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These Wild, Obscure Tales of Past Presidents Are Stuffed Full of American Badassery

Everyone knows about Bill Clinton and his sax, and how Barack Obama can croon a mean Al Green. But did you know Lincoln could deadlift 1,300 pounds?

by John Nova Lomax
Feb 21 2017, 4:32am

Everybody knows about Bill Clinton and his saxophone, and how Barack Obama can croon a mean Al Green, and how George Washington cannot tell a lie, and how Donald J. Trump can do so many tremendous amazing things you just can't help but be tremendously amazed. Everyone agrees.

Thomas Jefferson could do pretty much everything from design houses to write music, while Teddy Roosevelt was a  speed reader and could plow through three or four books in a day. 

Even with all we know about our presidents, there's still quite a lot out there not commonly known. For example...

Abraham Lincoln Had Hulk Strength

While it's widely remembered that he preserved the Union and ended slavery, it's all but forgotten now that young Abe, all 6'4" and 214 pounds of him, was said to have superhuman physical strength.

Some claim he picked up a 44-gallon barrel of whiskey and drank from the bunghole. Others say he could down a tree as fast as any three normal men. In arranged wrestling matches, he was known to pick up town bullies and toss them around like they were empty beer cans. He also apparently could deadlift up to 1,300 pounds and walk around with loads weighing half that.

John Quincy Adams: Sommelier Par Excellence

When you think of John Quincy Adams and his dad, John, you tend to assume they were abstemious Massachusetts Puritans who never took a dram save for medicinal purposes, if even then. That notion couldn't be further from the truth: The elder Adams drank beer for breakfast beginning at age 15 (as was not uncommon in his day) and often more beer, or hard cider, later in the day, throughout his long life.

As for his son, the White House has likely never been home to a more consistent, gentlemanly, and sophisticated drinker, aside perhaps from his dad's lifelong frenemy Thomas Jefferson. John Quincy Adams drank often (if never to excess) and drank well and did so expertly.

Like Jefferson, John Quincy was a wine snob, but while Jefferson sipped French and Italian vintages, Adams had a special passion for Madeira, a fortified Portuguese wine. And he really, really knew his Madeiras: At one dinner party, he astounded all present by blindly identifying 11 of 14 sample pours passed around the table. "Doubtless he could not have hung up such a score had he not kept in practice," wrote one biographer.

The day John Quincy Adams followed his dad into politics was the day America lost its first great sommelier.

John Tyler Fucked a Ton

Like, a lot a lot.

Andrew Jackson

Andrew Jackson: The Judge Dredd of Tennessee

After an abortive foray into politics came to an end in 1798, Andrew Jackson returned to Tennessee, where he was given a judgeship in what was then a rough frontier state. Among the toughest customers was Russell Bean, a "bear of a man" often described as the first white child born in the state. Bean acted as if the whole state belonged to him by virtue of that fact and chose to obey whichever laws he saw fit. Not many of them did, especially when he was full of corn liquor, which was often.

In 1802, Bean came home from a two-year flatboat trip to New Orleans, only to find his wife nursing an infant. Though completely unschooled, Bean knew a little something about math and how babies worked, so he concluded that the child wasn't his, whereupon he took out his Bowie knife and sliced off the child's ears, so he "could know this one wasn't one of his."

While women and children had few rights in those days, this outrage would not stand. Bean was arrested, tried, and sent to jail, but quickly managed to escape back into the mountains, where he subsisted as an outlaw. Evidently he thought he'd allow for a few weeks to pass and the whole thing would blow over, but he didn't count on Judge Andrew Jackson.

Old Hickory had him rearrested and brought before his court. Bean responded by cussing them all out and just flat walking away, again. Jackson ordered the sheriff to bring Bean back to face the fury of the court. The sheriff, terrified of the untamable Bean, at least pretended to go about his work for a time, before returning to Jackson sans prisoner. Alright then, Jackson said, take a posse with you this time. The meek sheriff shuffled out the door again, returning shortly thereafter claiming that no posse could be summoned: The whole town was that scared of Russell Bean.

By this point Jackson had heard enough. Wussy cops. A whole town shaking in its boots. Did he have to do everything around here?

"Mr. Sheriff,' Jackson hissed, "since you cannot obey my orders, summon me; yes, sir, summon me."

The flabbergasted sheriff duly summoned the judge, who adjourned court for a ten-minute recess, tossed his robes in a corner, strapped on his pistols, and went to work. He found Bean in the town square, guzzling whiskey, berating the cowed townsfolk, and waving around a pistol.

With a pistol in each hand, Jackson parted the throng and walked directly toward the ruffian, murder in his eyes, and shouted: "Surrender, you infernal villain, this very instant, or by God Almighty I'll blow you through as wide as a gate!"

Bean took measure of that cold glare and those two pistols, and after a few moments' consideration,  dropped his pistol, tossed his knife on the ground, and headed off to court.

As Bean later explained: "When he came up, I looked him in the eye, and I saw shoot, and there wasn't shoot in nary other eye in the crowd; and so I says to myself, says I, hoss, it's about time to sing small, and so I did."

The epilogue is bizarre: Bean paid a fine and was branded on the palm. Being Bean, he immediately gnawed off the branded chunk of flesh and spit on the floor. The governor later pardoned him. The baby he mutilated died from its injuries, and his wife divorced him. But then, years later, proving true love knows no bounds, Bean and his ex-wife reconciled, with none other than Andrew Jackson serving as matchmaker.  

James Garfield Could Do Something You Can't

James Garfield could read and write, which was far less common in his time than it is in ours, but not that big a deal. Narrowing down a bit, he also knew Latin—again, not that unusual for a well-educated man of his age, if rarer today. Boring in further still, he also knew Greek. (And German: He was the first presidential candidate to campaign in two languages.)

Now let's really throw in a twist: Garfield was ambidextrous, though possibly left-hand dominant.

Now let's put all of that in a blender and come up with this most amazing of odd presidential oddities: James Garfield could write Greek with one hand and Latin with the other, at the same freaking time.

Amazing, right? Yes.

And totally useless? Probably.

But we will never know whether or not that party trick could have propelled America to further greatness as he succumbed to an assassin's bullet 199 days into his administration.

William Henry Harrison. Photo via Wikimedia Commons

There Was Once an Actual Swamp in Washington, and It Might Have Killed Two Presidents

With all this talk about swamp-draining going on, it bears remembering that Washington was once the site of one of the vilest mires on American soil, and it just might have played a role in hastening the demise of two presidents and almost a third.

William Henry Harrison died about a month into office, and for over a century, the official story was that he tempted fate by delivering an overlong inaugural address in bad weather while deliberately underdressed to demonstrate his manly vitality despite his advanced age. According to that fable, Harrison caught cold, which progressed to pneumonia, which took Old Tippecanoe out before the first new moon of his reign.

Modern science has a different take. Medical historians believe now that Harrison succumbed not to a chill brought on by orating in nasty weather, but drinking water tainted by human feces.

For a couple of decades in the middle of the 19th century, DC authorities (absent a modern sewer system) simply allowed (and even hauled) the city's "night soils" to a fetid heap a few blocks uphill from the White House, and we all know where shit flows, right? Downhill, straight to the executive residence's water supply.

In 2014, the New York Times pointed out that the DC shit-swamp would have bred both salmonella and typhoid fever, both of which play absolute havoc on the human digestive system. ("Congestion of the liver" was listed as the secondary cause of Harrison's death.)  

Two of the next three presidents to follow Harrison—James K. Polk and Zachary Taylor—both were stricken with serious stomach bugs during their presidencies. Polk survived, but chose not to run for a second term. Taylor died, under circumstances mysterious enough to have made some wonder if he was poisoned by pro-slavery forces, so much so that his body was exhumed for forensic testing in 1991. Nope: no poison. The shit swamp may have claimed another victim.

In 1850, the District of Columbia introduced a modern sewage system (complete with pipes!), and no president would die in office of natural causes until Warren G. Harding in 1923, and he did so far from Washington, while on a tour of the west.

But if you ever wondered where the Trump organization nicked the DC swamp metaphor, look no further than the graves of William Henry Harrison and Zachary Taylor, possible victims of the real DC shit-mire.

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