Know Your Presidents? Stabbings, Pet Raccoons, Cat Fights and Other Presidential Lore

Do you know which president liked to skinny dip in the Potomac or who had the first pet cat in the White House?

What really happens at the White House? Lots and lots of trivia!
What really happens at the White House? Lots and lots of trivia! Photo by Pete Souza, 2011

Just in time for President’s Day, Smithsonian Books present “The Smithsonian Book of Presidential Trivia,” so you can brush up on your White House lore and impress all your friends with your knowledge of White House pets, notable firsts and life before the presidency. We excerpted a few of our favorite facts from the book:

1. Which president once served as a public executioner?

A: Grover Cleveland. as sheriff of Erie County, New York from 1871 to 1873, Cleveland personally oversaw the public executions of two men, one convicted of stabbing his mother to death and the other guilty of shooting a man after a saloon altercation. It was not a task he welcomed, but he felt it was his responsibility, and he would not delegate it to another.

Check out the new Smithsonian Book of Presidential Trivia
Check out the new Smithsonian Book of Presidential Trivia Smithsonian

2. Which president refused to be inaugurated on Sunday, leaving the highest post in the land vacant for a day?

A: Zachary Taylor. In March 1849, Taylor refused to take the oath of office on a Sunday due to his religious beliefs. The offices of president and vice president expired at noon on March 4, which meant that, according to the rules of succession at that time, David Rice Atchison, president pro tempore of the Senate, was next in line to the presidency. He always claimed he held the office for a day, but others have pointed out that his Senate term expired on March 4 as well, giving little credence to the existence of an “Atchison administration.”

3. Which first lady kept a pet raccoon at the White House?

A: Grace Coolidge. Coolidge’s pet raccoon, Rebecca, delighted children at the White House Easter Egg Roll in 1927. Rebecca reportedly had her own little house, built by the president himself.

4. Who was the first president to have a pet cat?

A: Abraham Lincoln. Lincoln loved kittens and was allegedly the first president to have a cat in the White House. Called Tabby, the “first cat” may have inspired one of the president’s sayings: “No matter how much cats fight, there always seem to be plenty of kittens.”

5. Which first lady won a Grammy Award for her best-selling audio book?

A: Hillary Clinton. Clinton won a Grammy for the recorded version of It Takes a Village, and Other Lessons Children Teach Us, her 1996 bestselling book. The book presents her vision of a society that works together to meet children’s needs.

6. Who was the first president to visit a foreign country while in office?

A: Theodore Roosevelt. The Panama Canal project was important to Roosevelt. He used American might to get the canal built, even sparking a rebellion in Colombia to bring about a treaty that would allow the venture to move forward. In 1906 Roosevelt visited the canal site to inspect the construction progress.

Thomas Jefferson owes one man a big thank you.
Thomas Jefferson owes one man a big thank you. Painting by Rembrant Peale, image courtesy of Wikimedia

7. Which president had his election to the presidency literally decided by one man?

A: Thomas Jefferson. Jefferson’s election was due to a bold act by Congressman James Bayard of Delaware. In the race of 1800, due to a quirk in the Constitution that was later rectified, Jefferson and his running mate, Aaron Burr, the two candidates of the Democratic-Republican Party, were tied in the Electoral College after defeating the Federalist ticket headed by incumbent John Adams. The election was therefore sent to the House of Representatives for a state-by-state vote. After 35 ballots, there was no clear winner. Bayard decided to abstain on the 36th ballot, and he convinced other Federalists to follow suit, thereby breaking the deadlock.

8. Who was the first presidential candidate to campaign in all fifty states?

A: Richard Nixon. Nixon literally wore himself out in the 1960 campaign, stumping in all fifty states. He banged his knee on a car door in Greensboro, North Carolina, which led to an infection that kept him hospitalized and off the campaign trail for two critical weeks. His opponent, John F. Kennedy, used a different strategy in his campaign, targeting the states with the most electoral votes and offering the visionary message, Leadership for the Sixties.

9. Who was the first president to be born an American citizen?

A: Martin Van Buren. Van Buren was born on December 5, 1782, in Kinderhook, New York. All seven previous president were born British subjects. Their births predated the Declaration of Independence and the American victory in the Revolutionary War. Van Buren was the descendant of Dutch immigrants. The family spoke Dutch at home, making English Van Buren’s second language.

10. Which president liked to skinny dip in the Potomac?

A: John Quincy Adams. Ironically, the most sober and seemingly straight-laced president was also the one who shed his clothes each morning to take a refreshing plunge into the Potomac River.

Impress your friends with still more trivial presidential knowledge, check out The Smithsonian Book of Presidential Trivia by Smithsonian Books.

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