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.”