It seems a simple question and one that hardly should be asked even about the chief executive of the most powerful country on Earth and yet … it has some reason to be foremost in my mind during the current administration. It is also a medical issue as we shall see. According to the official White House web site (https://www.whitehousehistory.org/questions/when-did-the-white-house-first-get-plumbing) the first “plumbing” was not actually “in” the White House. It seems that John Quincy Adams, president from 1825 to 1829, was an enthusiastic gardener and had a garden pump with nine spouts attached to a well at the Treasury Building next door. It was used to provide water for the White House grounds however, not for its inhabitants. John Quincy is one of my favorite presidents because he almost singlehandedly insured that the Smithsonian Institute was established, but that is another story and one that took place after his tenure in the White House (https://siarchives.si.edu/history/general-history).
John Quincy’s replacement in the White House was his sworn adversary, Andrew Jackson, president from 1829 to 1837, and it was he who advanced the plumbing into the White House. At the time many hotels and some homes of the wealthy had indoor plumbing so the White House was somewhat behind the curve. Andrew was a man of the people and criticized by many, but he brought the pipes into at least the first floor and was probably the resident when the first “bathing” room was installed around 1833. How much he was personally responsible for the innovations is less clear and whether he used them is not recorded, but plumbing and bathing in the second floor residential rooms where the president slept did not arrive until 1853 under the administration of Millard Fillmore, 1850 to 1853. Franklin Pierce who succeeded Millard in 1853, had a bathing room on the second floor that was luxurious indeed having both hot and cold running water. Before that time bathing required that a portable tub and kettles of hot water be carried upstairs. Bathing was apparently an infrequent occurrence at the time. (https://www.whitehousehistory.org/questions/when-did-the-white-house-first-get-plumbing )
Franklin’s wife never lived in the White House, another story to be explored elsewhere, and it is suggested that the first woman to bathe in that august home was James Buchannan’s niece, Harriet Lane, who acted as James’ hostess ad was probably the first such hostess to be called “the first lady”. She was far more popular than her uncle the president. James was a lifelong bachelor and is often felt to have been the first gay president. Unlike today, he was disliked for his lack of political ability, not his sexual orientation. He served from 1857 to 1861, and his failure to act decisively when South Carolina seceded in response to Abe Lincoln’s election is often cited as causing the Civil War. (https://prezi.com/3gee4mmduaf6/james-buchananthe-cause-of-the-civil-war/). In justice to James, most historians feel that an armed conflict was inevitable.
The most famous bathtub in the White House was that installed for Willian Howard Taft. He weighed 340 pounds standing only 5 feet 11 inches tall and the tub was 50% larger than the usual tub and weighed a ton. Four men could sit in his tub and this is verified by a photograph of – well four workmen sitting in it, fully clothed. There is a persistent story that he was once stuck in that tub, this story according to Irwin “Ike” Hoover, the chief White House usher during the Taft presidency. His book, titled: 42 Years in the White House, (ISBN-13: 978-1530072378) was published in 1932 and is the only verifiable source for the story (http://politicalticker.blogs.cnn.com/2013/02/06/fact-or-fiction-taft-got-stuck-in-a-tub/). Bathing was apparently a risky business at the time. It was banned in Boston in 1845, and some residents still obey that statute (https://twitter.com/ericlach/status/575681271982080001?lang=en).
Whether the story about Taft is true or not, the press subjected Mr. Taft to intense and malicious stories about his bathtubs. He did have a large tub installed on the USS North Carolina in 1909, and it was probably the one that ended up at the White House. It was made by Mott Manufacturing and they claimed that it was the largest ever made. It was probably their workmen pictured sitting in it. Taft was an antitrust progressive, busting several trusts during his presidency. The trust Taft busted in his final year as President was — you guessed it: the bathtub trust. I’m not sure if this is more surprising than the fact that there was a bathtub trust. (https://triviahappy.com/articles/the-truth-about-william-howard-tafts-bathtub). An act of revenge? Probably not.
But I have digressed into the dirty water of White House bathtubs long enough and must return to the other plumbing in the executive mansion and to medicine — and to public health. Of the nine presidents who served between 1861 and 1901 three were assassinated, a risky occupation it seems, but none died in the White House. Lincoln of course died in a room across the street from Ford Theater after being shot by John Wilkes Booth in 1865. He never returned to the White House until after he died. William McKinley was shot by an anarchist named Leon Czolgosz, on September 1, 1901 while in Buffalo New York and only a few feet from one of the first x-ray machines which was on display at the Pan-American Exposition. (https://www.awesomestories.com/asset/view/IF-ONLY…-President-McKinley-Assassination ) He too never returned to the White House. James Garfield was shot on by Charles J. Guiteau, on July 2,1881, and was agonizingly treated in the White House before being moved to the New Jersey shore where he died. Incidentally, Guiteau entered a plea of not guilty by reason of insanity, arguing that the assassination had been “God’s act and not mine.” He even claimed that the true cause of Garfield’s death was malpractice at the hands of his doctors. “I deny the killing, if your honor please,” he announced at one point. “We admit the shooting.” His autopsy suggested a diagnosis of neurosyphillis. (http://www.history.com/news/the-assassination-of-president-james-a-garfield) Garfield was brought back to the White House after he was shot where he lingered in considerable pain for 79 days between his shooting and death. He died of infection in his wound and septicemia shortly after he was moved to the New Jersey shore and his death was in fact probably attributable to the care rendered by his physicians. Anti-sepsis/asepsis was still a novel idea and several of his physicians, there were probably more than twenty in total, probed his wounds with ungloved fingers searching for the bullet. One actually punctured his liver. Alexander Graham Bell, the inventor of the telephone, even attempted to locate the bullet using an induction coil. He failed because of interference, not from the physicians overseeing Garfield’s care, but the metal bed springs beneath the president. But while his medical care likely contributed to his death, some said it was the plumbing that was to blame. While the actual pipes were not brought into question, the elaborate toilets with their wooden features were notoriously unsanitary. They were essentially “outhouses” brought inside. More easily cleaned porcelain fixtures soon replaced them possibly hastened by the president death (https://www.oldhouseonline.com/articles/the-history-of-the-toilet ). Ironically Mr. Garfield was the last president to be born in a log cabin and undoubtedly grew up using an outhouse. (https://obamawhitehouse.archives.gov/1600/presidents/jamesgarfield )
Of course this is not the end of the story and I will apologize preemptively for bringing the most famous plumbers of the White House into this treatise. No mention of “plumbers” in the White House could be complete without “water” — as in Watergate. Watergate, of course, is a commercial/residential complex which just happens to be near some “water” and a “gate”. The Democratic National Committee had an office there, and – well “Watergate” became etched into our national history and gave birth to all sorts of other “gates’, my favorite being “Deflategate” involving my hometown team, the New England Patriots and the footballs used by them (http://www.espn.com/blog/new-england-patriots/post/_/id/4782561/timeline-of-events-for-deflategate-tom-brady). But for purposes of this writing we will confine our discussion to the “plumbers” of Watergate fame and how they came by that name. On Thanksgiving evening of 1972, David Young arrived home from his planning session at the Special Investigative Unit, when his grandmother asked him, “What do you do at the White House?” He replied, “I am helping the president (Richard Nixon) stop some leaks.” “Oh,” she exclaimed, “you’re a plumber!” Young, Liddy, and Hunt apparently thought this was amusing and put up a sign on their office door with the title “The Plumbers”, but it was taken down since their covert operations were supposed to be top secret. Still, the name stuck for the group. (Dean, John W. The Nixon Defense, p. 663n. Penguin Group, 2014. ISBN 978-0-670-02536-7)
And so we see that the White House plumbing reaches far beyond the dirty water that flows through our government. It has been blamed for killing president as well as bathing them; imprisoning them in its tubs, and threatening to impeach them, — well sort of anyway. Someone should look into the possibility of an ongoing conspiracy in the rusty pipes within our national landmark.