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Rutherford B. Hayes, National Hero of Paraguay

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Following a traffic accident in 1998, 15-year-old Griselda Servin spent two years in a coma. When she awoke, the Paraguayan was excited to find out that a regional television show, Tell Me a Dream, would be making one of her wishes come true. Servin would have an opportunity to fly to America, which she had always wanted to see, with all expenses paid.

There was one condition. Instead of heading for New York City, which she preferred, the show would be sending her to Fremont, Ohio. Servin would be honoring her country by visiting the resting place of its greatest hero—the 19th American president, Rutherford B. Hayes.

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How Hayes—by most historical accounts, a man who chaired an unremarkable presidency from 1877 to 1881 that was remembered mainly for introducing telephones and Easter Egg rolls to the White House—wound up becoming an icon for a small South American country is remarkable. Not because of the geographical divide, but because Hayes himself might have had virtually nothing to do with it.

In 1864, Brazil had tried to intervene in a civil war in Uruguay; Paraguay was worried that this would destabilize the entire region, and ultimately declared war on Brazil, which enlisted Argentina and Uruguay to overtake the Paraguayans. Paraguay was so overwhelmed by the sheer numbers of the opposing soldiers that they began painting sticks to look like guns and putting them in the hands of children wearing fake beards. After six years of bloodshed, the country had seen up to 60 percent of its population killed in combat or dead of disease.

Sensing easy prey, Argentina swooped in to claim Chaco, a desolate slice of land roughly the size of Colorado that made up 60 percent of Paraguay's total territory. Losing it meant Paraguay would be in danger of ceasing to exist.

In an attempt to settle the land issue without bloodshed, the countries agreed to arbitration by a neutral third party: the United States. Both submitted reams of documents and testimony arguing why their side should be awarded Chaco.

On November 12, 1878, Hayes released a written decision. It read, in part:

…Be it known that I, Rutherford B. Hayes, President of the United States of America, having duly considered the said statements and the said exhibits, do hereby determine that the said Republic of Paraguay is legally and justly entitled to the said territory between the Pilcomayo and the Verde rivers, and to the Villa Occidentals situated therein…

Although Chaco was and would remain largely destitute and semi-inhabitable—Paraguayans like to refer to it as the “Green Hell” despite a productive cattle ranching industry—it didn’t matter. To them, Hayes had rendered a just decision that offered some ray of hope after a devastating three-pronged attack, one that had left just 29,000 adult males alive—many still with battle wounds.

Over the next several decades, Paraguay’s reverence for Hayes swelled. It named a state Presidente Hayes, with the town at the mouth of Chaco dubbed Villa Hayes. A museum was erected in his honor; a bust of him greets schoolchildren at Villa Hayes Elementary. The date of his decision, November 12, is a provincial holiday.

Amid the monuments, soccer teams, and postage stamps honoring him, Paraguayans often express disbelief whenever they're confronted with the idea that Americans don’t spend much time thinking about Hayes.

Ricardo Nuñez, mayor of Villa Hayes, was astonished to be told by a U.S. journalist that Hayes’s contemporaries once referred to him as “Rutherfraud” because his office was preceded by a Constitutional crisis, and he had lost the popular vote.

“Rutherfraud? Wow!” Nuñez told NPR in 2014. “That’s amazing!” He could not conceive of such a slur.

Given Paraguay’s history of malevolent rulers, it’s not surprising that they placed a lot of emotional stock in Hayes, who served just one term and died in 1893. The dictator who antagonized Brazil, General Francisco Solano Lopez, once demanded that his Catholic bishops declare him a saint. If they refused, they were executed. Once he took office, he had his elderly mother flogged in public.

While there’s no record of Hayes ordering the courtyard whipping of his mother, the truth is that no one is quite sure just how much he had to do with the decision to allow Paraguay to keep Chaco. Historians don’t know what criteria was used, or if Hayes simply endorsed the decision made by his staff. It’s likely low-level subordinates pored through paperwork and that Secretary of State William Evarts merely gave the ruling to Hayes for a signature.

For a matter that may have occupied just a couple of hours of his life, Hayes has received infinitely more credit for it than for his entire tenure in office. In Delaware, Ohio, his childhood home was torn down to make room for a commercial development. Those wishing to pay a pilgrimage to Hayes’s birthplace will be greeted by a BP gas station with a memorial plaque out in front.

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James Lambdin, The White House Historical Association, Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons
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Big Questions
Did William Henry Harrison Really Die of Pneumonia?
James Lambdin, The White House Historical Association, Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons
James Lambdin, The White House Historical Association, Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons

Whether you learned it in school, or through a jaunty musical number on The Simpsons, the sad tale of William Henry Harrison is one of the more unique in American history. Before being elected the ninth President of the United States in 1840, Harrison was known as a military hero who led his troops to victory against an attack from the Native American confederacy in 1811, later known as the Battle of Tippecanoe. His heroics extended into the War of 1812, when he recovered Detroit from the British and won the Battle of Thames.

Military notoriety has often given way to a road into politics, especially in the 19th century. Harrison was soon elected a senator for Ohio, and then eventually became president after beating incumbent president Martin van Buren in 1840. At 67 years old, Harrison took office as the oldest president to ever be elected—a record that would stand until Ronald Reagan's election in 1980 at 69 years old. Despite the cold, rainy weather in Washington D.C. on inauguration day, Harrison stood in front of the masses without his overcoat, hat, and gloves, and gave an 8445-word speech that would last almost two hours. Three weeks later, Harrison complained of fatigue and of a cold, which later turned into what doctors called pneumonia. On April 4, 1841—exactly one month after taking office—Harrison was dead.

The historical narrative virtually wrote itself: Harrison, after being improperly dressed for the weather, got pneumonia and would go down as a cautionary tale (or a punch line) and as having the shortest presidency on record. But was it really pneumonia that killed him? Harrison's own doctor, Thomas Miller, was skeptical. He wrote:

“The disease was not viewed as a case of pure pneumonia; but as this was the most palpable affection, the term pneumonia afforded a succinct and intelligible answer to the innumerable questions as to the nature of the attack.”

While revisiting the case a few years ago, writer Jane McHugh and Dr. Philip A. Mackowiak of the University of Maryland School of Medicine came up with a new diagnosis after looking at the evidence through the lens of modern medicine: enteric fever, also known as typhoid fever. They detailed their findings in the journal Clinical Infectious Diseases [PDF] and for The New York Times.

Before 1850, Washington D.C.'s sewage was dumped in a marsh just seven blocks upstream from the executive mansion's water supply. McHugh and Mackowiak hypothesize that Harrison was exposed to bacteria—namely Salmonella typhi or S. paratyphi—which could cause enteric fever. Harrison also apparently had a history of severe indigestion, which could have made him more susceptible to such intestinal distress. While treating Harrison, Miller also administered opium and enemas, both of which would cause more harm than good to someone in Harrison's condition.

Harrison would not have been the only person to be afflicted with a gastrointestinal illness while occupying the presidency in this time period. Both James K. Polk and Zachary Taylor, according to McHugh and Mackowiak, suffered through severe gastroenteritis, and the duo theorizes it was the same enteric fever as Harrison's. Polk recovered, while Taylor died in office of his illness, less than 10 years after Harrison's death.

Though Harrison's insistence on soldiering through his lengthy, bitterly cold inauguration while dressed in his finest spring wear wasn't a high point in presidential common sense, there's plenty of scientific evidence to suggest that it didn't contribute to the shortest presidency in American history.

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, let us know by emailing us at bigquestions@mentalfloss.com.

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10 Things You Might Not Know About Richard Nixon
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Keystone/Getty Images

Often maligned but rarely boring, Richard Nixon (1913-1994) was the nation’s 37th president and the first to resign from office. Although his involvement in the Watergate break-in scandal tends to overshadow much of his life, there was more to Nixon than his political impropriety. Check out some facts about his early law enforcement aspirations, why he got criticized for commenting on Charles Manson, and his infamous encounter with Robocop.

1. HE WAS A QUAKER.

Also known as the Religious Society of Friends, Quakers have roots in 17th century England and promoted pacifism and spiritual equality among genders at a time those thoughts were not in fashion. When Nixon’s father, Frank, married Quaker Hannah Milhous, he joined a Quaker congregation and the couple raised their children as Quakers. Nixon’s religious faith allowed him an exemption from serving in World War II, but he waived it to enter the Navy. Later, when he was facing impeachment for his role in Watergate, Quakers in Milwaukee and Minneapolis apparently didn’t like the affiliation with the outcast president, petitioning for him to be removed from office months before he resigned.

2. HE WANTED TO JOIN THE FBI.

A photograph of Richard Nixon's 1937 FBI application
Brendan Smialowski, Getty Images

In retrospect, it’s easy to imagine Nixon’s mannered disposition fitting comfortably in the stiff-necked legion of G-men that populated J. Edgar Hoover’s Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI). A little over a month before graduating from law school, Nixon applied to the Bureau in 1937, when he was just 24. After an in-person interview and physical, Nixon waited for a response. He never got one. Later, when Nixon was in office as vice president and queried Hoover about why he had not been accepted, Hoover told him it had been due to budget cuts.

3. HE WROTE LOVE NOTES TO HIS WIFE-TO-BE.

Nixon met his wife, Patricia, while the two appeared in a 1938 Whittier Community Players theater production titled The Dark Tower. Nixon set about courting her, writing letters that seemed uncharacteristically maudlin for the future president. He wrote: “And when the wind blows and the rains fall and the sun shines through the clouds (as it is now) he still resolves, as he did then, that nothing so fine ever happened to him or anyone else as falling in love with Thee – my dearest heart.” The two married in 1940.

4. A DOG HELPED SAVE HIS POLITICAL CAREER.

A family portrait of the Nixons and their dog, Checkers
Fox Photos/Getty Images

Controversy dogged Nixon early on. In 1952, Dwight D. Eisenhower considered dropping Nixon as his vice-presidential running mate after allegations surfaced that Nixon was benefiting from a trust fund filled by his supporters to help offset his political and personal expenses. Going on radio and television to address the issue, Nixon cleverly slipped in an anecdote about his 6-year-old daughter being in love with a cocker spaniel named Checkers that had been “donated” by a campaign supporter. Believing that any man who loved dogs couldn’t be all bad, the public sentiment turned and he remained on the ticket.

“It was labeled as the ‘Checkers speech,’ as though the mention of my dog was the only thing that saved my career," Nixon later wrote. "Many of the critics glided over the fact that the fund was thoroughly explained, my personal finances laid bare, and an admittedly emotional but honest appeal made for public support."

5. HE LITERALLY MADE THE MORNINGS DARKER.

In 1973, to save fuel during an energy crisis, Nixon signed a law that mandated that daylight saving would be in effect year-round starting on January 6, 1974. But kids wound up waiting for their school buses in pitch-black conditions, and there was a fear they might get hit by traffic—so the idea was scrapped in 1975.

6. HE HAD A BOWLING ALLEY INSTALLED UNDER THE WHITE HOUSE.

Richard Nixon in the bowling alley at the White House in 1971
Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Nixon, an avid bowler, was pleased to see that the love of bowling that inspired Harry Truman to build lanes in the White House in 1947 was still going strong when he took office in 1969. That alley was moved in 1955, and Nixon actually ordered that a new lane be built underground under the North Portico entrance and favored the new location because it was more private than the lanes that were open to other staffers. Nixon reportedly bowled a respectable 232.

7. HE WANTED THE SECRET SERVICE TO WEAR UNIFORMS.

The president’s security detail is usually dressed for business: Suits, ties, and sunglasses are the normal attire for many agents, while those patrolling the White House grounds wear police-style uniforms. When Nixon took office, however, he wanted his men to resemble the palace guards he had seen in other countries. The Service assigned to his personal detail wore white double-breasted tunics and hats that vaguely resembled the Empire’s underlings in a Star Wars film. After he was criticized by the press, Nixon abandoned the idea and the outfits were eventually donated to a high school marching band.

8. HE ALMOST MESSED UP CHARLES MANSON’S MURDER TRIAL.

Richard Nixon frowns during a public appearance
AFP/Getty Images

Nixon’s first year in office coincided with the national obsession over cult leader Charles Manson and his followers, some of whom had gone on a murder spree in 1969 that left actress Sharon Tate and several others dead. During Manson’s trial in August 1970, Nixon proclaimed Manson “was guilty, directly or indirectly, of eight murders without reason.” Manson’s lawyers moved for a mistrial based on Nixon’s comments. The president quickly retracted his statement, with a spokesperson suggesting he neglected to include the word “allegedly.”

9. HE MET ROBOCOP.

In 1987, Nixon attended a national board meeting for the Boys Club of America. Also on hand to fete organizers and kids was a guy dressed as Robocop. (The unknown actor was definitely not Peter Weller, star of the 1987 feature, and the ill-fitting costume was definitely not the original.) For years, an image of the meeting circulated on the internet without context before a crack sleuth determined it had been snapped for Billboard magazine.

10. HIS MEETING WITH ELVIS MADE NATIONAL ARCHIVES HISTORY.

Richard Nixon greets Elvis Presley at the White House in 1970
National Archives/Getty Images

On December 21, 1970, Nixon greeted one of the more colorful characters to ever enter the White House: Elvis Presley. The singer apparently wanted a badge or other token of law enforcement; as the King was high on fighting the war on drugs at the time. (Unfortunately, Presley had drug issues of his own that may have contributed to his death in 1977.) A photo of the meeting between the two is (as of 2015) the most requested image in the National Archives, outpacing requests for the moon landing, the Declaration of Independence, or the Bill of Rights.

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