Native Americans called him “Sharp Knife” for a reason.
I’ve read a lot of Stephen King novels, but I was never afraid of a character jumping out from the pages of a book and punching me in the face until I read a biography of Andrew Jackson.
Jackson’s life is a long series of larger than life incidents of being an unrelenting murder machine. And I’m not even talking about the institutionalized horror of his genocidal Indian Removal Act, which wiped out thousands of Native Americans. I’m talking about personal in-your-face horror on a level his colleagues considered supernatural.
First of all, you couldn’t design a better origin story for a paranormal killer than Andrew Jackson’s troubled youth. The boy was literally forged in war. At only thirteen, he was a messenger in the Revolutionary War when he was captured by British forces and held prisoner.
In his biography The Life of Andrew Jackson, Robert Remini writes that a British commander asked young Andrew to clean his boots and Andrew replied, “Sir, I am a prisoner of war, and claim to be treated as such.” The furious officer thrust his sword at the boy’s head, and Andrew instinctively reached out and grabbed the blade with his left hand.
That ninja move left him with lifelong scars on his head and fingers, and it marked the beginning of two things: his lifelong command of respect, and his total defiance of death. The war cost Andrew two of his brothers and his mother, and the rest of his life was basically one long revenge story against Britain and anyone else who got in his way.
After the war, Jackson fell in with a wild crowd, drinking, gambling, cockfighting, and leading a gang of hooligans. According to Remini, “one of his favorite tricks was moving outhouses to far-off places.” Who does that? A monster, that’s who.
Jackson’s mischievous nature soon turned to violent machismo. His first biographer, James Parton, called Jackson:
“a thorough-going human fighting-cock – very kind to the hens of his own farm-yard, giving them many a nice kernel of corn, but bristling up at the faintest crow of chanticleer on the other side of the road.”
So now we know why the chicken crossed the road – to get the hell away from Andrew Jackson.
Jackson brought that fighting-cock fearlessness to the courtroom. As a judge in Tennessee, he once presided over the trial of a violent child mutilator named Russell Bean. One day in a fit of rage, Bean stormed out of the courtroom. The sheriff and his posse were unable to apprehend the armed madman, so Jackson adjourned the court for ten minutes and sauntered outside himself, a pistol in each hand.
Jackson ordered Bean to surrender, and he meekly obliged. Later when asked why he gave himself up to Judge Jackson and no one else, Bean said, “When he came up, I looked him in the eye, and I saw shoot, and there wasn’t shoot in nary other eye in the crowd.”
That’s the best description of Andrew Jackson I’ve ever seen – he had shoot in his eyes. That captures the truth that Jackson was an unpredictable mix of bark and bite. He was Cujo and Beethoven (but mostly Cujo.) He was famous for his temper, but according to Remini he “more often than not feigned anger for the paralyzing effect he knew it had upon his victims.” The fact that he was in perfect control of his spontaneous rage makes him even more terrifying.
The only thing scarier than the loudness of Jackson’s bark was the eerie quietness of his bite. Once when a debtor he was pursuing defiantly stepped on Jackson’s foot, Jackson didn’t flinch. He simply “picked up a piece of wood and calmly knocked the man out cold,” according to Remini. “Respect for the law, Jackson-style, had arrived in Tennessee.” Like a backwoods version of Maniac Cop and Judge Dredd, Jackson’s version of right and wrong usually involved obliterating his opponents.
Jackson applied that same violent morality to his personal life. This might have ended badly, but lucky for him, he was an unkillable beast.
In 1806, Jackson got into a duel over a horseracing bet with Charles Dickinson. Dickinson called Jackson “a worthless scoundrel” and “a poltroon and a coward” in the Nashville Review, and Jackson decided Dickinson needed to die. After the command to fire was yelled, Dickinson shot Jackson square in the chest. Instead of falling, Jackson kept standing, unfazed, like you might expect from Jason Voorhees or Michael Meyers but not from a real human.
By duel rules, Dickinson then had to get back on his mark and give the wounded Jackson a chance to shoot at him. Teeth clenched, Jackson raised his right arm and fired one shot. That single shot blew a hole straight through Dickinson’s abdomen and he promptly bled to death. Andrew the human fighting-cock didn’t just have shoot in his eyes – his very soul was made of shoot.
Guns were a popular weapon for Jackson, but like most horror movie monsters, they proved useless against him. After a funeral during his presidency, a crazed man confronted Jackson and shot a pistol straight at his heart. The shot rang out, but no bullet was discharged. Jackson went into full Jackson mode and started beating the would-be assassin with his cane when somehow he managed to pull out a second gun and shoot at the president from point blank range. That gun also failed to discharge. John Tyler, who witnessed the event, said it was “almost a miracle they did not go off.”
Old Hickory’s life was full of almost-miracles that make sense if you think of him as held together not by flesh and bone but by sheer vengeance. How else can you explain how he could survive without blood? After being shot twice in a brawl in 1813, Jackson’s blood soaked through two mattresses before doctors could stop the hemorrhaging. Years later after a serious cold, Jackson said he lost upwards of 70 ounces of blood “by the lancet and otherwise.” That’s half the blood in a human body and would be fatal. For a mere mortal.
Andrew Jackson’s monstrousness wasn’t confined to the silent brooding slasher movie villain or even the charming vampire – he also embodied bloodthirsty cannibals like Leatherface and Hannibal. At least, that’s what his political opponents claimed in their 1828 anti-Jackson pamphlets known as the Coffin Handbills.
A supposed “eye-witness” to Jackson’s execution of six deserters during the War of 1812 wrote:
Would you believe it, gentle reader, this monster, this more than cannibal, Gen. Andrew Jackson, eat the whole Six Militia-men at one meal!!! Yes, my shuddering countrymen, he swallowed them whole, coffins and all, without the slightest attempt at mastication!!!… can you, my deluded countrymen, even think of making this horrible anthropophagian monster President of the United States?
The same handbill also alleges that after a battle, Jackson had the bodies of a dozen Indians prepared for his breakfast and he ate them in their entirety. “If you place him at the head of the government,” the pamphleteer asks, “what pledge can you have, that if he should at any time he displeased with his cabinet, that he will not have all four of his secretaries roasted, and eat them for his dinner!!!!”
Clearly these allegations are false, as not even George Washington could eat that many Indians for breakfast. Sadly the Coffin Handbills were not satire; they were just old-school fake news.
The truth about Jackson’s savagery was just as disturbing as the fake news. After a particularly bloody battle in 1814, Andrew Jackson’s men counted the dead Indians by cutting off their noses. They collected 557 noses. This is why it’s easier to compare him to fictional monsters like Freddy or Jason than to think about how the same person who complained to British soldiers that a POW shouldn’t have to clean boots could somehow go on to desecrate the bodies of his enemies.
The Indians called him Sharp Knife, but the populist president killed more of them with a pen than he ever did with a knife or gun. To his Native American enemies and slaves (especially runaway slaves) he wasn’t supernatural – he was just a high-ranking white devil.
At 78 years old, mortality finally caught up with the old General. After years of poor health, his doctor pronounced him dead in his armchair one morning, and his family prayed over him one last time. They moved his body back to his bed, and he sprang back to life. Just like a killer in the final act.
Dead or not, Jackson was going to say his goodbyes. His last words to his family and slaves were, “Do not cry – be good children and we will all meet in heaven.” Those words might sound sweet coming from anyone else, but I can’t help but think they sound like a threat coming from Jackson. Forget “See you in hell!” – Jackson will see you in heaven, and not even God can protect you if you’re on his bad side. Old Hickory will bust through the pearly gates, punch the halo off your head, and strangle you with your own harp strings.
And who’s to say he would stop there? If any president could haunt the earth, it would be Andrew Jackson. Don’t believe me? Go into a bathroom, turn out the lights, and say his name in the mirror five times. No? I thought so.
Like Vigo the Carpathian from Ghostbusters II, who was described as a “powerful magician and a genius in many ways, as well as a tyrant, an autocrat, a lunatic and a genocidal madman,” Andrew Jackson’s energy probably emanates from his portrait, influencing those around it to do his bidding.
Recently Donald Trump has been cozying up to Andrew Jackson. To mark his 250th birthday, he even laid a wreath on Jackson’s grave – something no president has done in 35 years.
He might not want to get too close.
The Life of Andrew Jackson by Robert Remini
Indian Givers: How the Indians of the Americas Transformed the World by Jack Weatherford
Taliaferro, John. [Supplemental account of some of the bloody deeds of General Jackson, being a supplement to the “Coffin handbill.” Cuts of 6 coffins … John Taliaferro. Member of Congress from Northern Neck, Va. 1828]. Northern Neck, 1828. Pdf. Retrieved from the Library of Congress, https://www.loc.gov/item/rbpe.18601400/. (Accessed March 15, 2017.)
I kinda like Jackson in a sick kind of way because he is SUCH a cartoon character. I read "American Lion" and it was the most amusing presidential biography I've read. I also became totally addicted to the Petticoat Affair scandal, which I like to call "Andrew Jackson Comes Out Against Slut-Shaming" and hoo boy, does that not ever work and two years of Teh Dramaz about whether or not a friend of his was a cheating hobag drags out into the highest levels of government. Fun timez! Oh yeah, and there's the part where his wife thought she'd been divorced and it turned out she wasn't, and then pretty much dropped dead from public shaming after the election (okay, that's really sad).And the whole "killing the bank" thing, which makes it really ironic that this man ended up on money. So wrong!
So much yes to all of this.
Sounds like a lot of sensationalism over a tough no nonsense man. A monster to the feminized males of today who cower at trigger words and any evidence of testosterone.
You are really a half glass full kind of guy!
I don't think he's glass half full, Elizabeth — because glassware would be too dainty and feminine. Don't you know that tough, no-nonsense men get their liquid sustenance by shotgunning beers and squeezing rocks?
Because only “feminized males” think mass murder and ethnic cleansing is bad.
I just discovered your site this evening and have been vastly entertained. I confess, Jackson was never a fellow I’ve spent time getting to know (John Adams is probably the first president whose biography I read and enjoyed – thank you, McCullough), but your posts here have definitely sparked my interest to become better acquainted with others. Anyway, thank you. 🙂
Thank you for reading and for the kind words!
And it’s hard to beat McCullough!
WOW! I did not know that about Andrew Jackson. I thought he was a good president!
Jackson ran an ad in the Nashville Gazette, in October, 1804, for the capture of a runaway slave, which stated that in addition to the reward, he would pay an extra $10 per 100 lashes (up to 300), to anyone who willing to inflict them upon his miscreant property. He was known to hold a vengeful lifetime grudge against anyone whom he felt had slighted him, regardless of how minor the supposed offense. His betrayal the Choctow tribe, whom he persuaded to become American allies over the British during the war of 1812, culminated in the “Indian Removal Act” (Trail of Tears), of which he took personal responsiblity to see implemented, resulted in the death of thousands of men, women and children. It’s no surprise that the current occupant of the White House has this monster’s portrait prominantly displayed behind his desk, and even laid a wreath upon his grave to honor him.
Best article I have ever read on any president,Mr.Dorre! I wish I could print it onto a t-shirt and wear it around.I live 50 miles from his birthplace and will forever hear your description of him echoing in my mind when I visit there again and also anytime I am holding a $20.Thank you for giving me a very entertaining permanent impression!
Thank you, Michael!
This article had me tickled! I was equally entertained and educated from start to finish.
“’one of his favorite tricks was moving outhouses to far-off places.’ Who does that? A monster, that’s who.”
Oh, I cackled!
Jackson is in hell! Read what Davy Crockett said about him. He massacred thousands of indians burning the women and children in their tents. Can you imaging what he did to his slaves. I went to tour his house and never felt a more evil place. This article is true but not even close to the evil. He is with the devil.
I thoroughly enjoyed reading this article. I recently discovered your podcast when I listened specifically to the Haunted Hermitage episode with Bryan G.
I have worked at the Hermitage for three years now for Carriage Rides Through Time. I give horse-drawn tours across the property explaining the significant role that agriculture played on Jackson’s plantation’s success and what the lives of the enslaved living and working there would have been like when The General oversaw things. Spoiler alert; it was hard and often cruel as mentioned in an above comment regarding punishment for a runaway slave named Tom Gidd. In another instance, Betty, the enslaved cook was “putting on airs and acting with a great deal of impudence” according to Rachel Jackson. The General assigned a punishment of 50 lashes for that offense. Quite severe indeed.
I start and end my work days down a quiet side road of the property. I love being there in the early mornings and late evenings. I spend a lot of time reflecting on what life was like for both the enslaved and Andrew and Rachel Jackson. I often think of Lyncoya’s short life too and it’s significance. I am always struck by the peacefulness and the heavy sense of calm surrounding Jackson’s home. I have never felt evil or chaotic feelings, not even at night. I am open to spiritual/ghostly encounters but have not experienced anything yet and I’ve walked those woods and fields a fair amount.
I love that you described Jackson as being forged in war. That is very true and had an influential role in his character development and his actions for the remainder of his life. He absolutely held a lifetime grudge against the British. He could be a kind family man and doting grandfather but I would never want to see that beastly side of his nature appear, much less physically experience that side of his wrath.
Thank you for your podcast and accompanying articles. I am now plodding through the presidents myself and look forward to learning more about each of them.
Thank you, Jade, for your kind words and for sharing your experience and insights. I’m so glad you found us through our interview with Bryan!
I realize it might be oversimplifying things, but I think it’s helpful to think of Jackson as forged in war and John Quincy Adams (born just three months later) as forged in peace, or diplomacy. Their very different upbringings and families and experiences helped shape two opposing world views—they even both ended the War of 1812 with their own opposing talents.
I hope you keep listening and plodding on your own. Please feel free to share your thoughts anytime! And I’ll keep Carriage Rides Through Time in mind when Jess and I finally make it to Tennessee.