That Hilarious Story About Taft Getting Stuck in His Bathtub? It’s Not True

Library of Congress
Library of Congress

Ask your average American what they know about their nation’s 27th president and 10th Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, and they’ll probably say something like, “well, he was so fat that he got stuck in the bathtub.” The Schadenfreude-laced tale, in which six men had to be called to dislodge William Howard Taft from his bath time predicament, is legendary. Yet the problem with the anecdote isn’t just that we’ve been body-shaming Taft for an entire century—it’s that it's a big fat lie. Despite the story’s ubiquity in the popular imagination, it probably never happened.

Historian Alexis Coe, co-host of the podcast Presidents Are People Too!, did some digging into the myth, and found that there is no proof that the event ever happened, as she explained in The New York Times in September 2017. Coe traces the story back to Irwin Hoover, a 42-year veteran of the White House staff. In his memoir, published in 1934, Hoover wrote that big-boned Taft would “stick” in the bathtub and have to be helped out, but never mentioned who did the helping or how they pulled him out. Another former White House domestic staffer, Lillian Rogers Parks, describes Taft getting stuck in the bathtub, but the account was secondhand—she heard it through her mother, who worked for Taft, but she herself didn’t start working for the presidential residence until Herbert Hoover took office.

The story's salience is perhaps not surprising, since Taft’s size was a pop culture touchstone even in his time. At his heaviest, he weighed around 340 pounds, and newspapers would regularly print jokes about his weight. But there is no substantial, historical proof of the great bathtub-sticking incident during Taft’s White House tenure. It seems to have been just a piece of gossip with incredible endurance.

None of this is to say that Taft didn’t love a good bath—he certainly did, and he went to great lengths to take them. In 1909, the 2000-pound, 7-foot-long custom bathtub he brought with him on a trip to Panama on the USS North Carolina was the subject of an entire article in a journal called the Engineering Review, one that ran under a photo of the bathtub with four men resting inside.

The tub’s manufacturers told the journal that it was the largest tub they had ever made. As most people would do with a bathtub custom-made for them, Taft took the bathtub along when he moved into the White House later that year. And according to the National Constitution Center’s Constitution Daily, it wasn’t the only extra-large bath he carted around. He also had a super-sized tub installed on his presidential yacht in 1910.

But by all historical accounts, it appears that the 7-foot-long custom tub was, in fact, large enough to accommodate Taft’s sizable girth. The famous photo of the four men in Taft’s bathtub is often mislabeled as showing the men who installed the new tub after Taft got stuck in the White House bath, but his trip on the USS North Carolina, where the photo was taken, predated his presidency entirely.

Taft did, however, have a verified bathtub incident that had nothing to do with getting stuck: In 1915, while attending a bankers’ conference after he left office, he went to take a bath in the New Jersey hotel where he was staying. He didn’t quite get the water level right, though, and when he stepped in, so much water surged out that it flooded the floor and water began trickling down through the floor into the hotel’s dining room, where the bankers who were waiting for Taft to finish his bath and come back downstairs were sitting.

The unfortunate flood made it into The New York Times, among other papers, but the former president took it in stride. The Times reported that at one point as his trip came to a close, he looked out at the ocean and said, “I’ll get a piece of that fenced in some day, and then when I venture in there won’t be any overflow.”

The Time Baby Ruth Sued Babe Ruth

Allsport/Hulton Archive/Getty Images
Allsport/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

In 1920, the Curtiss Candy Company introduced the Baby Ruth candy bar, causing a certain baseball player with a very similar name to take notice. Babe Ruth was having a monstrous year—his 54 home runs in the 1920 season were more than any other team in the American League. If you were going to misappropriate someone’s name for a candy bar, Ruth’s was a logical choice.

Sensing opportunity, the Great Bambino struck back by creating his own Babe Ruth Home Run Bar. Curtiss quickly sued Ruth’s company for trademark infringement. But what happened next was surprising: When the Sultan of Swat accused the company of using his name, Curtiss feigned shock. Its bar was named after “Baby” Ruth Cleveland, daughter of President Grover Cleveland.

For years, this has been the oft-repeated explanation, but the argument makes no sense. Cleveland had been out of office for more than two decades and dead for 12 years when the bar debuted. “Baby” Ruth herself had died of diphtheria in 1904, at just 12 years old. Although the country’s most famous baseball star would seem much more likely to have a namesake candy than a former president's departed child, the courts sided with Curtiss.

When Ruth learned of the verdict, he bellowed, “Well, I ain’t eatin’ your damned candy bar anymore!” Somehow, the Baby Ruth bar survived without his support.

What Is the Wilhelm Scream?

iStock
iStock

What do Star Wars, The Lord of the Rings, Pirates of the Caribbean, Harold and Kumar Go to White Castle, Toy Story, Reservoir Dogs, Titanic, Anchorman, 22 Jump Street, and more than 200 other films and TV shows have in common? Not much besides the one and only Wilhelm Scream.

The Wilhelm Scream is the holy grail of movie geek sound effects—a throwaway sound bite with inauspicious beginnings that was turned into the best movie in-joke ever when it was revived in the 1970s.

Just what is it? Chances are you’ve heard it before but never really noticed it. The Wilhelm Scream is a stock sound effect that has been used in both the biggest blockbusters and the lowest low-budget movies and television shows for over 60 years, and is usually heard when someone onscreen is shot or falls from a great height.

First used in the 1951 Gary Cooper western Distant Drums, the distinctive yelp began in a scene in which a group of soldiers wade through a swamp, and one of them lets out a piercing scream as an alligator drags him underwater.

As is the case with many movie sound effects, the scream was recorded later in a sound booth with the simple direction to make it sound like “a man getting bit by an alligator, and he screams.” Six screams were performed in one take, and the fifth scream on the recording became the iconic Wilhelm (the others were used for additional screams in other parts of the movie).

Following its debut in 1951, the effect became a regular part of the Warner Bros. sound library and was continually used by the studio’s filmmakers in their movies. Eventually, in the early 1970s, a group of budding sound designers at USC’s film school—including future Academy Award-winning sound designer Ben Burtt—recognized that the unique scream kept popping up in numerous films they were watching. They nicknamed it the “Wilhelm Scream” after a character in the first movie they all recognized it from, a 1963 western called The Charge at Feather River, in which a character named Private Wilhelm lets out the pained scream after being shot in the leg by an arrow.

As a joke, the students began slipping the effect into the student films they were working on at the time. After he graduated, Burtt was tapped by fellow USC alum George Lucas to do the sound design on a little film he was making called Star Wars. As a nod to his friends, Burtt put the original sound effect from the Warner Bros. library into the movie, most noticeably when a Stormtrooper is shot by Luke Skywalker and falls into a chasm on the Death Star. Burtt would go on to use the Wilhelm Scream in various scenes in every Star Wars and Indiana Jones movie, causing fans and filmmakers to take notice.

Directors like Peter Jackson and Quentin Tarantino, as well as countless other sound designers, sought out the sound and put it in their movies as a humorous nod to Burtt. They wanted to be in on the joke too, and the Wilhelm Scream began showing up everywhere, making it an unofficial badge of honor. It's become bigger than just a sound effect, and the name “Wilhelm Scream” has been used for everything from a band name, to a beer, to a song title, and more.

But whose voice does the scream itself belong to? Burtt himself did copious amounts of research, as the identity of the screamer was unknown for decades. He eventually found a Warner Bros. call sheet from Distant Drums that listed actors who were scheduled to record additional dialogue after the film was completed. One of the names, and the most likely candidate as the Wilhelm screamer, was an actor and musician named Sheb Wooley, who appeared in classics like High Noon, Giant, and the TV show Rawhide. You may also know him as the musician who sang the popular 1958 novelty song “Purple People Eater.”

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