Topping the scales at over 350 pounds, William Howard Taft was a true political heavyweight. Although “Big Bill” was the only man to serve as both U.S. president and Supreme Court chief justice, what most remember about Taft is that he supposedly became stuck in the White House bathtub.
The story, however, apparently doesn’t hold water. No documentary evidence backs it up, and according to Brady Carlson, author of the book Dead Presidents: An American Adventure into the Strange Deaths and Surprising Afterlives of Our Nation’s Leaders, the story didn’t arise until two decades after Taft left the presidency. Carlson says the sudsy tale first surfaced along with other presidential dirt in longtime White House usher Ike Hoover’s 1934 memoir, 42 Years in the White House.
“The funny part is that while Taft was president, the White House got a tub that was so big a president couldn’t possibly get stuck in it,” Carlson says. Indeed, just weeks after Taft’s 1908 election, the captain of a warship carrying the president-elect to inspect the Panama Canal requested a super-sized bathtub capable of holding the heftiest man ever to occupy the Oval Office. Since no “Taft-size” basin could be found, a Manhattan company specially crafted the largest solid porcelain tub ever made for an individual. It was more than seven feet long, 41 inches wide and weighed a ton—literally. A photograph in the February 1909 issue of the journal Engineering Review showed the pond-like presidential bathtub with four men sitting comfortably in-side.
Newspapers reported that similarly spacious tubs were installed in the White House, on Taft’s presidential yacht and inside his brother’s summer home in Texas. After leaving the White House in 1913, Taft moved into a suite in a New Haven, Connecticut, hotel with an immense bathtub that the Philadelphia Inquirer reported was “deep enough to allow an ordinary sized man to float when it is filled.”
Two years later, the ex-president’s bathing habits again made news when at a Cape May, New Jersey, hotel he “failed properly to consider the size of the average seashore hotel bathtub.” The water displaced by his tremendous girth flooded the floor and trickled onto the heads of guests in the downstairs dining room. As a wistful Taft gazed out at the Atlantic Ocean the next morning, he said, “I’ll get a piece of that fenced in some day, and then when I venture in, there won’t be any overflow.”