Even with all the pomp and planning, presidential inaugurations are not immune to problems or peculiarities. Below are seven inaugurals that got weird, silly or just plain didn't go smoothly.
1 | Dwight D. Eisenhower: Lassoed and Lovin' It
At the time of the 1953 inauguration, the United States was at the height of its infatuation with screen cowboys. Montie Montana, a renowned trick roper who performed in 60 Rose Bowl parades and more than 20 movies (including The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance), was asked to add some cowboy flavor to the inaugural proceedings. Montana suggested to the president that he could present President Eisenhower and Vice President Nixon with 10-gallon hats, but Ike decided to go with a lassoing instead.1
2 | Andrew Johnson: The Drunk Vice President
In 1865, Andrew Johnson gave a train-wreck of a speech on the big day. The vice president usually gives a short and smooth speech prior to the president's address. But the 16th vice president, who later became the 17th president after Abraham Lincoln was assassinated that year, was ill with typhoid fever and took the medicine of the day --- whiskey --- the night before. The hangover must have gone to his head. During the speech, he bragged about his humble origins and his triumph over Confederate rebels. Lincoln reportedly looked on in horror.2
3 | Andrew Jackson: Party Like Its 1829
The White House has seen a lot of big parties, but nothing compares to March 4, 1829, when Andrew Jackson’s open house sparked a mob scene that almost destroyed the president’s house. A rugged, "man of the people," Jackson attracted a similarly rough and rowdy crowd. The party was so big that the courageous, battle-tested President Jackson fled the scene (out a back door or through a window) as a huge crowd drank heavily, destroyed furniture and china, and even ground cheese into the carpets with their boots on the White House carpet. Only the promise of more free liquor drew the rabble out of the executive mansion.3
4 | Ulysses S. Grant: The Dead Birds
Ulysses S. Grant thought canaries would add a festive touch to his inaugural ball in 1873, the beginning of his second term. Unfortunately, the 18th president failed to anticipate the cold temperatures — the morning low was 4 degrees Fahrenheit (about 15 degrees Celsius), the coldest March day on record. With wind chill, the day felt like a blustery minus 15 F to minus 30 F (minus 26 C to minus 34 C). All told, about 100 birds froze to death during Grant's inauguration.4
5 | John F. Kennedy: Comedy of Errors
Things didn’t exactly go smoothly during Kennedy’s 1961 inauguration. An overnight snowstorm almost forced the cancellation of the festivities, but they continued as planned—sort of. During the invocation, a short circuit caused smoke to temporarily pour out from the lectern. Then when poet Robert Frost took to the podium, he was unable to read his original composition due to the bright glare reflecting off the snow. Instead, he was forced to recite another ode from memory and then told the crowd he dedicated it “to the president-elect, Mr. John Finley.” Luckily, most only remembered Kennedy’s eloquent inaugural address that followed.5
6 | William Henry Harrison: A Killer Speech
It’s common wisdom that William Henry Harrison delivered one killer of a speech after being sworn in as the ninth president of the United States—and it had nothing to do with anything he said. Ignoring the advice of vigilant mothers everywhere, “Old Tippecanoe” swore off his overcoat, hat and gloves while giving his inaugural address on a freezing, wet winter day. And in a quest to prove his virility while silencing critics who thought him an intellectual lightweight, the 68-year-old Harrison definitely overcompensated by delivering a whopping 8,445-word speech that droned on for nearly two hours. Many believe that history’s lengthiest inaugural address led directly to the briefest of presidencies as Harrison died exactly one month later on April 4, 1841—with the official cause listed as pneumonia.6
7 | James Buchanan: The Ill-fated Inauguration
The most tragic of inauguration horror stories happened in 1857 at the inauguration of James Buchanan. In an eerie resemblance to the Legionnaires’ disease outbreak in Philadelphia a century later, guests who attended events at one of Washington’s biggest hotels came down with a mystery illness, and then died quickly or over the course of the following two years. Buchanan himself contracted the disease twice and survived: once before his inauguration and once shortly after it. In both cases, he was at the hotel.
Among the 36 fatalities were people who attended the official post-inauguration banquet at the hotel, including three U.S. congressmen. Today, experts believe inadequate sanitary conditions existed in the hotel, including problems with its sewage system. The hotel was demolished in the 1920s and a tourist attraction, the Newseum, now sits on its location.7