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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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Kehinde Wiley Studio, Inc., Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 3.0
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Barack Obama Taps Kehinde Wiley to Paint His Official Presidential Portrait
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Kehinde Wiley
Kehinde Wiley Studio, Inc., Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 3.0

Kehinde Wiley, an American artist known for his grand portraits of African-American subjects, has painted Michael Jackson, Ice-T, and The Notorious B.I.G. in his work. Now the artist will have the honor of adding Barack Obama to that list. According to the Smithsonian, the former president has selected Wiley to paint his official presidential portrait, which will hang in the National Portrait Gallery.

Wiley’s portraits typically depict black people in powerful poses. Sometimes he models his work after classic paintings, as was the case with "Napoleon Leading the Army Over the Alps.” The subjects are often dressed in hip-hop-style clothing and placed against decorative backdrops.

Portrait by Kehinde Wiley
"Le Roi a la Chasse"
Kehinde Wiley, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY 3.0

Smithsonian also announced that Baltimore-based artist Amy Sherald has been chosen by former first lady Michelle Obama to paint her portrait for the gallery. Like Wiley, Sherald uses her work to challenge stereotypes of African-Americans in art.

“The Portrait Gallery is absolutely delighted that Kehinde Wiley and Amy Sherald have agreed to create the official portraits of our former president and first lady,” Kim Sajet, director of the National Portrait Gallery, said in a press release. “Both have achieved enormous success as artists, but even more, they make art that reflects the power and potential of portraiture in the 21st century.”

The tradition of the president and first lady posing for portraits for the National Portrait Gallery dates back to George H.W. Bush. Both Wiley’s and Sherald’s pieces will be revealed in early 2018 as permanent additions to the gallery in Washington, D.C.

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History
The Time Teddy Roosevelt Was Shot in the Chest, Then Gave a Speech Anyway
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Hulton Archive/Getty Images

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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