These Are The Most Bizarre Stories From Behind The Closed Doors Of The White House

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Since its completion over 200 years ago, the White House has stood firm at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue in Washington, D.C. In that time, though, the historic building has not only seen dozens of presidents come and go, but it has also been expanded multiple times – and even partially burned down at one point. And over the decades, America’s most famous mansion has apparently been the setting for multitudes of fascinating and shocking stories – tales involving everything from ghostly apparitions to some decidedly brazen presidential nudity.

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20. Andrew Jackson hosted a wild inauguration party

Numerous commentators have made comparisons between the seventh and 45th presidents of the United States. In fact, in a speech made shortly after he had won the 2016 election, even Donald Trump himself called back to Andrew Jackson’s eight-year tenure in the White House. At that time, reports emerged that the president-elect was intending to base his inaugural reception on that of Jackson’s. Yet, in the end, Trump’s soiree wasn’t quite as much of a complete debacle as his predecessor’s.

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On the night of Jackson’s first inauguration in March 1829, the president hosted an open reception at the White House. However, thousands of people ultimately turned up – including some frontiersmen – and mayhem is said to have subsequently ensued. The hordes were reported to have shattered the punch bowl, threw liquor buckets everywhere and treated the furniture with sheer disdain. And before long, the drunken mob forced the president to flee from the scene.

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19. A resentful army private landed a helicopter on the lawn – twice

While the White House isn’t completely immune to security breaches, the events of February 17, 1974, definitely stand out. On that day, you see, 20-year-old disaffected army private Robert Preston hijacked a military helicopter from Maryland and flew it to Washington, D.C. And while Preston had flunked helicopter school, he nevertheless used his private pilot’s license to take the chopper to the presidential residency.

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Then, while at the White House, Preston lowered the aircraft down to the lawn before a pair of Maryland State police copters chased him away. After having lost one of his pursuers with his unpredictable maneuvers, however, the pilot subsequently returned to 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue and attempted to land again. This time around, the Secret Service opened fire, wounding Preston. The private was ultimately arrested and then handed a 12-month prison term.

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18. Mary Todd Lincoln held séances in the White House

In the mid-19th century, Abraham and Mary Todd Lincoln tragically lost their 11-year-old son to what’s thought to have been typhus. At around the same time, though, spiritualism was taking hold in the U.S., leading Mary to turn to mediums in her grief. And the distraught mother apparently found what she was looking for, according to her husband’s biographer Carl Sandburg.

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Indeed, Sandburg wrote that Mary believed her dearly departed son appeared to her every night, standing in her bedroom with “the same sweet, adorable smile he always had.” And the First Lady’s obsession with spiritualism even reportedly led to the Lincolns hosting seance in the White House in April 1863 – an event that a journalist claimed to have witnessed.

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17. Willie Nelson smoked marijuana on the roof

For years, Willie Nelson was somehow simultaneously forthcoming and cautious about his fabled trip to Washington, D.C. Simply put, though, it appears that the country music superstar really did smoke marijuana on top of the White House. Nelson wrote in his 1988 autobiography, for example, that on one occasion he had been on the roof of the mansion “with a beer in one hand and a fat Austin Torpedo in the other.” Yet the precise circumstances of the story remained a mystery for decades.

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In fact, it wasn’t until 2015 that Nelson revealed how he had really found himself in that outrageous situation. In an interview with GQ magazine’s Chris Heath, the legendary musician recounted how a friend – a “White House insider” – had offered a private tour that had culminated on the building’s roof. And according to Heath, the buddy in question had been president Jimmy Carter’s son James Earl “Chip” Carter III.

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16. Lincoln’s ghost is thought to haunt the White House

Abraham Lincoln isn’t the only former American president whose ghost has allegedly been sighted in the White House, although he apparently makes the most frequent appearances. And the legend arguably began with a photograph that was taken in the 1870s of Mary Todd Lincoln – a snap that appeared to show her deceased husband’s apparition standing behind her. But although that ghoulish image was ultimately explained to have emerged as the result of an inadvertent double exposure, stories of the former president’s ghost have nevertheless persisted.

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For instance, Mary Eben – who was once secretary to Eleanor Roosevelt – allegedly saw the ghost of Lincoln putting his boots on in what is now the Lincoln Bedroom. Many White House occupants have also claimed to have felt that Lincoln was there, even if they didn’t actually witness any apparitions. Among that crowd are Eleanor Roosevelt herself as well as press secretaries Liz Carpenter and James Hegarty.

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15. The tallest president met the shortest general

Charles Stratton – better known by his stage name General Tom Thumb – found fame touring with circus master P.T. Barnum from childhood. And the diminutive chap – who stood at just 2’11” tall – had countless fans, with Queen Victoria among them. Then, when Barnum hired equally small woman Lavinia Warren to join his troupe, Stratton fell in love.

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Given Stratton’s popularity, though, it’s perhaps no wonder that his wedding captured global attention. And during the 36-month “honeymoon tour” that followed, he and Warren stopped off at the White House for a reception. There, the newlyweds met with Lincoln, who is said to have treated the entire affair with decorum. The president’s son Robert, by contrast, boycotted the event, as he reportedly found it trivial.

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14. Elvis tried to score a narc badge from Richard Nixon

Even in 2015, the historic photograph of Elvis Presley meeting Richard Nixon at the White House in 1970 was the U.S. National Archives’ most-requested image. But the tale behind how the meeting came to be makes the photo itself even more interesting. You see, the story goes that Presley was after a real Bureau of Narcotics and Dangerous Drugs badge.

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And while Presley collected police insignias, there was apparently another reason why he wanted the prize from Nixon. “The narc badge represented some kind of ultimate power to him,” his then-wife Priscilla Presley later wrote in her autobiography Elvis and Me. “With the federal narcotics badge, he [believed he] could legally enter any country both wearing guns and carrying any drugs he wished.” Unbeknown to Elvis, though, the badge that he received was entirely honorary.

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13. Nancy Reagan sat on Mr. T’s lap

A year into Nancy Reagan’s “Just Say No” anti-drug campaign, the First Lady invited Mr. T to the White House. Famously during the ’80s, the television star appeared in public service announcements warning kids to stay away from drugs, meaning the unlikely duo had a shared crusade. And as it happens, the photo from the resulting visit would certainly draw attention.

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For one, Mr. T dropped into the presidential residence on December 12, 1983, in full Santa Claus garb. And while attending reporters declined to sit on his lap, Reagan stepped forward – perhaps in an effort to abandon the uptight reputation that had plagued her for years. In 2018 The Washington Post described the resultant snap as “perhaps the most wild First Lady photo ever taken.”

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12. British troops set the White House on fire

The War of 1812 saw many casualties – including the White House itself. Two years into the conflict, British troops stormed into Washington, D.C. seeking revenge for a U.S. offensive on Ontario, Canada. When the men reached what at the time was called the Presidential Mansion, however, they found that then-President James Madison and his wife, Dolley, were nowhere to be seen.

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The president had departed two days earlier for the battlefield, leaving the First Lady behind. Then, when Dolley spotted the advancing army, she, too, abandoned the mansion. Soon after, the British reached the White House, invaded the scullery and consumed leftover food before setting the place alight. A full reconstruction of the mansion wouldn’t be finished until 1817 – by which time James Monroe had been elected.

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11. A maid walked in on Ronald Reagan naked

Ivaniz Silva worked as a maid at the White House for 23 years, and apparently her tenure mostly passed as expected. But she has at least one outrageous story to tell. You see, on one occasion, Silva was attending to president Ronald Reagan’s bedroom. Then, when the housekeeper crossed to the adjoining sitting room, she found the commander-in-chief completely nude and surrounded by papers. Naturally, Silva then made a hasty exit. And this wasn’t the only time that Reagan was caught without clothing by an employee.

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Yes, it seems that the 40th president of the United States wasn’t ashamed of being in the buff around staff. In 2015 White House usher Skip Allen recounted to ABC News how he’d once had to deliver a confidential document to Reagan in his private residence. And upon his arrival, he found an unfazed president stepping out of the shower while completely nude.

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10. A pot washer bowled into the night with Richard Nixon

Most of the White House staff apparently found the Nixon family a little more formal than they had been used to. However, pre-Watergate, their relationship with the 37th president was nevertheless said to be amicable. And occasionally Nixon did let his guard down. There was the night when the leader went bowling with a pot washer, for example.

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It’s no secret that Nixon was a fan of bowling; he even had a lane set up in the White House. And on one evening following dinner, the president visited the kitchen and struck up conversation with pot washer Frankie Blair. Then, after chat turned to bowling, the pair ended up playing together until 2:00 a.m.

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9. Andrew Jackson had an enormous block of cheese

President Barack Obama’s White House hosted the “Big Block of Cheese Day” – in which citizens could ask politicians questions on social media – three years in a row. The event was inspired by Andrew Jackson, who according to an episode of The West Wing had once held an open reception for the public. And the seventh president had apparently tempted folks in with an enormous wheel of the good stuff.

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Yes, Jackson really did have a 1,400-pound wheel of cheese that had been gifted to him by a dairy farmer in 1835. But as it turns out, the open forum wasn’t really held to court public opinion; instead, the desperate president simply wanted to get rid of his huge gift. You see, the edible present – which came in at two feet thick and four feet wide – had lingered in the White House for two years, after which time the smell was apparently unbearable. Fortunately, though, the public made light work of the cheese.

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8. Barack Obama held a “beer summit”

Alcohol flowing at the White House is hardly anything new. However, using booze to reach a diplomatic resolution may well have been a first for the presidential residence. And that’s exactly what Barack Obama did shortly into his first term after the wrongful arrest of Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates Jr. outside his home.

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When Gates returned to his Massachusetts home on one day in July 2009, he had found the door jammed shut. As he had attempted to prize it open, however, police officer James Crowley arrived on the scene and promptly apprehended the academic. And the incident subsequently gained international attention, with critics claiming that Crowley was guilty of racial profiling. Eventually, though, Obama invited both men to the White House to talk it out in what became known as the “beer summit.”

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7. Teddy Roosevelt’s children took their pony in an elevator

There have of course been plenty of heartwarming White House pet stories over the decades, but perhaps the most charming involves Teddy Roosevelt’s family. After then-Secretary of the Interior Ethan Allen Hitchcock gifted a Shetland pony named Algonquin to the president’s second-youngest child, Archie, horse and boy soon became thick as thieves.

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So, when Archie was left bed-bound in 1903 after having contracted measles, he asked his mother if he could visit Algonquin. After First Lady Edith explained that her son wasn’t ready to visit the stables, though, his siblings concocted a plan along with a footman. Together, they walked Algonquin into the White House and brought the pony up to an elated Archie using the elevator.

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6. Andrew Johnson cared for the White House’s mice

Andrew Johnson assumed the presidency in 1865 following Abraham Lincoln’s assassination. He didn’t share many ideals with his predecessor, however. Putting him out of step with the vast majority of men to occupy the White House, Johnson had no pets, for instance. Well, at least that was the case until he discovered a family of mice living in his bedroom.

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Rather than set traps for the animals, Johnson instead decided to take care of them. He left out baskets of grain and flour from his mills, for one, and ultimately gained the mice’s trust and companionship as a result. The rodents may even have offered some solace to the president during his period of impeachment, which began after his clashes with Congress over post-Civil War policy.

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5. John Quincy Adams kept an alligator in the East Room bathtub

Ponies and mice probably aren’t the kinds of animals that most people keep at home. However, they still pale in comparison to the oddity of John Quincy Adams’ pet alligator. French military officer Marquis de Lafayette had received the fearsome reptile as a gift during his American tour in the 1820s, and he subsequently decided that it would be a good idea to take the creature along to the White House.

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But while it’s impossible to know how Adams reacted to the strange present, he can’t have been that perturbed by it. After all, he allowed the ’gator to live for months in the bathtub of the then-incomplete East Room. On occasion, Adams would even use the animal to scare guests of the White House before it eventually found another home elsewhere.

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4. Teddy Roosevelt used judo on the Swiss minister

After having gone through bouts of childhood illness, Teddy Roosevelt placed great importance on his physical health. As a teenager, then, he exercised in a gym that had been built for him by his father. In later life, moreover, Roosevelt was a keen practitioner of judo – even becoming the first ever brown belt in the nation. And that drive to achieve peak physical fitness didn’t wither once he entered the White House.

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Yes, Roosevelt frequently tussled in the East Room with Chinese wrestlers and Japanese martial artists. He also placed judo mats in the White House’s basement in order to train with anyone and everyone – including his wife. And once Roosevelt breathed life into a dull lunch by flooring a Swiss minister with a judo move. Fortunately, though, his guests were thrilled.

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3. An armed intruder stormed the White House in a karate uniform

Before 1978, you could count the number of White House intruders on one hand – with only one managing to get beyond the grounds. And on October 4 that year, Ohio resident Anthony Henry apparently decided that he’d also give it a go. Dressed in a karate uniform and accordingly barefoot, Henry thus climbed the Pennsylvania Avenue-facing fence.

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Henry then hopped down onto the lawn and raced towards the North Portico while threatening police with a knife. For around 15 minutes, he subsequently assumed a variety of karate stances while loudly denouncing the government. And as the cops intercepted and arrested Henry, Jimmy Carter lunched nearby in the residence – blissfully ignorant of the entire situation.

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2. Boris Yeltsin’s escape act almost caused an international furor

Not every White House security breach over the decades has involved people getting in, however, as one such incident involved a prominent politician actually slipping out. In 1995 Russian leader Boris Yeltsin almost caused embarrassment on the international stage during a visit to Washington, D.C. According to then-president Bill Clinton, Yeltsin was indulging in a late-night tipple while staying in the residence’s guest quarters.

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And, somehow, Yeltsin managed to give the Secret Service the slip completely. Ultimately, agents found the premier standing in just his underwear on Pennsylvania Avenue while attempting to flag down a cab. Through slurred speech, Yeltsin told them that he had simply wanted to get pizza. What’s more, a trip to the basement the following night ended in yet another rescue after a guard mistook the Russian for an inebriated trespasser.

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1. Andrew Jackson taught his pet parrot to swear

Several U.S. presidents have kept birds, but only one of these pets is known to have launched into a verbal tirade at its owner’s funeral. Andrew Jackson had purchased an African gray parrot for his wife but had assumed responsibility for the creature after her death. And legend has it that at Jackson’s own funeral, the bird swore so loudly and continuously that it was removed from the building.

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According to historian Samuel G. Hiskell, the presiding reverend at Jackson’s funeral remarked that the parrot was “excited by the multitude and… let loose perfect gusts of ‘cuss words.’” The attendees, meanwhile, were “horrified and awed at the bird’s lack of reverence.” Sadly, there’s no account of precisely what the bird said. But given the former president’s formidable life, it’s not hard to imagine the bird having learned a few naughty words.

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