That Hilarious Story About Taft Getting Stuck in His Bathtub? It’s Not True

Library of Congress
Library of Congress

Ask your average American what they know about their nation’s 27th president and 10th Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, and they’ll probably say something like, “well, he was so fat that he got stuck in the bathtub.” The Schadenfreude-laced tale, in which six men had to be called to dislodge William Howard Taft from his bath time predicament, is legendary. Yet the problem with the anecdote isn’t just that we’ve been body-shaming Taft for an entire century—it’s that it's a big fat lie. Despite the story’s ubiquity in the popular imagination, it probably never happened.

Historian Alexis Coe, co-host of the podcast Presidents Are People Too!, did some digging into the myth, and found that there is no proof that the event ever happened, as she explained in The New York Times in September 2017. Coe traces the story back to Irwin Hoover, a 42-year veteran of the White House staff. In his memoir, published in 1934, Hoover wrote that big-boned Taft would “stick” in the bathtub and have to be helped out, but never mentioned who did the helping or how they pulled him out. Another former White House domestic staffer, Lillian Rogers Parks, describes Taft getting stuck in the bathtub, but the account was secondhand—she heard it through her mother, who worked for Taft, but she herself didn’t start working for the presidential residence until Herbert Hoover took office.

The story's salience is perhaps not surprising, since Taft’s size was a pop culture touchstone even in his time. At his heaviest, he weighed around 340 pounds, and newspapers would regularly print jokes about his weight. But there is no substantial, historical proof of the great bathtub-sticking incident during Taft’s White House tenure. It seems to have been just a piece of gossip with incredible endurance.

None of this is to say that Taft didn’t love a good bath—he certainly did, and he went to great lengths to take them. In 1909, the 2000-pound, 7-foot-long custom bathtub he brought with him on a trip to Panama on the USS North Carolina was the subject of an entire article in a journal called the Engineering Review, one that ran under a photo of the bathtub with four men resting inside.

The tub’s manufacturers told the journal that it was the largest tub they had ever made. As most people would do with a bathtub custom-made for them, Taft took the bathtub along when he moved into the White House later that year. And according to the National Constitution Center’s Constitution Daily, it wasn’t the only extra-large bath he carted around. He also had a super-sized tub installed on his presidential yacht in 1910.

But by all historical accounts, it appears that the 7-foot-long custom tub was, in fact, large enough to accommodate Taft’s sizable girth. The famous photo of the four men in Taft’s bathtub is often mislabeled as showing the men who installed the new tub after Taft got stuck in the White House bath, but his trip on the USS North Carolina, where the photo was taken, predated his presidency entirely.

Taft did, however, have a verified bathtub incident that had nothing to do with getting stuck: In 1915, while attending a bankers’ conference after he left office, he went to take a bath in the New Jersey hotel where he was staying. He didn’t quite get the water level right, though, and when he stepped in, so much water surged out that it flooded the floor and water began trickling down through the floor into the hotel’s dining room, where the bankers who were waiting for Taft to finish his bath and come back downstairs were sitting.

The unfortunate flood made it into The New York Times, among other papers, but the former president took it in stride. The Times reported that at one point as his trip came to a close, he looked out at the ocean and said, “I’ll get a piece of that fenced in some day, and then when I venture in there won’t be any overflow.”

5 Fast Facts about Madam C.J. Walker

 Madam C.J. Walker items at The Women's Museum in Dallas, Texas
Madam C.J. Walker items at The Women's Museum in Dallas, Texas
Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

During a time when Jim Crow laws were actively being passed by state legislatures and segregation was total, one self-made businesswoman managed to stand out and serve as an inspiration for female entrepreneurs and people of color in America. Born Sarah Breedlove on December 23, 1867—the sixth child in her family but the first not born into slavery—the future Madam C.J. Walker developed a line of hair products and cosmetics and became likely the first female millionaire in the country. Here are a few quick facts about her historic success story.

1. Madam C.J. Walker first worked as a laundress.

In 1888, the woman who would become Madam C.J. Walker was Sarah McWilliams, a 20-year-old widow with a toddler. After her husband's death, she moved from Mississippi to St. Louis, Missouri, where her elder brothers were working as barbers. To support herself and her daughter, Lelia, she took a job as a washerwoman. She earned roughly $1.50 a day, but managed to save up in order to provide for her daughter's education.

2. Madam C.J. Walker's hair products were made especially for black women.

At the turn of the century, many African Americans suffered from issues of hair loss and dandruff, possibly due to the harsh irritants in the lye soap used by launderers and some combination of poor hygiene conditions, low-protein diets, and damaging hair treatments. Walker herself had a chronic hair-loss problem. According to the biography On Her Own Ground: The Life and Times of Madam C.J. Walker by Walker's great-great-granddaughter A'Lelia Bundles, "if Sarah used the widely distributed patent medicines that were heavily laced with alcohol and other harsh chemicals, [she would only make] the malady worse by stripping her hair of its natural oils."

In 1904, Sarah joined African-American businesswoman Annie Turbo Malone's team of agents after using Malone's "Great Wonderful Hair Grower" product to treat her own ailments. She began investing in creating her own product, and in 1906 she married her third husband, a Mr. Charles Joseph Walker. Walker launched her own "Madam Walker's Wonderful Hair Grower" line of ointments and other products and began selling them door-to-door.

3. Madam C.J. Walker created a beauty culture empire.

Once Walker's business was nation-wide and incorporated, she expanded internationally to the Caribbean and Central America in 1913. Within the next few years, she acquired over 25,000 sales agents; she had a beauty school called the Lelia College of Beauty Culture in Pittsburg that trained her "hair culturists." By the time she died on May 25, 1919 at age 51, her business profits had skyrocketed to over $500,000 in sales annually. In fact, products inspired by Walker's can still be purchased today.

4. Madam C.J. Walker's Irvington, New York mansion will soon host more female entrepreneurs.

By the end of her life, Walker had amassed sizable wealth—she's widely considered to be the first self-made female millionaire, though specific numbers are vague. (Her New York Times obituary noted that "Estimates of Mrs. Walker's fortune had run up to $1,000,000 … She spent $10,000 every year for the education of young negro men and women in Southern colleges and sent six youths to Tuskegee Institute every year.") She also had ventures in real estate, and in 1918 her 20,000-square-foot mansion, called Villa Lewaro, was completed in Irvington, New York, about 20 miles north of her famed Walker townhouse in Harlem. In 2018, the estate was purchased by the New Voices Foundation, a group that has invested $100 million into a fund focused on providing support and leadership initiatives to women of color seeking their own entrepreneurial endeavors. Even 100 years after her death, Walker's legacy remains strong.

5. Octavia Spencer is set to play Madam C.J. Walker in an upcoming TV series.

As first reported by Deadline in 2018, Netflix has ordered an eight-episode series about Walker's life and legacy. Oscar-winner Octavia Spencer is set to star in and produce the series, and LeBron James will serve as an executive producer. While there isn't a firm release date set, the series is certain to be an eye-opening one for those unfamiliar with Walker's incredible story. The show will be based on the 2001 biography by Bundles.

Hundreds of 17th-Century Case Notes of Bizarre Medical Remedies Have Been Published Online

Illustrated portrait of Simon Forman.
Illustrated portrait of Simon Forman.
Hulton Archive/Getty Images

As medical texts, the writings of Simon Forman and Richard Napier aren't very useful. The so-called "doctors," regarded as celebrities in 16th- and 17th-century England, prescribed such treatments as nursing puppies and wearing dead pigeons as shoes. But as bizarre pieces of history, the 80,000 case notes the two quacks left behind are fascinating. The BBC reports that 500 of them have now been digitized and published online.

Forman and Napier were active in the English medical scene from the 1590s to the 1630s. They treated countless patients with remedies that straddled the line between medicine and mysticism, and their body of work is considered one of the largest known historical medical collections available for study today. After transcribing the hard-to-read notes and translating them into accessible English, a team of researchers at Cambridge University has succeeded in digitizing a fraction of the records.

By visiting the project's website, you can browse Forman and Napier's "cures" for venereal disease ("a plate of lead," "Venice turpentine," and blood-letting), pox (a mixture of roses, violets, boiled crabs, and deer dung), and breastfeeding problems (using suckling puppies to get the milk flowing). Conditions that aren't covered in today's medical classes, such as witchcraft, spiritual possession, and "chastity diseases," are also addressed in the notes.

All 500 digitized case notes are now available to view for free. And in case you thought horrible medical diagnoses were left in the 17th century, here some more terrifying remedies from relatively recent history.

[h/t BBC]

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