One thing’s for sure: U.S. Presidents are the stuff of legends. However, just because personal tales about the leaders are passed down from generation to generation, doesn't mean the stories are rooted in truth. In fact, many of the stories are so outlandish that it’s amazing people believed them in the first place.
From flammable teeth to ridiculous bathtub debacles, we take a look at the eight of the craziest presidential myths out there and set the record straight.
Myth: George Washington Had Wooden Teeth
Cherry tree aside, one of the most chewable facts is that the nation’s first President had a mouth full of wooden teeth. While it seems like an odd story to be linked to the founding father, a deeper dig gets to the root of the issue. Washington did indeed have terrible teeth. So much so that he had multiple dentures made. Those mouthpieces were made out of ivory, gold, lead, and even human teeth, but never any wood. Wood was not used by dentists at the time because not only could wooden dentures cause splinters, but wood is also susceptible to expanding and contracting due to moisture, which doesn’t sound ideal for something that lives in your mouth.
Myth: Thomas Jefferson Signed the Constitution
It’s seems incomprehensible that a big-name founding father like Thomas Jefferson missed out on signing the U.S. Constitution. But he never inked the deal. He was actually absent during the Philadelphia Constitutional Convention in 1787, as he was across the Atlantic Ocean in Paris, France as the U.S.’s envoy.
Myth: Abraham Lincoln Wrote the Gettysburg Address on an Envelope
There’s no doubt that the 16th President was a brilliant orator. But the idea that he haphazardly scribbled one of the most important speeches in American history on the back of an envelope during a train ride sounds a little far-fetched. In reality, Abraham Lincoln toiled away at different versions of the Gettysburg Address, which he gave on November 19, 1863. Not just that, it was anything but a solo project. He collaborated with several associates on it — and there are even five original copies of the speech, not one of them on an envelope.
Myth: William Howard Taft Got Stuck in a Bathtub
One of the stranger presidential myths might be chalked up to potty humor. Somehow, 27th President William Howard Taft became associated with an embarrassing incident of getting stuck in a bathtub. While it’s true that he was larger in stature, weighing in at 350 pounds, he never had to be rescued from a tub.
That said, there is a reason he’s associated with baths. During his presidency, a super-sized porcelain tub that was 7 feet long, 41 inches wide, and a ton in weight, was installed in the White House. It was so massive that four grown men could fit inside. In another bath incident, after his presidency he filled a tub at a hotel in Cape May, New Jersey a little too high and when he stepped into it, it overflowed to the point that the guests in the dining room below got a bit of a shower.
Myth: The Teddy Bear Got Its Name After Theodore Roosevelt Saved a Real Bear
Theodore Roosevelt had long been a hunter but didn’t exactly show off his best skills on a bear hunt in November 1902. Everyone else in the group had been fruitful, so to help Roosevelt, the guide tracked a 235-pound bear to a watering hole, clubbed it, and tied it to a tree so the President could claim it. As the story goes, Roosevelt refused to shoot the bear.
The incident made its way to the Washington Post, which published a satirical cartoon about the President sparing the bear. New York City store owners Morris and Rose Mitchom saw the cartoon, were inspired by the President's act of heroism, and created stuffed animals in his honor, appropriately naming them “Teddy’s bear.”
The problem? Roosevelt didn’t shoot the bear, but he didn’t save it either. He saw that it had been mauled by dogs so savagely already that he asked for the bear to be killed with a hunting knife. Given the dark nature of this true tale, it makes sense that the details are often forgotten when talking about this beloved childhood toy.
Myth: John F. Kennedy Won the Election Because of the TV Debates Against Richard Nixon
The televised broadcast of a 1960 presidential debate between John F. Kennedy and Richard Nixon is often said to have clinched the victory for JFK, who many found to be more photogenic and charismatic. But when you truly look at the election numbers, it didn’t really have that big of an effect on the results. The candidates were pretty much neck-and-neck throughout the campaign, even appearing to be tied in the polls before and after the four debates. Kennedy seemed to have a slight boost after the first one on September 26, but then Nixon hit it out of the park on the others, especially with his foreign policy take during the final one. In the end, Kennedy won the election by a mere 119,000 votes.
Kennedy and Nixon’s September 1960 debate is often credited as the first televised presidential debate, but that is also a myth. In 1956, a televised debate aired during the run-off between Republican President Dwight Eisenhower and Democrat Adlai Stevenson. However, neither of them attended and sent surrogates in their place. Eisenhower sent Maine senior senator Margaret Chase Smith, while Democrats went with Eleanor Roosevelt, and it aired on CBS’ Face the Nation.
Zachary Taylor Was Poisoned
Just over a year and four months into his term, the 12th President Zachary Taylor fell ill and died while in office. For years, many thought that he may have been the first President to be assassinated since it was rumored that he was poisoned. Despite his death in July 1850, it wasn’t until 1991 that Kentucky scientists definitively concluded there was no arsenic in his blood. The other story that he died of eating cherry and iced milk unfortunately may have more truth to it. After leaving the Washington Monument dedication in 1850, he had that combo as a snack and likely came down with severe gastroenteritis — an inflammation of the digestive system — and died five days later.
Myth: Gerald Ford Was a Total Klutz
Throughout Gerald Ford’s presidency, many joked that his Vice President Nelson Rockefeller was only a banana peel away from the presidency since the 38th President was so often caught being clumsy. He tumbled down ski slopes, slipped in the rain, and fell coming out of Air Force One, so much so that he was spoofed by Chevy Chase on Saturday Night Live. But in actuality, Ford was quite an athlete in his younger days. He was a football star at the University of Michigan, where he earned his letter for three years. He even tackled a future Heisman Trophy winner Jay Berwander in 1934. During his White House years, he also swam and skied regularly, and played tennis and golf, so perhaps all that falling was just to add to his relatability.