Rumors abound that the 27th president of the United States, William Howard Taft, got stuck in a bathtub at the White House due to his portly size. Specifically, most stories say he was only removed once six people helped pry his flabby, naked body out, and some looser interpretations even suggest he died from the ordeal.
Welcome to Ripley’s History Off the Record, the show that explores the parts of history your textbooks never talked about. Today, we’re investigating a president who often gets little coverage, filling in the gap between founding father presidents and FDR. Sure, there’s another Roosevelt in there that gets attention, but by and large presidents Hayes through Hoover aren’t that well known. Even I could tell you precious little interesting things about President Chester Alan Arthur, but—in my very humble opinion—Taft at least deserves a little more than a body-shaming anecdote.
While it is true that Taft was America’s heaviest president, the story of him getting stuck in the tub itself has less evidence. I’m here to tell you why this story is not only untrue but how the whole story might just be a smear campaign orchestrated by conspiring toilet manufacturers.
A wrestler and dancer in his younger years, Taft stood six feet tall and weighed in at 340 pounds by the end of his presidency. Despite his size, Taft was always commended for his gentle spirit. He was said by many to be the politest man in Washington, and himself admitted that he was much too quiet for the politics of his office. In the same way that George Washington struggled to manage his teeth, Taft struggled to manage his weight for most of his life, participating in a litany of fad diets and weight loss programs throughout his life.
To look into this rumor, I scoured and cross-referenced every single surviving historical mention of tubs, showers, toilets, baths, and even pools with President Taft, and there are only three events that even come close to the story recounted by hip history buffs, Snapple caps, and children’s books.
The Tub Tales
The first, and most well-documented case is that of Taft ordering a special extra-large tub installed aboard the ship he used while overseeing the construction of the Panama Canal. Pictures of this custom tub can be found with four full-grown adults sitting comfortably inside. The tub was later installed at his request in the White House when he took office.
4 workers fit comfortably in President Taft’s new tub. It was 7 feet long, 41 inches wide & weighed a ton. pic.twitter.com/ctXR2R1GJ8
— Presidential Trivia (@triviapotus) July 19, 2015
An engineering interviewer at the time specifically asked Taft about how he fit in tubs—which the statesman admitted enjoying the casual soak-in—when he traveled, and he simply responded that if no reasonable tub was available, he simply showered. Now, this already pokes a major hole in the stuck story. We know, before he ever stepped foot in the White House, an enormous tub, specifically built for him was installed.
The second mention of Taft and baths was much simpler and involved him spilling water out of a bath in his second-story hotel room which subsequently leaked to the floor below. Embarrassing maybe, but no record of needing six men to unstick him.
The next primary account is where our libelous story starts, however. White House butler, Irwin Hoover, simply wrote that Taft would sometimes “stick” in the tub, and would have “help” getting out. No details about six people or being embarrassingly stuck are made, however.
Lillian Parks, a daughter of a White House maid, gave a second-hand account in a memoir and this account is much less favorable and closer to the widely spread rumors of bath time peril for Taft. This account is full of even more holes though. For one, the elder Parks—the one who worked as a maid in the White House—didn’t begin her career until ten years after Taft left office.
A Bold-Faced Bathroom Lie?
While there are no other events we found in papers or periodicals that mention Taft and tubs in a literal sense, something more sinister did arise in our research. The fact that Taft fought the porcelain trust. This cartel of price-fixers conspired to create a monopoly on toilets and bathroom fixtures using patent licenses to control commode costs.
In 1912, the Taft administration successfully blocked this abuse of patent law and broke up the trust. 1912 was also the year Taft fought a bitter election against both Woodrow Wilson, and former friends and President Theodore Roosevelt at the head of the Bull-Moose Party. Campaigns took shots at Taft’s weight, and it’s very likely the bathtub fallacy took hold in the American consciousness at this time. Whether it was partisan gossip, an exaggerated maid’s tale, or the conspiracy of the bath trust seems impossible to know now.
Beyond Taft’s Tub Legacy
Sadly, his weight and the bathtub story are the two biggest footnotes to Taft’s legacy in textbooks and lectures. And since he was treated so unfairly, let me list now some of the cooler things about Taft:
In his political career, he brought forward 80 antitrust lawsuits, reorganized the State Department, presided over the establishment of the income tax, and became the only president to also serve as the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court! Culturally, his campaign made its own attempt at the success of the Teddy Bear, called the Billy Opossum, and brought his very own cow to the White House named Pauline Wayne, who walked the White House lawn and provided the first family and tourists with presidential milk.
Though history remembers him as its chubby president—milk non-withstanding, Taft himself claimed his time as a Supreme Court justice was his most fulfilling.
That’s it for today, let us know in the comments if you’ve ever heard the bathtub myth and stay tuned for the next History Off the Record.
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