Featured in Ripley's Believe It or Not!
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 naked body out.
While it is true that Taft was America’s heaviest president, the story itself has less evidence. Could the bathtub story be true? Or, is it a lingering bit of a political smear campaign?
By all measurements, Taft was indeed the heaviest president. A wrestler and dancer in his younger years, he 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.
Though his size could cause problems in the bath, the accompanying evidence for every mention of this debacle is a picture of a custom-ordered, extra-large tub containing four people, installed at his request in the White House.
Though this picture is indeed of Taft’s tub, the porcelain behemoth was one of a few custom additions made to the White House for the 27th president. In fact, the tub was originally installed aboard the ship he took to oversee construction of the Panama Canal. An engineering periodical covered the tub, stating that though Taft enjoyed bathing, but he simply used a shower if his size was otherwise unaccommodated.
Since the tub was ordered before his stay in the White House, it’s unlikely that Taft found himself stuck in a smaller one. One for the purported first-hand accounts of the event is by long-time White House butler, Irwin Hoover, who 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 her memoir, but her mother didn’t even begin working in Washington until ten years after Taft had left office.
No one seems to have reported the event when it happened either. Perusing newspapers from the entirety of Taft’s life, only three events revolve around bathtubs. One was the production of a giant tub—as mentioned above. The second incident involved him spilling water out of a tub in his second-story hotel room which subsequently leaked to the floor below.
The final incident may provide the answers as to why this tub story has stuck around so long. Taft didn’t just have a contentious relationship with the size of his bath, but fought a porcelain-fixing ring while president. These toilet and tub manufacturers had colluded to drive up prices and were known as the Bathtub Trust—a trust “broken” by President Taft.
Sadly, his weight and the bathtub story are the two biggest footnotes to Taft’s legacy as an American statesman. In his political career, however, 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! Though history remembers him as its chubby president, Taft himself claimed his time as a Supreme Court justice was his most fulfilling.
Hotel Taft was named in honor of the president, and was even visited by Robert Ripley!