There are three “facts” about John Quincy Adams that I see repeated on the internet more than anything else about the sixth president:
- While he was skinny dipping in the Potomac, female reporter Anne Royall sat on his clothes until he agreed to grant her an interview.
- He said, “If your actions inspire others to dream more, learn more, do more and become more, you are a leader.”
- He kept a pet alligator in the White House, a gift from the Marquis de Lafayette, and he loved terrifying his guests with it.
All three, it seems, are bogus.
I’ve written about how the skinny dipping interview story was made up to further smear Anne Royall’s reputation, and Quote Investigator nicely debunked the out of character “if your actions inspire others” quote and attributed it to its real source: Dolly Parton.
Now let’s dive into this alligator tale.
The story of this pet alligator is pervasive, and utterly shareable.
Its specificity (the East Room!) makes it seem so believable. It pops up in countless trivia books and it’s even on a Snapple cap.
The reptile has made the news, too. CNN cited a Mental Floss article by Ethan Trex that stated, “The sixth president also had a pet gator. His was a gift from the Marquis de Lafayette; it lived in a bathroom in the East Room of the White House. According to some reports, he enjoyed using the gator to scare his guests.” What are those “some reports” the author mentioned? No idea. (And no response when I asked him on Twitter.)
Beyond tweets and articles, this story has developed into its own cottage industry. Did you know you can actually buy a plush John Quincy Adams alligator?
There are wonderfully illustrated children’s books:
President Adams’ Alligator even has my new favorite picture of Adams:
|Just look at him. John Quincy Adams can’t even.|
This is clearly a fun story, and it’s a story I really wanted to be true. But when I went digging for the source, all I found were holes.
Tracing The Story
Most modern sources, including Mental Floss cite the Presidential Pet Museum as their source.
The Presidential Pet Museum’s site states that Lafayette pawned his alligator gift off on Adams:
“Unfortunately, we don’t know what President and Mrs. John Quincy Adams’s initial reactions were to this unusual re-gifting. (Where’s YouTube when you need it?) However, we do know that President Adams did what any president should do: He lodged the gator in the White House’s unfinished East Room and its nearby bathtub. Sources report that Adams enjoyed showing the scary-looking animal off to disbelieving White House visitors for several months before it moved to a different home.”
I had hopes someone from the museum could point me toward their sources.
That is not what happened.
Presidential Pet Museum’s Melissa Smith was very kind in her response to my request and let me know that several people were involved in the submission and editing of their articles. “Unfortunately,” she told me, “I did a search of all my documents and it appears I do not have the bio for John Quincy Adams’ alligator; so it is likely it was done by another author.”
So Presidential Pet Museum doesn’t know where they got their alligator story. Melissa did share a few methods she uses to find sources though, including this one: “My first point of reference is Wikipedia, but not for concrete information – as we know, Wikipedia is all too easy to distort. I check Wikipedia’s sources, and often they lead me on to much more trustworthy publications, such as books or old newspapers.”
That made total sense to me, as Wikipedia is a great jumping-off point for research. So I went to Wikipedia’s page on presidential pets and saw Adams’s alligator listed there. Then I checked the citation.
It was the Presidential Pet Museum.
At this point I started to wonder if Melissa was screwing with me. We don’t need to find the source; we have become it.
But I knew they didn’t just make this story up—there are plenty of mentions of it in print long before the pet museum’s 1999 founding.
The legend is retold in 1958’s The White House and Its Thirty-Two Families by Amy La Follette Jensen and in 1975’s Dog Days at the White House: The Outrageous Memoirs of the Presidential Kennel Keeper by Traphes Bryant, among others.
What’s more notable than where the story is mentioned, though, is where the story is not mentioned.
It’s not mentioned in any contemporary records, including:
- John Quincy Adams’s diaries or letters
- Lafayette’s autobiography
- A written chronicle of Lafayette’s US tour (which did mention Lafayette seeing monstrous alligators, but not acquiring any)
- Lafayette’s assistant’s catalog of the trip
In fact, there don’t seem to be any primary sources for the story.
The Earliest Source
The earliest mention of it I could find of an alligator in Adams’s White House comes from from 1888, sixty-three years after it supposedly happened.
In The Household of John Quincy Adams, Harriet Taylor Upton wrote, “When General Lafayette made his visit there, this famous East Room was given to him to deposit the many curiosities sent him, some live alligators being among them.”
That is the extent of Upton’s alligator story – just a nonchalant mention of multiple alligators chilling in the East Room like it was perfectly normal. This version increases the number of gators but significantly lessens the drama. Here these little critters are just deposited among other things; they’re certainly not scaring the hell out of a mischievous president’s unwitting guests.
To get the best possible historical insight into the matter, I reached out to some experts to see if they were aware of any earlier mentions of the story than this.
White House Historical Society historian Evan Phifer, who had previously shared his skepticism about this story with howstuffworks, responded, “Your research has uncovered, to my knowledge, the earliest example of this myth. Most of what one reads regarding this story is secondary source literature, much of it recent and without citations.”
Gwen Fries, editorial assistant of the Adams Papers at the Massachusetts Historical Society, confirmed that was the earliest mention of the story they had found as well, and that they get the question a lot. “While I can’t completely disprove it,” she said,” it would be strange that such an avid diarist (and intellectually curious man) would never have mentioned having an alligator in his house.”
I doubt that renowned suffragist Harriet Taylor Upton made up the story. So where did she get it? We may never know. But the timespan from when it would have happened to when she wrote about it and the utter lack of corroborating accounts are too much to ignore.
True or not, this story doesn’t seem to be going away anytime soon. A 2016 biography People That Changed The Course of History: The Story of John Quincy Adams mentioned the alligator tale as fact. The author, Cody Huddleston, told me that if he had looked into it a little further he would have added the words “According to legend….”
But then he brought up a great point: “How likely is the anecdote to be true? It’s hard to say. Keeping an alligator in a tub for a few months certainly isn’t difficult. Especially since the alligator (if it existed) was a juvenile.” He’s right. I’ve seen baby alligators, and they’re easily transported and stored. There could be one chilling in your toilet bowl right now and you might not know it.
Harmless baby specimens, however, are not what makes this story endearing. It’s more fun to imagine a full-grown alligator chomping at the heels of guests, or even the president himself like on the cover of Wackiest White House Pets. The story demands equal parts danger and hilarity. Its earliest instance in print suggests neither.
|Whatever happened at John Quincy Adams’s White House, we’re pretty sure this wasn’t it.|
So is it possible that a wee baby alligator was stored in John Quincy Adams’s White House for a while? It’s not impossible.
Is it possible that such a fun fact would have been kept completely off the contemporary press’s radar? Considering that we only have one diary entry as the source of the White House’s deadliest animal (one of Thomas Jefferson’s sheep that killed a boy on the White House lawn) it’s possible.
But it’s extremely unlikely.
The good news is that unlike the apocryphal skinny dipping interview story, this alligator tale doesn’t really hurt anybody. I honestly wish it were true. But for me, the fact that the experts call it a myth means it’s time to retire the harmless fun. There are enough truly weird things about John Quincy Adams and the White House that there is no need to perpetuate false ones.
So for those reasons, and because John Quincy Adams is already so misremembered, I think it’s time to say “See ya later, alligator.”
- After this piece was published, Snopes referenced it in their article “Were Alligators Ever Kept As White House Pets?” They consider the claim “Unproven.”
- The Presidential Pet Museum also published an article called “Bitten By An Alligator” acknowledging my research here and conceding the story is “probably not true.” They even went so far as to apologize for spreading the tall tale!
- After reaching out again, I still have not heard back from Snapple though I continue to enjoy their fine beverages.