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Grizzly Bears Once Lived in the White House

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The history of the White House is full of weird pets, from John Quincy Adams’s alligator to Calvin Coolidge’s menagerie (which included both a wallaby and a pygmy hippopotamus). But one of the odder tales occurred in 1807, when Thomas Jefferson received an adorable gift of animals that soon went dangerously awry.

Jefferson’s gift came from Captain Zebulon Pike, an intrepid explorer who made it his mission to head into formerly uncharted Western territory. Pike undertook two ambitious military reconnaissance expeditions, one to discover the source of the Mississippi River, and the other focused on the Red and Arkansas Rivers.

He wasn’t the first person to head west to map the as-yet-unfamiliar territory: Meriwether Lewis and William Clark had been sent on the first American western expedition by the Army just a few years earlier. But instead of heading up to the Pacific Northwest, Pike headed southwest in April 1806. He made it as far as Colorado—giving Pikes Peak its name—before apparently getting lost and wandering into what was then the Spanish territory of New Mexico (the degree to which he was really lost, as opposed to trying to gather military information on the Spanish, has been debated by historians). He was detained by the Spaniards, but released unharmed after a year.

Pike’s expedition was no sightseeing trip [PDF]: Its real purpose was to lay the foundation for an American empire that stretched from coast to coast. And what better way to thank the president for that lofty commission than to share a little gift of appreciation? In October 1807, Pike sent along a pair of young “Grisly Bears (mail & femail) which I bought from the dividing ridges of the Pacific & Atlantic Oceans,” along with a letter that said that the natives considered them “the most ferocious Animals of the continent.”

The bear cubs were cute curiosities, but they weren’t exactly safe. In a time before modern zoos, nobody really knew how to care for them properly—or exactly how large they’d grow. For a while, the president put his increasingly treacherous gift in a cage near the north entrance to the White House. His political enemies called the enclosure the president’s “bear-garden,” a term used to refer to a place ruled by grisly uproar, much like the Elizabethan bear-baiting spots that spawned the term.

But the president didn't want to keep the cubs for long. In a letter to his granddaughter, he wrote that the bears “are too dangerous and troublesome to keep.” Jefferson had a backup plan: Charles Willson Peale. A noted American painter, Peale opened a museum in 1782 that started out as a portrait gallery but soon became a cabinet of curiosities. Peale even invented a new way of displaying animals in an early version of the diorama, showing off animal specimens in front of painted backgrounds.

Peale had already had a bad run-in with a grizzly bear that he tried to display in 1804. Yet he couldn’t exactly turn down the president’s request that he take on the “perfectly gentle” animals [PDF]. The bears took up residence at the museum, but alas: According to a historian at Monticello, Jefferson’s home, they, too, outgrew their cages and were shot after one of them threatened a member of the Peale family. Their mounted skins were later put on display in the museum.

The tale of Jefferson’s cute gift gone awry is a reminder that poorly-thought-out presents aren’t always appreciated—and that back in that heady age of American empire, almost nothing seemed impossible.

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Courtesy Sotheby's
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You Can Buy the Oldest Surviving Photo of a U.S. President
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Courtesy Sotheby's

The descendent of a 19th-century U.S. Congressman has discovered a previously unknown presidential portrait that is likely the oldest surviving photograph of a U.S. president, The New York Times reports.

Previously, two 1843 portraits of John Quincy Adams were thought to be the oldest photographs of a president still around. Currently hanging in the National Portrait Gallery, one of them was found on sale at an antique shop in 1970 for a mere 50 cents. Now, an even older photo of the sixth president has been uncovered, and it’ll cost you more than 50 cents to buy it.

Adams sat for dozens of photographs throughout his life, so it’s not entirely surprising that a few more surviving portraits would be uncovered. At the time this newly discovered half-plate daguerreotype was taken in March 1843, Adams had already served out his term as president and had returned to Congress as a U.S. Representative from Massachusetts. The photo was taken by Philip Haas, who in August of that same year would take other daguerreotypes that we previously thought were the oldest surviving photos. (Despite his apparent willingness to be photographed, Adams called them “all hideous.”)

John Quincy Adams sits in a portrait studio in 1843.
Courtesy Sotheby's

After having three daguerreotypes taken that day in March, Adams gave one of them to his friend and fellow Congressman Horace Everett, inscribing it with both their names. Everett’s great-great-grandson eventually found it in his family’s belongings and is now putting it up for sale through Sotheby’s.

It isn't the oldest picture of a U.S. president ever taken, though. The first-ever was actually a portrait of William Henry Harrison made in 1841, but unlike this one, the original has not survived. (The Metropolitan Museum of Art owns a copy of it, which was made in 1850.)

The head of the Sotheby’s department for photographs, Emily Bierman, told The New York Times that the newly discovered image is “without a doubt the most important historical photo portrait to be offered at auction in the last 20 years.” (She also noted that the former POTUS is wearing “cute socks” in it.)

The daguerreotype will be on sale as part of a photography auction at Sotheby’s in October and is expected to sell for an estimated $150,000 to $250,000. Start saving.

[h/t The New York Times]

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The Great Presidential Pardon Heist

Awarded by the Commander-in-Chief, presidential pardons override previous rulings handed down by any other federal judge or court. Some presidents are more generous with pardons than others, but overall, they’ve been granted with increasing frequency since Washington issued the first 16, including two for participants of the Whiskey Rebellion. By contrast, Barack Obama pardoned, commuted, or otherwise granted clemency to 1927 people.

Despite the increasing number, receiving a pardon is no easy task. First, there’s a required waiting period of five years. Applicants must write an essay about why they are seeking clemency, including documentation; they also need at least three character references, and they have to go through a “very thorough” federal review. And that’s just for starters.

However, if you’re determined to get a presidential pardon, there are other ways to go about obtaining one (though we don't recommend it)—as long as you don’t care whose name is on the certificate. Just ask Shawn Aubitz.

Some time in the middle of his 14-year career as a curator with the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA), Aubitz realized he was sitting on a gold mine: The files, letters, maps, and photographs he handled every day could command big bucks from the right collectors. From 1996-1999, he pulled off the historical heist of the century simply by surreptitiously slipping documents into his briefcase. Over the three-year period, Aubitz made off with hundreds of items, including 64 pardons and 316 photos taken by astronauts.

Though the number is rather staggering, the thefts weren’t discovered until 2000, when a National Park Service employee noticed a suspicious item for sale on eBay and notified the National Archives about the auction. The National Archives Office of the Inspector General quickly took action and discovered a total of four National Archives documents on eBay. The items were traced to Aubitz, who pled guilty to the crimes in 2002. In court, Aubitz blamed his actions on “a compulsive need to amass collections for self-esteem and approval,” but also admitted that his motives were financial—he used more than $200,000 in ill-gotten funds to pay his credit card debt. Aubitz served 21 months in prison for his crimes and paid $73,793 in restitution.

Because Aubitz provided the names of his buyers, many of the pilfered items were recovered, such as a warrant for the seizure of Robert E. Lee's estate during the Civil War. Many are still missing, however, including pardons issued by 10 presidents, from James Madison to Rutherford B. Hayes. So, history buffs, if you’re not totally sure about the origins of that Andrew Jackson-signed pardon hanging on your study wall, contact NARA at MissingDocuments@nara.gov.

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