Beware the Alligator in the East Wing: A Trip Through Offbeat History with Howard Dorre

Is American history just a bunch of white guys sitting in fusty rooms making far-reaching decisions? Partly, yes. But as Howard Dorre shows us at Plodding Through the Presidents, where he chronicles his educational journey through biographies of every U.S. president, it’s also the story of people with foibles, quirks, and secret pet alligators. (Okay, alleged secret pet alligators.)

Howard walks us through the past with joy, wit, and action figures — here are a few choice tidbits to whet your appetite for history.

That time with the alligator in the bathtub…

In The Household of John Quincy Adams, Harriet Taylor Upton wrote, “When General Lafayette made his visit there, this famous East Room was given to him to deposit the many curiosities sent him, some live alligators being among them.”

That is the extent of Upton’s alligator story – just a nonchalant mention of multiple alligators chilling in the East Room like it was perfectly normal. This version increases the number of gators but significantly lessens the drama. Here these little critters are just deposited among other things; they’re certainly not scaring the hell out of a mischievous president’s unwitting guests.

From “John Quincy Adams’s Pet Alligator Was A Crock”

That time Jefferson got the letter about psychedelic UFOs…

Find more fascinating reading in the History collection of editors’ picks.

In their own words:

“We saw in the south a ball of fire full as large as the sun at meridian which was frequently obscured within the space of ten minutes by a smoke emitted from its own body, but ultimately retained its brilliancy and form during that period with apparent agitation.”

So far this sounds like it could be a meteor, or maybe ball lightning – quite strange and mysterious, but not necessarily something you write Thomas Jefferson about.

Then it starts to get weird:

“It then assumed the form of a turtle which also appeared to be much agitated and as frequently obscured by a similar smoke.”

Again, strange. But if you think about turtles, their shape isn’t that different from a ball. Add a few legs, a head, maybe a tail, and I’m still thinking this whole thing could be electrical plasma doing strange things in the atmosphere.

That’s when things jump to a whole new level:

“It then assumed the shape of a human skeleton which was frequently obscured by a like smoke and as frequently descended and ascended.”

Well, that escalated quickly.

From “Thomas Jefferson and the Shapeshifting UFO”

That time someone described Dolley Madison as “yeasty” and meant it as a compliment…

Merriam-Webster notes that “a number of extended, figurative senses of ‘yeasty’ have surfaced, all of which play in some way or another on the excitable, chemical nature of fermentation, such as by connoting unsettled activity or significant change.”

So the word “yeasty” itself is kind of yeasty. Great.

This excitable change definition seems fitting for Dolley Madison, whose life was marked by change. She lost her first husband and a child to yellow fever, and her Quaker community expelled her from the religion when she married the outsider James Madison.

Unlike Dolley, James Madison could not be considered yeasty. As food comparisons go, he was described as a “withered little apple-john” by Washington Irving in 1811 and as a “Slim Jim” by me just now.

From “Dolley Madison: Clever, Gay, and Yeasty”

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That time James Monroe was really, really into hats…

Some people disagree on whether James Monroe deserves the title “The Last Founding Father” (He was 18 when the Declaration of Independence was signed and he had no role in drafting the Constitution – in fact he voted against it) but one thing is for sure: he dressed like a Founding Father.

He earned the nickname “The Last of the Cocked Hats” for his habit of wearing cocked (tri-cornered) hats and knee-breeches long after they were fashionable. His clothes saved him the trouble of having to say, “Remember the Revolutionary War? Yeah, I fought in that.”

From “10 Things James Monroe Loved”


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October 11, 2018History, Humor,