Every four years, the city gets revved up to throw the crowning gala of the most powerful democracy to ever grace the planet, and every four years it’s the same: boring.  It always seems like we’re on the brink of witnessing something momentous, and then January 20 comes and it’s just a bunch of parents blithely standing on the left side of the metro escalators while wearing commemorative sequined hats.

But even if something interesting does happen (and let’s be honest, this incoming administration could definitely produce some, ahem, controversy), it will almost surely not compare to some of the past inaugurations, some of which featured death, presidential dysentery, and mass bird murder.  Read on.


Jackson was a “man of the people” who had huge populist appeal when he was elected back in 1828.  (Sound familiar?)  The other party was suspicious of Jackson and his supporters, fearing that his election would usher in an era of vulgar mob rule.  (SOUND FAMILIAR?!)  Turned out they were kind of right.  The District was swamped by huge crowds of Jackson supporters the day of the inauguration, and after his speech they stormed the White House.  Back in those days, the tradition was that the White House was an “open house” on the day of inauguration, so literally anyone could waltz in and have a free drink and congratulate the new president.  So many people crammed into the White House, and became so drunk on the free whiskey punch, that Jackson had to escape out a window.  The mob only left when a quick-thinking steward took all the free liquor and dumped it in the front yard, at which point all the drunk people staggered outside and began to fight over the bottles.  The White House was completely trashed, with holes in the walls, furniture shattered, and food ground into the carpet.


In 1857, a week before his inauguration, James Buchanan went to a banquet at the National Hotel on Pennsylvania Avenue, and afterwards came down with a severe case of dysentery.  Many other guests also fell ill, and some of them died; the press coined the term “National Hotel Sickness.”  The problem was that the National Hotel was owned by Buchanan’s good friend and political contributor, and the bad press was killing the hotel’s business.  So, betting that (brown) lightning wouldn’t strike twice, and eager to show the city that everything was fine at the National Hotel, Buchanan went back to the hotel for another banquet, the night before his inauguration … and got sick again.  He gave his inaugural address with a doctor at his side, presumably while shifting nervously from foot to foot and frantically clenching his buttocks together.

When authorities investigated the mysterious outbreak of illness, they found a dead, rotting rat in the hotel’s water tank.  Also, there was an open sewer a few feet away from the kitchen.  Man, I’m glad I don’t live in the year 1857.

335c04c84246ccd1431c0a710d0aa9b7WHY DO PRESIDENTS HATE BIRDS?

Nixon hated pigeons for some reason, so ahead of his 1973 inauguration parade, he ordered the city to spray “bird repellent” along the parade route.  Some overzealous public servant interpreted “repellent” to mean “poison,” and proceeded to soak down the parade route with an extremely toxic substance.  When people showed up for the parade, there were dead pigeons everywhere.  Nixon, you idiot.

A hundred years before Pigeongate, in 1873, Ulysses S. Grant (the only president to get elected based solely on having patriotic initials) thought his inauguration would be livened up by having a bunch of caged canaries hanging all over the place.  But someone should have grabbed him by the shoulders, shaken him, and screamed, “it’s the middle of winter, you idiot!!”  The temperature that day hovered in the single digits, and all the canaries froze to death.  Grant’s inauguration got even worse when it turned out that the coat check staff were illiterate, so they couldn’t read the attendees’ claim slips, and several brawls broke out among angry people who waited in line for ages only to get someone else’s coat.


William Henry Harrison, elected in 1840, was derided in the press for his supposed low intelligence, so he responded by giving what’s still the longest inaugural speech in history, a two hour long address for the ages.  But after yammering out in the cold rain for two hours, he caught a cold, and a month later he was dead.  I hope the speech was good at least.

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