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15 Facts About William Howard Taft

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Here are 15 larger-than-life fun facts to help you celebrate William Howard Taft—born 157 years ago yesterday—and his plus-sized legacy.

1. He Was the Last President to Rock Facial Hair While in Office.

Between the Lincoln and Taft administrations, all but two commanders-in-chief boasted some sort of face fuzz. But since our 27th president left the White House in 1913, clean-shaven candidates have monopolized the job.

2. Taft’s Family Maintained a Long-Standing Political Dynasty.

His son, Robert (also known as “Mr. Republican”), became one of the twentieth century’s most influential senators; his grandson—William Howard Taft IV—went on to tackle various executive duties for Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush.

3. A Dairy Expo Once Spent Two Days Fretting Over his Missing Milk Cow.

Pauline Wayne was quite the bovine beauty. A gift from Wisconsin Senator Isaac Stephenson, this purebred cow produced roughly eight gallons of daily milk for the first family. Sensing a crowd-pleaser, the 1911 International Dairymen’s Exposition arranged to transport her all the way from D.C. to Milwaukee—but Pauline’s train car wound up getting lost en route. After some frenzied telegraphing, the President’s cow was discovered two days later in a Chicago stockyard, where she just barely avoided getting slaughtered.

4. Taft Valued Being on the Supreme Court Over his Presidency.

Though he’s best remembered for his one-term stint on Pennsylvania Avenue, Taft had been pining for the Judicial Branch since 1889. Upon becoming Chief Justice in 1921, he happily declared “I don’t remember that I was ever president.”

5. He Debuted the “Presidential First Pitch.”

Hall of Famer Walter Johnson managed to snag a low-flying ball Taft gracelessly lobbed from the stands at the start of a 1910 Washington Senators game. One hundred and four years later, this opening day tradition’s still going strong.

6. Taft’s Wife Crashed the 1912 DNC to Shield Him from Ridicule.

It’s hard to demean someone whose spouse is sitting right in front of you. After her husband won the Republican presidential nomination, First Lady Helen Herron “Nellie” Taft made a beeline for the Democratic National Convention in Baltimore. Grabbing a front-row seat, she stared down orator after orator, including the cantankerous William Jennings Bryan of Nebraska, who suddenly decided to soften his anti-Taft rhetoric.

7. His Nicknames Included “Big Bill” and “Big Lub.”

For the record, Nellie called him “Sleeping Beauty” due to Taft’s bad habit of dozing off at parties (more on that later).

8. Taft Swore in Two Other Presidents.

As Chief Justice, he administered the oath of office to fellow conservatives Calvin Coolidge and Herbert Hoover.

9. He Briefly Worked as a Part-Time Reporter.

Taft covered courthouse news for The Cincinnati Commercial while making ends meet as a law student. However, after becoming president, his attitude towards journalists cooled considerably.

10. He Lost 70 Pounds After Leaving the White House.

“I can truthfully say that I never felt any younger in all my life,” Taft announced, having given up bread, potatoes, pork, and liquor. “Too much flesh is bad for any man.” 

11. You Know About Teddy Bears, But “Billy Possums”?

Ever been to a “Build-An-Opossum” workshop? Neither have we. Worried that America’s Teddy Bear mania would evaporate after Roosevelt’s last term, toy manufacturers started producing stuffed “Billy Possums”—named in president-elect Taft’s honor—en masse. Needless to say, these things didn’t last long.

12. Taft Tended to Fall Asleep at Public Functions.

“Most of the time,” admitted Indiana Senator James Watson, “[Taft] simply did not and could not function in alert fashion… Often while I was talking to him after a meal, his head would fall over on his breast and he would go sound asleep for 10 or 15 minutes. He would waken and resume the conversation, only to repeat the performance in the course of half an hour or so.” President Taft was also seen snoozing at operas, funerals, and—especially—church services.

13. He Successfully Lobbied for the Modern Supreme Court Building.

The government’s Judicial Branch didn’t always convene in the majestic building we know today. Before 1935, the Supreme Court issued its rulings from various rooms inside the Capitol. Chief Justice Taft changed all that, successfully lobbying Congress to give the Court its own separate building at a cost of $10 million.

14. Taft Recently Became One of the Washington Nationals’ Racing Mascots.

Since 2006, wonky caricatures of George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Abraham Lincoln, and Teddy Roosevelt have been sprinting across the Nats’ home field and into the hearts of D.C. sports fans. These Rushmore racers were given some awfully big competition when Taft was added to their roster in 2013. “He might even give Teddy a run for his money,” said Nationals COO Andy Feffer.

15. Taft Once Had an Embarrassing Bathtub Incident (No, Not That One).

Today, most people remember Taft as “the president who got stuck in a bathtub while in office.” The actual evidence behind this particular washroom anecdote is rather murky, but at least one of Taft’s bathing sessions ended in catastrophe. While entering a hotel tub in 1915, the ex-president apparently failed to take fluid displacement into account. A wave of Taft’s dirty bathwater instantly poured out, seeped through the floor, and started dripping all over people’s heads on the level beneath him. Though briefly humiliated, Taft made light of the situation. While looking out at the Atlantic Ocean shortly thereafter, he quipped, “I’ll get a piece of that fenced in some day, and then I venture to say there won’t be any overflow.” 

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The Time Teddy Roosevelt Was Shot in the Chest, Then Gave a Speech Anyway
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On October 14, 1912—105 years ago today—Theodore Roosevelt was on the campaign trail in Milwaukee, running for another term. It was a tough race: Democratic candidate Woodrow Wilson proved to be a formidable opponent, and William Howard Taft, while unpopular, was the Republican incumbent. Roosevelt was running as a third-party Progressive, and in order to keep pace with his big-ticket rivals he had to work hard. By this point in the election season, he was giving 15 to 20 speeches per day, most of which stretched on for an hour or sometimes more. But this day, TR didn't feel too well. His throat was scratchy, he was tired, and so he planned a relatively quick stop.

What Roosevelt and his security team didn't know was that a man with a .38 caliber revolver had been trailing the campaign since they departed New Orleans. For a thousand miles, he rode quietly, just waiting to get his shot at the Colonel.

John Schrank was a Bavarian-born saloon-keeper from New York. He'd had some strange and troubling dreams in recent months, mostly about President McKinley, whose assassination resulted in Roosevelt's first term. In his dreams, Schrank said that President McKinley asked him to avenge his death and protect democracy from a three-term president. All Schrank had to do was kill Roosevelt before he could be reelected.

"BUT FORTUNATELY I HAD MY MANUSCRIPT"

Roosevelt stood in the seat of his automobile to wave at the crowds and Schrank, who was standing in the front row of the crowd, had his shot. He took aim: point-blank, right at Roosevelt’s head. Then three things happened at the same time. A bystander hit Schrank’s arm; Roosevelt’s security detail spotted the gun and leapt from the car; Schrank pulled the trigger. The shot landed squarely in Roosevelt’s chest just as Schrank was tackled and put in a headlock by the bodyguard. Roosevelt is said not to have noticed he was hit until he reached into his overcoat and felt the blood on his fingers.

But it turns out that Teddy’s long-winded speeches saved his life that day: The bullet traveled through a 50-page copy of his prepared speech and the steel eyeglasses case he carried in the same pocket. The bullet was slowed enough not to reach his lung or heart, which Teddy deduced from the absence of blood when he spoke or coughed. He refused to go to a hospital and insisted on giving his speech.

“Friends, I shall ask you to be as quiet as possible. I don't know whether you fully understand that I have just been shot; but it takes more than that to kill a Bull Moose,” he began. He spoke for at least 55 more minutes (though some estimates say 90), still wearing his blood-soaked shirt. (You can read a stenographer’s report of his speech here.)

The pages of the speech that saved Roosevelt's life were later bound into a book.
The pages of the speech that saved Roosevelt's life were later bound into a book, which—along with the eyeglasses case and the shirt TR was wearing—can be seen at the Theodore Roosevelt Birthplace National Historic Site in New York City.
Erin McCarthy

Roosevelt would spend the next eight days in the hospital. The bullet had lodged in his chest wall and removing it was deemed too unsafe. The wound healed and he never reported trouble from the injury again. Despite having lived through his assassination attempt, the presidency would not be Teddy’s again: Woodrow Wilson’s 41 percent of the vote meant the office would be his, though Roosevelt did beat out incumbent Taft, marking the only time a sitting president has come in third place in a reelection bid.

Schrank, in the meantime, was apprehended immediately. He lived the rest of his life in an insane asylum, and died of pneumonia in 1943.

This post originally appeared in 2012.

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"The Thing": The Mysterious Teenage Ghost That Haunted Taft's White House
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John Plumbe Jr., Library of Congress // Public Domain

“My dear Clara,” Major Archie Butt wrote in the summer of 1911, “It seems that the White House is haunted.” So began what would become the only written record of the mysterious Executive Mansion ghost known only as "The Thing."

That July, word of an apparition appearing to servants in William Howard Taft’s White House reached Butt, a military aide to the president who served as a kind of personal secretary and attaché. Reported encounters with a ghost had been scaring domestic staffers for months, as he recounted in a letter to his sister-in-law Clara. The spooky tale he told her remains an enduring question mark for White House scholars even today.

As the gossip of the time went, The Thing was felt more often than seen. Taft’s housekeeper—“a spooky little thing herself,” as Butt put it—reported that servants told stories of feeling The Thing appear as a slight pressure on the shoulder, as if a curious kid were leaning over to see what they were doing. Butt scolded the housekeeper, telling her, "ghosts have not the sense of touch, at least those self-respecting ghosts of which I have heard." But the servants maintained that it was, in fact, the spirit touching them.

“There’s a long tradition of White House ghosts,” Evan Phifer, a research historian at the White House Historical Society, tells Mental Floss. “Lincoln is a very popular one, Andrew Jackson—even a British soldier from the time of the War of 1812.” But The Thing is one of the more unusual White House spirits, because no one knows who he was. “It’s not a president or a first lady. It’s this unknown boy about 14 or 15 years old," Phifer says.

Several of the White House staff reported feeling this mysterious pressure on their shoulder, only to turn around to an empty room. Just one member of the household, though, said she actually saw the ghost. Marsh, First Lady Helen Taft’s personal maid, reported not just feeling the ghost leaning over her shoulder, but seeing the ethereal figure, whom she described as a young boy with light, unkempt hair and sad blue eyes. “Now who on Earth this can be,” Butt mused, “I cannot imagine.”

Taft responded to news of the spooky rumor with “towering rage,” Butt said, banning anyone in the house from speaking of the ghost under threat of firing. The president worried that the story would get out and the press would have a field day with the news. But his aide seemed to have a sense of humor about the whole situation. “I reminded him that the help was in such a state of mind that, if it was positively believed that the upper floor of the White House was haunted, the servants there could not be kept in their places by executive order,” Butt wrote.

Still, both of them found their curiosity piqued. Taft was “as anxious to hear about the thing as I had been,” according to Butt. And the aide, who was often on the receiving end of the housekeeping staff’s complaints, was afraid to let on just how intrigued he was by The Thing. “I don’t dare let any of them see how interested I am in it,” he told his sister-in-law. He hoped that the ghost would fade into the background as the year wore on and the staff got busier, relieving him of the duty of calming down superstitious domestic employees.

But even while publicly scoffing at the story, Butt was privately planning to research the mysterious boy’s possible origins. He asked several different servants to tell him their stories about The Thing, and told Clara that he was “going to delve into the history of the White House” to see if any boy matching The Thing’s description had lived—or died—there. But he never mentioned it in his letters to Clara again. It seems that he never did find out who the ghost might have been.

Modern White House historians are just as perplexed as he was. The only known youngster said to haunt the presidential residence is Willie Lincoln, who died during his father’s second year in office, possibly of typhoid fever. But Willie was 11 when he died, much younger than the description of The Thing. (Besides, Willie's ghost was already a known figure in Washington—the first reported sightings of his ghost in the White House date back to the 1870s.)

Whoever the paranormal figure might have represented, Taft was seemingly successful in squashing the rumors before they reached beyond the White House walls. “I didn’t really see the story in any papers of the time, so you could say that Archie Butt did a good job of keeping the story under wraps,” Phifer says. “This seems to be the only mention in the historical record of this ghost.”

Butt himself, though, was not long for this world. In April 1912, returning from Europe to the U.S. after a six-week leave of absence from the White House, he died in the sinking of the Titanic. And as for The Thing? Well, if Archie Butt ever did get to the bottom of the mystery, he took the story to his watery grave.

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