The official residence and workplace of the President of the United States, the White House has played host to all but one head of state of the American nation since its completion in 1800. Situated at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue in Washington D.C., the original neoclassical design by James Hoban, modeled on Leinster House in his native Dublin, has since been augmented and altered to become one of the most iconic buildings in the world. The seat of American government, home to the machinations and decisions of generations of politicians and commanders, it is perhaps unsurprising that the centuries have gifted the structure an array of incredible and bizarre anecdotes.
Here are some of the weirdest stories from history from inside the White House:
16. In 1970 Elvis Presley unsuccessfully asked Richard Nixon to make him a federal agent in the Bureau of Narcotics and Dangerous Drugs
One of the most significant cultural icons of the twentieth century, Elvis Presley revolutionized and epitomized the American music scene following his breakout in the mid-1950s. Topping charts throughout a sporadic and interrupted career, placed on hiatus both during his military service and to attempt a film-making career, in his later life “the King” suffered increasingly ailing health as a result of years of prescription drug abuse and addiction. Nevertheless, on December 21, 1970, Presley engineered a meeting with at the White House with President Richard Nixon, whom Presley allegedly personally despised, wherein Presley sought to offer a solution to the nation’s drug epidemic.
Expressing his patriotism and explaining to Nixon his potential as the face of American pop culture to reach a wider audience, in a bizarre encounter Presley requested Nixon provide him with official sanction as “Federal Agent-at-Large” and a badge from the Bureau of Narcotics and Dangerous Drugs. Clearly confused and finding the encounter with Presley immensely awkward, Nixon tactfully declined the request via flattery, allegedly responding he felt that Presley could better send a positive message to young people and earn their trust if he remained outside the confines of a government role as he could “retain his credibility”.
The wife of the 16th President of the United States, Mary Ann Todd Lincoln remains to this day one of the most famous First Ladies of the United States. Widowed following the assassination of her husband in 1865, Lincoln’s life grew progressively more woeful with the deaths of three of her four sons by 1871. Alarming her only surviving son, Robert, by her erratic behavior, during a visit in 1875 she informed him “a wandering Jew” had stolen and returned her pocketbook, that someone had tried to poison her, and that she had $56,000 in government bonds sewn into her petticoats, prompting Robert to have his mother institutionalized for her own safety for several months.
14. During a state luncheon at the White House President Theodore Roosevelt elected to demonstrate his judo skills on an unsuspecting Swiss minister
Sickly as a child, Theodore Roosevelt sought to improve his physical health through vigorous exercise, overcoming habitual illnesses during his teenage years at a gym built for him by his father. Remaining active for the rest of his life, enjoying riding, swimming, and hunting, Roosevelt encouraged similar pursuits in his son, informing him “rough, manly sports” were a panacea for life provided they did not “degenerate into the sole end of one’s existence”. Becoming a proficient boxer, sparring during his time at the White House with champion fighter John L. Sullivan in the residence’s gym, after taking up the martial art in 1904 Roosevelt became the first American to earn a brown belt in judo.
Actively participating in the sport, as well as hosting ju-jitsu bouts with Japanese experts in the East Room, Roosevelt practiced with a wide range of training partners including Secretary of War William Howard Taft, the Japanese naval attache, and Secretary of the Interior Gifford Pinchot. However, an exuberant and physical individual, Roosevelt’s passion for the martial art perhaps went too far during a state luncheon. Startling the guests, Roosevelt suddenly threw a Swiss minister to the ground and pinned him using a judo hold. Allegedly delighting the amused crowd, it is uncertain whether or not the anonymous Swiss guest had actually volunteered for the impromptu display.
13. In 1983, Mr. T performed the role of the jolly gift-giver for a delighted Nancy Reagan
Becoming a breakout star following his appearance in Rocky III as Clubber Lang, Laurence Tureaud – more commonly known as Mr. T – quickly became one of the most famous faces in the United States as a result of his role of B.A. Baracus in The A-Team. Visually identified by his signature jewelry, valued at hundreds of thousands of dollars and taking more than an hour each day to put on, the colossal strongman grew to epitomize American excess and perceived strength during the more culturally traditional years of the 1980s which a saw a push-back against the counter-culture of the late-1960s and 1970s.
Most bizarrely of all, however, in 1983 Mr. T was invited to the White House Christmas Party in order to perform the role of Santa Claus. Getting allegedly rather excited at the appearance, the usually demure and stern First Lady Nancy Reagan, as caught on camera, got sufficiently into the spirit of the performance she went and sat on Mr. T’s lap to ask for what she wanted for Christmas. Clearly enjoying themselves and developing an unsuspecting friendship, on January 19, 1985, Mr. T served as an introducer during the 50th Presidential Inaugural Gala the day before Ronald Reagan’s second inauguration.
12. Private Robert Preston stole a helicopter and flew to the White House in the middle of the night
Enlisting in the United States Army with aspirations of becoming a helicopter pilot, Robert Preston washed out of training due to “deficiency in the instrument phase” and was instead transferred to Fort George G. Meade to train as a helicopter mechanic. On February 17, 1974, after leaving a dance hall shortly after midnight, the depressed Preston, suffering from a failed relationship and discontent with the progression of his military career, decided flying a helicopter would improve his mood. Following the lights of the Baltimore-Washington Parkway, Preston was discovered by police hovering between the United States Capitol and Lincoln Memorial.
After spending a few minutes in the restricted area, Preston subsequently flew to the White House and landed on the south lawn. Leaving soon after, heading back towards Fort Meade, Preston was chased by police helicopters and decided to return to the White House to surrender to Richard Nixon personally. Arriving back at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, this time prepared, the Secret Service opened fire. Hitting Preston only five times with over three hundred shots fired, causing superficial injuries, as he exited the helicopter to run towards the White House the would-be pilot was tackled by agents and duly arrested for “wrongful appropriation and breach of the peace”.
11. President Andrew Jackson struggled for two years with a 1,400-pound wheel of cheese which infected the entire neighborhood with its putrid stench
Providing the inspiration behind The West Wing‘s “Big Block of Cheese Day”, which subsequently became an actual annual event under President Obama, in 1835 Colonel Thomas Meacham elected to flaunt his legendary cheese-making abilities in presidential fashion. Creating ten cheeses for a public celebration in Oswego, New York, the largest of these was measured at four feet in diameter, two feet tall, and weighing fourteen hundred pounds. Dedicating the colossal product to President Andrew Jackson, Meacham boxed up the enormous wheel of cheese and sent it to the White House as his gift. Although presumably meant in kindness, Jackson was left at a loss precisely what to do with the generous offering.
Giving large pieces of cheese to friends, the ginormous cheese remained indefatigable, becoming an “evil-smelling horror” whose stench stretched for several blocks. In an act of desperation, the outgoing Jackson held one last public reception in 1837, inviting ten thousand visitors to devour the aging cheese. Although eliminating the physical presence of the cheese for his successor, Senator John Davis wrote the following year Van Buren had a “hard task to get rid of the smell of cheese, and in the room where it was cut, he had to air the carpet for many days; to take away the curtains and to paint and white-wash before he could get the victory over it”.
10. President Ronald Reagan reputedly disliked wearing clothes and would frequently be naked whilst in the private residence
A renowned workaholic, persisting well into the early hours of the morning, during his tenure as the 40th President of the United States Ronald Reagan had a similarly strong penchant for not wearing clothes. A famous encounter retold since, Ivaniz Silva, a maid at the White House, once walked in on Reagan in his bedroom whilst he was sitting reading official papers in the nude. This incident, according to historian Kate Anderson Brower, was not unique, detailing an array of comparable instances. One such incredible account, provided by Skip Allen, an usher in the White House, offers insight into the unusual lives of staff in the presidential home circa 1981.
Tasked with delivering a top-secret document to the commander-in-chief in the private residence, Allen knocked on the door and was replied with permission to enter. However, upon entering, he found his head of state getting out of the shower completely naked and unashamedly unabashed. Quickly leaving, Allen returned that evening to deliver another document to find Reagan, once again, improperly dressed to receive. Admonished this time by his wife, Nancy, who allegedly decried “Oh, Ronnie, you could put on a robe”, Reagan quipped in response “Oh, it’s alright. He’s already seen me naked once today. We’re old friends”.
9. It has long been claimed the ghost of Abraham Lincoln haunts the White House
The most famous of alleged apparitions at the White House, since his assassination in 1865 Abraham Lincoln has been the subject of numerous supposed ghost sightings. Appearing most famously in a photograph of the widowed Mary Todd Lincoln, taken in 1869, the print has since been dismissed as a hoax and the result of double exposure. Encouraged, however, by supporting statements from Eleanor Roosevelt, as well as the press secretaries of Dwight Eisenhower and Lady Bird Johnson, rumors of the ghostly presence, if not actual sighting of the slain president continue to affect the halls of the White House.
Breathing life into decades of rumors concerning supernatural occurrences at the White House, commonly revolving around the Lincoln Bedroom and often involving footsteps or knocking, Grace Coolidge became the first to claim she had actually seen the ghost of Lincoln, alleging he had been staring out across the Potomac via a window in the Yellow Oval Room. Reinforced by an incident involving Queen Wilhelmina of the Netherlands, in 1942 the monarch opened her bedroom door in answer to a knock to find Lincoln standing in the doorway. Promptly fainting, Churchill similarly claimed to have encountered the specter, alleging he conversed with Lincoln whilst naked and smoking a cigar following having a Scotch in the bath.
8. Following the inauguration of Richard Nixon, the White House bowling alley became a staple of life in the official residence of the American head of state
First added to the conveniences of the White House in 1947, in the location of the present-day Situation Room, bowling lanes were fitted in the ground floor of the West Wing as a birthday gift for Harry Truman. A questionable present for the 33rd President of the United States, who did not personally care much for bowling, Truman nonetheless maintained the addition and encouraged staff to form a collegial league. Moved to the Old Executive Office Building in 1955 to make way for a mimeograph room, upon occupation of the White House by Richard and Patricia Nixon – both avid bowlers – better accommodations were sought to meet their standards.
Renovating the White House basement, which had been constructed under the East Wing during the Second World War to serve as an emergency bomb shelter, a section of the sub-basement beneath the North Portico and its adjacent driveway was set aside for Nixon’s passion. Financed privately by friends, the Nixons oversaw the construction of a brand new one-land alley in 1969. Becoming one of Nixon’s favorite locations to retreat for quiet, according to rumor one night Nixon invited pot washer Frankie Blair, who found the troubled president wandering the halls, to bowl with him to help take his mind off the political turbulence engulfing his administration.
7. Following the inauguration of Andrew Jackson tens of thousands stormed the White House in festive revelry
Inaugurated on March 4, 1829, the first time the ceremony was held on the East Portico of the United States Capitol, the installation of the immensely popular Andrew Jackson as President of the United States drew an audience on a scale never seen before. By 10 am, the area in front of the Capitol was filled by an estimated twenty-one thousand, with Jackson forced to enter via the basement to avoid the crushing crowds. As Jackson departed the capital to ride up Pennsylvania Avenue, the exuberant masses broke the barriers holding them back and surged forward to accompany him to the White House.
Unprotected like in modern times, crowds soon swarmed over the White House lawns and people were climbing in via windows to enter the presidential residence. Descending into drunken anarchy, with giant bowls of liquor and punch placed on the front lawn of the White House in a misguided effort to distract the guests and entice them outside, Jackson, who was still in mourning for the death of his wife, discretely escaped the premises through a window and rode for Alexandria, Virginia to attend a more exclusive and less raucous celebration. Causing thousands of dollars worth of damages, the White House was reduced to a mess of broken china and furniture by sunrise the following day.
6. Willie Nelson repeatedly smoked marijuana whilst staying at the White House including on the roof following a concert at the residence
A fan of the latter’s music, Jimmy Carter was a frequent attendee of concerts by country music artist Willie Nelson. Inviting the latter to stay at the White House on several occasions during his presidency, forming a lifelong friendship that would endure to the present day, in 1980 Carter asked Nelson to perform on the South Lawn of the White House. Taking place on September 13, the unusual concert immediately became criticized among conservative circles for First Lady Rosalynn Carter’s allegedly raunchy duet with Nelson, performing a well-received rendition of “Up Against the Wall Redneck Mother” before an enthusiastic audience.
Inviting the musician to stay the night at the White House following his concert, the event raised even more eyebrows after it became rumored Nelson had retired that evening to the roof of the presidential residence to smoke marijuana. Admitting in his biography to not be the first time, stating he smoked a “big fat Austin torpedo” whenever he had stayed at the White House, although Carter had called for the decriminalization of marijuana during the 1976 election the president claimed ignorance regarding his friend’s activities during the visits. Whether true or not, the Secret Service were unquestionable aware and always ensured a close watch was maintained on Nelson during his drug use on the premises.
5. General Tom Thumb became a close acquaintance of the noticeably much taller Abraham Lincoln following a visit to the White House
One of the most acclaimed Americans of his age, Phineas Taylor Barnum – commonly known by his initials – was the successful showman behind the Barnum & Bailey Circus. Drawing large audiences throughout the Civil War to his museum, the forerunner to his more famous show, one of Barnum’s most popular attractions included Charles Sherwood Stratton. Known by his stage name “General Tom Thumb”, Stratton, who was only ninety-nine centimeters tall, was perhaps the most famous dwarf of his age, meeting Queen Victoria on two separate occasions as well as many other leading figures of European royalty.
First introduced to Abraham Lincoln in 1862, the meeting could only be described as visually incredible by observers, with the towering six-foot-four-inch Lincoln looming over his diminutive guest. Becoming reputedly friendly following the visit, with Barnum, ever the self-promoter, later bringing his entire entourage of wonders to the White House for display, in 1863 Stratton’s marriage to Lavinia Warren became front-page news across America. Holding their reception at the Metropolitan Hotel in New York City, following one of the largest wedding parties in history, comprising more than ten thousand guests, Stratton and his new wife retired to the White House to be received by the accommodating Lincolns.
4. A tourist from Colorado wandered the halls of the White House during Ronald Reagan’s inauguration celebrations after being mistakenly allowed entry alongside the Marine Corps Band
An engineer from Colorado, in 1985 Robert Latta decided to take a vacation to Washington D.C to coincide with the second inauguration of Ronald Reagan on January 20. Standing among the crowds near the White House gates on Pennsylvania Avenue, in the spur of the moment, Latta was motivated to attempt a closer look at the ceremony and events unfolding before him. Noticing the thirty-three members of the Marine Corps Band entering the gates without rigorous security checks, Latta joined the group and followed them inside. Leading the Coloradan tourist into the White House, Latta was directed up a staircase and into a hall.
Still carrying his overnight bag, the excited Latta was left to freely wander the Executive Residence for a full fourteen minutes, before being eventually stopped by a member of security who inquired whether the ill-dressed and out of place man had been invited. Responding truthfully, allegedly stating “I thought if I wasn’t supposed to be there, somebody would stop me”, Latta was apprehended by the Secret Service and taken into custody by the FBI. Charged with one count of unlawful entry, the bemused Latta later said of the incident that although it was a “mistake” it had also been “the high point of being in Washington”.
3. Lyndon Johnson was allegedly gifted an intellectually disabled Chinese chef by a Central American dictator
A longstanding tradition of the office of president, the head of state for the American nation has long endured being the recipient of unusual gifts. From the aforementioned colossal block of cheese to diplomatic overtures from foreign governments, including Nixon’s acceptance of two pandas in 1972 from the Chinese government, perhaps none was more unusual than a gift received by Lyndon Johnson. Detailed by Robert Kessler in Inside the White House, according to the veteran journalist the thirty-sixth President of the United States was incredulously gifted a Chinese chef by the name of “Mr. Wong” by a “Central American dictator”.
Supposedly arriving at the White House with a suitcase and straw hat, unable to speak a word of English, Wong was subsequently employed in the kitchens, given a bedroom on the property, and taught to replicate many of the commander-in-chief’s favorite dishes. Described by other staff as “like a child”, White House aide Bill Gulley has publicly detailed how, on one occasion, a trip to the president’s ranch was delayed after Wong started playing hide-and-seek in the East Room. Rarely discussed and remaining officially unverified, the story has become one of the most bizarre anecdotes in the White House’s history, with many theorizing the only plausible explanation was that Wong was actually a spy for the Chinese government.
2. In 1975 Susan Ford held her senior prom in the East Room of the nation’s presidential residence
The youngest child and only daughter of President Gerald Ford, Susan Ford understood as well as anyone the sacrifices imposed upon the First Family. Awarded Secret Service protection prior to her father becoming president after being targeted by the Symbionese Liberation Army in the early 1970s, she was enrolled at the Holton-Arms School in Bethesda, Maryland, to complete her high school education. At the suggestion of her classmates, the First Daughter petitioned White House Chief Usher Rex Scouten to allow the senior prom to take place at the White House, a proposition he accepted provided security conditions were met and the costs carried entirely by the students.
Held on May 31, 1975, seventy-four seniors from the school descended upon the East Room of the White House. Attempting to book The Beach Boys, the unfortunate prom committee was forced to defer to two lesser-known bands, whilst the First Couple was unable to attend due to prior commitments out of town on the evening. Despite these setbacks, the event was regarded as a tremendous success, except by Ford herself who remarked it had been “just like any other prom”, concluding at approximately 1 am with after-parties continuing in the Executive Residence. Never replicated, the event remains to date the only high school dance in the building’s illustrious history.
1. The British occupied the nation’s capital city and burned the White House in retaliation for the Raid on Port Dover
After defeating the Americans at the Battle of Bladensburg in the War of 1812, a British force led by Major General Robert Ross marched on Washington D.C. on August 24, 1814. Inspired by the American destruction of Port Dover between May 14-16 earlier that year, the retaliatory attack saw the first and only time since the American Revolutionary War that a foreign power captured and occupied the capital of the United States. Forcing the government to flee, establishing the “Capital for a Day” at Brookeville, Maryland, after setting the Capitol ablaze, the British turned northwest up Pennsylvania towards the White House (then known as the Presidential Mansion).
Urged by her husband to be prepared to evacuate, First Lady Dolley Madison had organized the household staff to save the most important treasures from the residence, including most famously the Lansdowne portrait of George Washington valued today at over twenty million dollars. Burning the White House, the following day a heavy thunderstorm accompanied by a tornado passed through the city putting out the raging infernos. Nevertheless, only the exterior walls of the original property remained, requiring demolition during subsequent reconstruction, beginning in 1815, due to critical damage sustained during the event.
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