way through law school—so when he was asked to pose for a Look magazine photo spread with girlfriend and model Phyllis Brown in 1940, he did it. The 26-year-old Ford cavorted in the snow with Brown as part of a layout on winter vacationing.

3. HE HAD AN ODD WEDDING.

After attending Yale and entering law practice in Michigan, Ford became interested in politics. He won a seat in the House of Representatives in 1948, a post he would occupy for the next 25 years. That same year, Ford married Elizabeth “Betty” Bloomer, a former dancer and model. Ford later recalled that he was so busy campaigning that he arrived only minutes before the ceremony with mud still on his shoes. The wedding had been delayed until just before the 1948 House election because Ford was concerned conservative voters might take issue with marrying an ex-dancer who had already been divorced.

4. PARDONING NIXON EARNED HIM A TON OF GRIEF.

Gerald Fold waves while standing next to Richard Nixon
Ian Showell, Keystone/Getty Images

When Ford took office in August 1974, the American public looked on to see how he would adjudicate the fate of the man he was replacing. Nixon, who resigned rather than face impeachment, could have been up on federal criminal charges. But Ford opted to grant him a full pardon, reasoning that a prolonged trial and punishment wouldn’t allow the country to move past the controversy. Immediately, his White House Press Secretary, J.F. TerHorst, left his job after determining that he could not “in good conscience support [Ford’s] decision to pardon former President Nixon.”

5. HE TOOK BEING A COMEDIC TARGET IN STRIDE.

Despite his background as an athlete—he played football at Michigan—Ford had the misfortune of being caught on camera when he suffered an occasional lapse into klutziness. He once tripped down the stairs while de-boarding Air Force One; while skiing, a chair lift hit his back. The footage inspired Chevy Chase’s portrayal of Ford as a klutz on Saturday Night Live, which Ford took in stride. Sensing the American public wanted someone less like the studious, humorless Nixon, he appeared on SNL and once pulled up a tablecloth next to Chase during a formal dinner in 1975. “The portrayal of me as an oafish ex-jock made for good copy,” Ford wrote. “It was also funny.”

6. HE DIDN’T SPEAK THE MOST GOOD.

Gerald Ford makes a public appearance
AFP/Getty Images

In addition to Ford’s clumsiness, satirists had a lot to dine out on when it came to some of Ford’s Yogi Berra-esque tongue slips. Americans, he once said, were possessed of a strong “work ethnic,” while “sickle-cell Armenia” was a disease for which he offered sympathy.

7. HE ONCE LOCKED HIMSELF OUT OF THE WHITE HOUSE.

Ford, a dog lover, adopted a golden retriever the family named Liberty after he had already taken office. (Calling a breeder in Minneapolis, the White House photographer and friend of Ford’s, David Kennerly, told the kennel’s owner he was acting on behalf of a middle-aged couple that “live in a white house with a big yard.”) One night, the trainer was absent, and Liberty approached Ford at 3 a.m. to be let out. After doing her business on the south lawn, she and Ford tried to get back inside. When no one sent the elevator back down, Ford decided to take the stairs. The door to the second floor swung only one way: He got out, but couldn’t get back in. Eventually, the Secret Service was alerted to his absence and let him inside.

8. HE WAS THE TARGET OF TWO ASSASSINATION ATTEMPTS IN THE SAME MONTH.

Gerald Ford stands in front of an American flag while delivering a speech
STR/AFP/Getty Images

Had it been up to two different women, Ford wouldn’t have lived to the ripe age of 93. On September 5, 1975, a disciple of Charles Manson’s named Lynette “Squeaky” Fromme pulled out a .45 pistol during Ford’s visit to Sacramento, California in the hopes of winning Manson’s approval. She was unable to fire a shot before the Secret Service apprehended her. In San Francisco 17 days later, Ford’s life was again threatened by a woman named Sara Jane Moore, a left-wing activist prone to mood swings. Moore was able to fire, though the bullet didn’t land anywhere near Ford. Both women were charged with attempted murder and stood trial. Fromme was sentenced to life and was released in 2009. Moore was also sentenced to life but got paroled in 2007.

9. HE CONSIDERED A CO-PRESIDENCY WITH REAGAN.

A former president has never gone on to become a running mate for a presidential candidate, but Ford thought about it. In 1980, as Ronald Reagan was preparing for a Republican nomination, his team thought Midwesterner Ford would be appealing to voters who felt distanced by Reagan’s West Coast presence. Ford, however, chafed at the diminished powers of a vice-president and instead asked that Reagan’s campaign consider a “co-presidency” ticket that would give him greater influence in office. The idea was floated, but Reagan was ultimately unwilling to cede so much influence to Ford. He ran—and won—with George H.W. Bush instead.

10. HE PLAYED HIMSELF ON DYNASTY.

Gerald Ford stands next to wife Betty during a public appearance
Lucy Nicholson, AFP/Getty Images

It’s rare that former presidents accept acting roles on primetime soaps, even when playing themselves. Ford was willing to buck that trend in 1983 when he appeared on Dynasty, the ABC series about the wealthy Carrington family of Denver, Colorado. The series was shooting a scene at a real charity ball in Denver in 1983 when producers spotted Ford and his wife, Betty, among those in attendance. They pitched him a scene in which he would briefly greet actors John Forsythe and Linda Evans. After being promised Betty would be on camera as well, Ford agreed. Both were paid scale: $330.

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