Grizzly Bears Once Lived in the White House

iStock
iStock

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.

Could You Keep Up With Theodore Roosevelt's Ruthlessly Efficient Daily Routine?

Hulton Archive/Getty Images
Hulton Archive/Getty Images

An avid outdoorsman, politician, and quote machine, Theodore "Teddy" Roosevelt was never one to sit idle. The 26th president of the United States (1901 to 1909) regarded the calendar as something to be conquered and fulfilled, never squandered. He employed a number of routines to help him achieve his goals during his presidency and beyond, and each was ruthlessly efficient—particularly when he was on the campaign trail.

In his role as running mate to presidential candidate William McKinley in 1900, Roosevelt adhered to a strict schedule that packed more into one day than some people accomplish in a week. In his book The Rise of Theodore Roosevelt, author Edmund Morris detailed Roosevelt's activities:

7:00 a.m. Breakfast

7:30 a.m. A speech

8:00 a.m. Reading a historical work

9:00 a.m. A speech

10:00 a.m. Dictating letters

11:00 a.m. Discussing Montana mines

11:30 a.m. A speech

12:00 p.m. Reading an ornithological work

12:30 p.m. A speech

1:00 p.m. Lunch

1:30 p.m. A speech

2:30 p.m. Reading [Scottish novelist] Sir Walter Scott

3:00 p.m. Answering telegrams

3:45 p.m. A speech

4:00 p.m. Meeting the press

4:30 p.m. Reading

5:00 p.m. A speech

6:00 p.m. Reading

7:00 p.m. Supper

8-10 p.m. Speaking

11:00 p.m. Reading alone in his car

12:00 a.m. To bed

Clearly, Roosevelt had an effective strategy for fulfilling the obligations of his working life while still making time for reading in order to enrich his intellect. The habits grew out of his experience at Harvard, where he balanced his schoolwork with athletic pursuits and other interests. Roosevelt devoted fragments of each day to study and refused to entertain any interruptions. Studying or reading for even half an hour with an appropriate amount of focused intensity, he believed, was more beneficial than sitting for twice as long while distracted by friends, food, or daydreaming.

When he became president following the assassination of McKinley in 1901, Roosevelt's responsibilities grew exponentially, but he remained insistent on a highly organized approach to the day. During one week in February 1903, Roosevelt took up to eight meetings in an hour, averaging 7.5 minutes to conduct whatever business was on the table. During this time, he was also posing for his official presidential portrait by artist John Singer Sargent. Rather than sit for one or two marathon sessions, Roosevelt agreed to pose for just one half-hour a day. On Sunday, he cleared his schedule to unwind and keep up with correspondence.

The ability to concentrate has only gotten harder in an era of screens and buzzing phones, and you might think Roosevelt had it comparatively easier. It might help to remember that, in 1912, he was shot by a would-be assassin in Milwaukee, Wisconsin just before going on stage to give a scheduled speech. He managed to complete the 84-minute speech with a bullet lodged in his ribs. For Roosevelt, nothing was going to interfere with the day's routine.

Think you know everything there is to know about T.R.? Test your knowledge with our quiz, "Did Theodore Roosevelt Do That?"

Can a Person Refuse a Presidential Pardon?

Harris & Ewing, Inc., Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons
Harris & Ewing, Inc., Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons

Presidential pardons have been in the news, which has led to an onslaught of questions about just how far a president's pardoning powers extend—and what would happen if the person being offered the pardon declined it altogether? Is such a thing even possible, or does the pardoned individual in question have no choice in the matter? Believe it or not, it's an issue that has come up a few times over the past two centuries—and the answer isn't exactly a clear-cut one.

To fully answer the question, first an important distinction has to be made between commutation and pardoning. Both are part of the pardoning powers given to the president, but differ in levels. Speaking to ABC News, Randy Barnett, a professor at Georgetown University, explained that "Pardon is an 'executive forgiveness of crime'; commutation is an ‘executive lowering of the penalty.'" And the answer to the question depends on that distinction.

UNITED STATES V. WILSON

In 1833 the Supreme Court heard the case of the United States v. George Wilson. On May 27, 1830, Wilson and co-conspirator James Porter were both sentenced to death after being convicted of robbing a U.S. postal worker and putting the carrier’s life in jeopardy. While Porter was executed just over a month later, on July 2, 1830, Wilson managed to escape the sentence. President Andrew Jackson decided to pardon Wilson for the death penalty charge on the understanding that he had yet to be sentenced for other crimes (for which he was looking at a minimum of 20 years). For some reason Wilson waived the pardon, possibly because of confusion about what case he was being tried for at the time and what cases the pardon was for.

In 1833, the Supreme Court ultimately weighed in on the issue, ruling “A pardon is a deed, to the validity of which delivery is essential, and delivery is not complete without acceptance. It may then be rejected by the person to whom it is tendered, and if it be rejected, we have discovered no power in a court to force it on him.” (Strangely, the details of whether or not Wilson was ever executed are lost to time.)

BURDICK V. UNITED STATES

This right of refusal was affirmed in 1915. George Burdick, city editor of the New York Tribune, refused to testify regarding sources for articles on alleged custom fraud by invoking his Fifth Amendment rights [PDF]. President Woodrow Wilson then gave a pardon to Burdick, protecting him from any charge he may incriminate himself of during his testimony. The idea behind the pardon was to force Burdick to testify, under the theory that he could no longer be convicted for any acts he may reveal. But Burdick rejected the pardon, continued to invoke his rights, and was found guilty of contempt.

The Supreme Court ruled that Burdick was within his rights to refuse the pardon and as such he did not lose his Fifth Amendment rights.

BIDDLE V. PEROVICH

A 1927 ruling added a new wrinkle to the pardoning issue. In 1905, Vuco Perovich was sentenced to hang for murder, which President Taft commuted to life imprisonment a few years later. Perovich was then transferred from Alaska to Washington, and later to Leavenworth. Perovich eventually filed an application for writ of habeas corpus, claiming that his commutation was done without his consent. The Supreme Court ultimately ruled that "the convict’s consent is not required."

This ruling has led decades of legal scholars to wonder if the Perovich ruling overturned these earlier cases, with Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. arguing “Whether these words sound the death knell of the acceptance doctrine is perhaps doubtful. They seem clearly to indicate that by substantiating a commutation order for a deed of pardon, a President can always have his way in such matters, provided the substituted penalty is authorized by law and does not in common understanding exceed the original penalty" [PDF].

In other words: You may be able to refuse a pardon, but you would not be able to refuse a commutation.

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