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As far as anyone knows, the young George Washington didn’t really chop down his father’s prized cherry tree or admit it later, saying, “Father, I cannot tell a lie.” The anecdote was first told in the sixth edition of Parson Weems’ “The Life of Washington,” published several years after the first U.S. president’s death. It was meant to illustrate the “Great Virtues” that made Washington such an admirable leader.
Today being Presidents Day, it’s an apt occasion to revisit such presidential apocrypha. Is it true, for example, that Washington had wooden teeth? A set of Washington’s dentures exhibited at Mount Vernon reveals components such as lead, human teeth, cow teeth, ivory, brass, and steel, with no wood to be found.
Is it true that JFK unwittingly proclaimed himself, in German, to be a jelly doughnut during his famous 1963 “Ich bin Berliner” address in Berlin? Linguists say it’s a myth.
Who started the tradition of the president pardoning a live turkey before Thanksgiving? Was it Abraham Lincoln? Harry Truman? When we looked into it, we found that the tradition is of much more recent origin than most Americans realize.
And what of the claim that alligators were once kept as White House pets? According to popular lore, an assortment of United States presidents from John Quincy Adams to Herbert Hoover shared space in the West Wing with giant reptiles. The evidence, however, is elusive.