Robert Frank: The Photographer Who Captured America’s Dark Side

The Americans by Robert Frank
The Americans by Robert Frank
Published by Steidl/

On a hot September day in 1957, Jack Kerouac sat on a New York City sidewalk holding America in his hands. At least, that’s how it felt. In reality, he held a book of photographs taken by a Swiss photographer named Robert Frank. Like Kerouac, who had recently released On the Road, Frank had just completed a historic road trip across America. He had driven from New York City to Detroit to New Orleans to Los Angeles, photographing practically every big city and one-horse town along the way. He planned to publish the photos in a book and wanted Kerouac to write an introduction. So the two met outside of a party, plopped down on the sidewalk, and flipped through the pictures.

There were cowboys and cars, jukeboxes and tattered flags, cemeteries and shoe shiners, politicians and proselytizers. And, in one photo, a shining stretch of straight highway in New Mexico, darting like an arrow toward the horizon. Kerouac was sold. To him, the pictures did more than capture America: The black-and-white film had “caught the actual pink juice of human kind.” He agreed to write some text to accompany it. “What a poem this is,” he’d tell Frank. “You got eyes.”

It hadn’t been easy. Frank had driven more than 10,000 miles to capture those photos. Along the way, he used 767 rolls of film, filled uncountable tanks of 
gas, and endured two stints in jail. He knew the photographs were good. But he didn’t necessarily think they would change photography—or how people see the country.

The pictures in Robert Frank’s The Americans are so ordinary that you just might miss what makes them extraordinary. They show people eating, sitting, driving, waiting—and that’s about it. Rarely do the subjects look at the camera. When they do, they seem annoyed. Many of the photos are blurry, grainy, and smudged by shadows. But the devil is in those details: Together, the pictures comprise a skeptical portrait, an outsider’s view of a country that was, at the time, all too sure of itself.

Born in Switzerland in 1924, Robert Frank grew 
up in a bubble about to burst. Before his 15th 
birthday, he saw the stock market crash, the Spanish Civil War erupt, Jews like his father lose their citizenship, and Nazis invade Poland. Frank’s family worried that Switzerland was next. But it wasn’t: Paradoxically, Frank’s biggest complaint as a teenager was that the country was as small, quiet, and dull as ever. He desperately wanted out.

When Frank was 17, a path appeared. A professional photo retoucher named Hermann Segesser lived above his family, and 
one day, the teenager visited him. “I want to learn what you do,” Frank said. Segesser took Frank under his wing, teaching him how to work a camera, develop negatives, make prints, and retouch photos. For the next five years, the shutterbug informally studied photography with Segesser and other Swiss lensmen, building a portfolio of “40 Fotos” that he hoped would be his ticket out of Switzerland.

In February 1947, Frank took his collection and sailed to New York City. He didn’t plan to stay in New York long, says Sarah Greenough in her book Looking In. But he fell in love with the city’s energy. “Never before have I experienced so much in one week as here,” he wrote to his parents. “I feel as if I’m in a film.”

Robert Frank drove 10,000 miles and took 27,000 photos in the 1950s to make The Americans.Corbis

Life felt even more like a movie when he landed a gig as a staff photographer at Harper’s Bazaar. At 22, Frank had already realized his dream—he was being paid to take photos. But taking pictures of purses and girdles for the magazine’s fashion section quickly grew tedious. Frank became frustrated by how much control the editors had over his photos, and disillusionment set in. After just one month, he quit.

From there, he wandered. For six years, Frank traveled the world, stopping in Peru, Panama, Paris, London, and Wales. He got married. And he continued to hone his style, taking pictures of whatever he liked. Most of his photos were light, gentle, and romantic, and he dreamed of selling them to big magazines like LIFE, Jonathan Day writes in his book Robert Frank’s The Americans: The Art of Documentary Photography. But his work was consistently rejected. He’d almost given up on making a career of his art when, in 1953, he returned to America to give it one final shot. “This is the last time I go back to New York and try to reach the top through my personal work,” he said.

This time, the scene he found in New York was different. Frank had a Swiss friend, a designer named Herbert Matter, who hobnobbed with abstract painters like Hans Hofmann, Franz Kline, and Jackson Pollock. Frank was enamored with their world. His Greenwich Village apartment, overlooking Willem de Kooning’s yard, was in a bohemian wonderland. He met Beat poets like Allen Ginsberg and Gregory Corso, and he soon met Walker Evans, who was famous for photographing the Great Depression.

Frank was taking pictures through it all, absorbing everything he could from his new community. From the abstract painters, he learned to embrace ambiguity and chance, to “follow your intuition—no matter how crazy or far-off or how laughed at it would be,” he told William S. Johnson. The Beats encouraged him to treat photography as a jazz solo: spontaneous, raw, present. Most important, the photographers taught him to hate mainstream photography.

In the 1950s, photographs were crisp, sharp, and clean. A photo was perfect only if it followed the traditional rules of composition. Pictures were routinely upbeat, especially in popular magazines trumpeting the American way of life. That aesthetic reached its apogee in 1955, when the Museum of Modern Art’s photography curator, Edward Steichen, introduced an exhibit called “The Family of Man.” A display of 503 photographs from more than 60 countries, it depicted people as being the same everywhere. Dubbed the “greatest photographic exhibition of all time,” it was wildly genteel, treating war and poverty as minor blemishes on the human race’s report card.

But Frank, who had been in Europe during World War II and had visited the poorest parts of South America, knew better. “I was aware that I was living in a different world—that the world wasn’t as good as that—that it was a myth that the sky was blue and that all photographs were beautiful,” Frank told Johnson in 1989.

So he bought a used car and proved it.

Powered by a tank of gas and a grant from the Guggenheim Foundation, Frank puttered west in June 1955. His network of famous friends had helped him win the grant, and money in his wallet meant he could do whatever he wanted. With nowhere in particular to go, he drove. He slept in cheap hotels and started each morning, wherever he was, by taking his Leica 35mm and photographing the closest bar or Woolworths. With Allen Ginsberg’s mantra about spontaneity in mind—“first thought, best thought”—he snapped two or three photos in each spot and moved on. Then he’d visit the post office, the bus and train stations, the cemetery, and other five-and-dimes. He went wherever strangers congregated and tried to blend in. He rarely talked to anyone he photographed.

Shortly into his trip, Frank noticed a trend: The land of opportunity looked like a land of drudgery. Everybody seemed bored and tired. Frank sure felt it. As Greenough recounts, by the time a worn-out Frank reached Detroit, he wrote to his wife, Mary, that he just wanted to “lie down anywhere where it is nice and not think about photographs.” Then his car broke down, and he couldn’t help but use the extra time to photograph an African American concert, where he was arrested for having two license plates.

It wasn’t the last time Frank ran into trouble, especially as he pressed further south. On the Arkansas border, he was accosted for no particular reason by a sheriff who pulled out a stopwatch and gave him five minutes to leave the state. In Port Gibson, Mississippi, a group of teenagers harassed Frank, calling him a communist. In McGehee, Arkansas, state police pulled his car over on U.S. 65. When the officers peered into the car window, seeing suitcases and cameras—and hearing Frank’s foreign accent—they suspected he was a spy. They demanded that Frank hand over his film, briefly jailing him when he refused. Before his release, Frank had to sign his name under the heading criminal. It made him furious, and his empathy for others who were being treated unfairly grew. “America is an interesting country,” he wrote to his parents. “But there is a lot here I do not like and I would never accept. I am trying to show this in my photos.”

Originally, Frank had no agenda but to photograph everyday Americans doing everyday things. But the more he traveled the south, the more his viewfinder stumbled across people the American Dream had seemingly forgotten. More and more, he captured an America that everyone knew existed but preferred not to acknowledge; he looked for the overlooked and captured the weariness in their eyes.

It didn’t matter whether Frank caught people standing around a jukebox or a coffin, his camera froze the same look on everybody’s face. People looked in, looked out, looked at their feet, looked everywhere but at each other. In Miami Beach, an impatient elevator girl—trapped pressing buttons for strangers all day—stared into space. In Detroit, working-class men ate at a lunch counter, ignoring their neighbors and blankly looking ahead. In New Orleans, a segregated trolley rambled by; a plaintive black man in the back stared sadly, deeply, into Frank’s lens.

“Trolley—New Orleans.” (The Americans by Robert Frank)Published by Steidl/

Frank was catching a direct contrast to the smiling humanity of Steichen’s “The Family of Man” exhibit. But it didn’t anger him—he was moved. “I had a feeling of compassion for the people on the street,” he told Dennis Wheeler in 1977. He saw beauty in highlighting the truth, even if it was mundane, sad, or small. There was something distinctly American, celebratory even, about giving the voiceless a voice. To Americans, these sights were too ordinary to notice. But Frank’s foreign eyes saw how they affected and controlled everyday life. Automobiles, especially. To Frank, few things defined American life more. They were places to sleep, eat, enjoy a movie, joy ride, travel, wait, make love, and, for some, die. Most of all, cars were a way Americans could isolate themselves. Frank included.

After nine months, he had driven over 10,000 miles across more than 30 states. In all, he had taken 27,000 photographs. When he returned to New York in 1956, he whittled those images down to 1,000 large prints. He tacked and stapled the photos around his apartment like wallpaper. After four months, he chose just 83 of them for his book, The Americans.

According to Jack Kerouac, Frank had “sucked a sad poem right out of America onto film.” But the critics were not so kind. When the volume was first published in Paris, it hardly made a ripple, but the U.S. edition, published in 1959 with Kerouac’s introduction, riled them up. The bottom line, critics said, was that The Americans was anti-American. Minor White described it as a “Utterly misleading! A degradation of a nation!” Bruce Downes scorned Frank as a “joyless man who hates the country of his adoption” and a “liar, perversely basking in … misery.” John Durniak called it a “Wart-covered picture of America. If this is America we should burn it down and start again.”

The Americans, after all, was the opposite of what readers saw in the Saturday Evening Post or an episode of Leave It to Beaver. There were no white picket fences, no pies cooling on windowsills. Not a single page would inspire a heartwarming Norman Rockwell painting. It was totally different from the simple, wholesome, patriotic photo essays everybody was used to. Idyllic as the critics believed things were, America was wrestling with dark issues—McCarthyism, segregation, poverty, and the Cold War chief among them. America was as lonely as it was big, and Frank had captured glimpses of all of it.

If that was a tough message to swallow, critics must have choked on Frank’s style. The Americans contained everything good photography was supposed to avoid. Arthur Goldsmith of Popular Photography lambasted it as “flawed by meaningless blur, grain, muddy exposure, drunken horizons, and general sloppiness.” But Frank, inspired by the abstract painters he admired, had been ambiguous by design, Day writes. A murky nation deserved murky photos. The composition was as unstable as the American Dream. More practically, the blur, shadows, and strange angles framed details that traditional techniques led viewers to ignore. In one photo, a starlet walks down a red carpet, her face entirely blurred. Our eye drifts to the haggard fans standing behind the velvet ropes, one chewing nervously on her fingernails. Frank’s technique spotlighted details we tend to overlook. And in this case, he saw the people in the margins as the stars.

Despite the critical uproar, the book was largely ignored. Only 1,100 copies were sold, earning Frank $817.12. Soon, he deserted photography and took up filmmaking (most famously documenting the Rolling Stones’ doped-up exploits in 1972). But it wouldn’t be long before The Americans appeared hauntingly prescient. By the late 1960s, politicians and activists were addressing everything Frank had captured: discrimination, mind-numbing work environments, inequality. Street photographers, from Garry Winogrand to Lee Friedlander, were drawing inspiration from its crushing honesty. In an interview with NPR in 2009, legendary street photographer Joel Meyerowitz said, “It was the vision that emanated from the book that led not only me but my whole generation of photographers out into the American landscape.” Today, The Americans is regularly hailed as the most influential photography book of the 20th century. Exhibitions across the globe have featured Frank’s photos, and, just recently, a 1961 print of that segregated New Orleans trolley sold for $663,750.

More significantly, the book is no longer perceived as anti-American. Having grown up on a continent soaked in wartime propaganda, Frank loved the freedom the United States afforded him as an artist—nowhere else did he have as much liberty to experiment so wildly and to photograph so truthfully. “Opinion often consists of a kind of criticism,” he said in 1958. “But criticism can come out of love.” Uncovering the ugly side of America was Frank’s way of forcing the land he adored to face its problems and improve. Photographing ordinary life was a way to level the playing field, to celebrate not just the little things, but the everyman. What could be more American?

This story originally appeared in the January/February 2015 issue of Mental Floss magazine.

14 Retro Gifts for Millennials

Ravi Palwe, Unsplash
Ravi Palwe, Unsplash

Millennials were born between 1981 and 1996, which means the pop culture they grew up with is officially retro. No matter what generation you belong to, consider these gifts when shopping for the Millennials in your life this holiday season.

1. Reptar Funko Pop!; $29


This vinyl Reptar figurine from Funko is as cool as anything you’d find in the rugrats’ toy box. The monster dinosaur has been redesigned in classic Pop! style, making it a perfect desk or shelf accessory for the grown-up Nickelodeon fan. It also glows in the dark, which should appeal to anyone’s inner child.

Buy it: Amazon

2. Dragon Ball Z Slippers; $20

Hot Topic

You don’t need to change out of your pajamas to feel like a Super Saiyan. These slippers are emblazoned with the same kanji Goku wears on his gi in Dragon Ball Z: one for training under King Kai and one for training with Master Roshi. And with a soft sherpa lining, the footwear feels as good as it looks.

Buy it: Hot Topic

3. The Pokémon Cookbook; $15

Hop Topic

What do you eat after a long day of training and catching Pokémon? Any dish in The Pokémon Cookbook is a great option. This book features more than 35 recipes inspired by creatures from the Pokémon franchise, including Poké Ball sushi rolls and mashed Meowth potatoes.

Buy it: Hot Topic

4. Lisa Frank Activity Book; $5

Urban Outfitters

Millennials will never be too old for Lisa Frank, especially when the artist’s playful designs come in a relaxing activity book. Watercolor brings the rainbow characters in this collection to life. Just gather some painting supplies and put on a podcast for a relaxing, nostalgia-fueled afternoon.

Buy it: Urban Outfitters

5. Shoebox Tape Recorder with USB; $28


The days of recording mix tapes don’t have to be over. This device looks and functions just like tape recorders from the pre-smartphone era. And with a USB port as well as a line-in jack and built-in mic, users can easily import their digital music collection onto retro cassette tapes.

Buy it: Amazon

6. Days of the Week Scrunchie Set; $12

Urban Outfitters

Millennials can be upset that a trend from their youth is old enough to be cool again, or they can embrace it. This scrunchie set is for anyone happy to see the return of the hair accessory. The soft knit ponytail holders come in a set of five—one for each day of the school (or work) week.

Buy it: Urban Outfitters

7. D&D Graphic T-shirt; $38-$48

80s Tees

The perfect gift for the Dungeon Master in your life, this graphic tee is modeled after the cover of the classic Dungeons & Dragons rule book. It’s available in sizes small through 3XL.

Buy it: 80s Tees

8. Chuck E. Cheese T-shirt; $36-$58

80s Tees

Few Millennials survived childhood without experiencing at least one birthday party at Chuck E. Cheese. This retro T-shirt sports the brand’s original name: Chuck E. Cheese’s Pizza Time Theatre. It may be the next-best gift for a Chuck E. Cheese fan behind a decommissioned animatronic.

Buy it: 80s Tees

9. The Nightmare Before Christmas Picnic Blanket Bag; $40

Shop Disney

Fans of Tim Burton’s The Nightmare Before Christmas will recognize the iconic scene on the front of this messenger bag. Unfold it and the bag becomes a blanket fit for a moonlit picnic among the pumpkins. The bottom side is waterproof and the top layer is made of soft fleece.

Buy it: Shop Disney

10. Toy Story Alien Socks; $15

Shop Disney

You don’t need to be skilled at the claw machine to take home a pair of these socks. Decorated with the aliens from Toy Story, they’re made from soft-knit fabric and are big enough to fit adult feet.

Buy it: Shop Disney

11. Goosebumps Board Game; $24


Fans that read every book in R.L. Stine’s series growing up can now play the Goosebumps board game. In this game, based on the Goosebumps movie, players take on the role of their favorite monster from the series and race to the typewriter at the end of the trail of manuscripts.

Buy it: Amazon

12. Tamagotchi Mini; $19


If you know someone who killed their Tamagotchi in the '90s, give them another chance to show off their digital pet-care skills. This Tamagotchi is a smaller, simplified version of the original game. It doubles as a keychain, so owners have no excuse to forget to feed their pet.

Buy it: Amazon

13. SNES Classic; $275


The SNES Classic is much easier to find now than when it first came out, and it's still just as entertaining for retro video game fans. This mini console comes preloaded with 21 Nintendo games, including Super Mario Kart and Street Fighter II.

Buy it: Amazon

14. Planters Cheez Balls; $24


Planters revived its Cheez Balls in 2018 after pulling them from shelves nearly a decade earlier. To Millennials unaware of that fact, this gift could be their dream come true. The throwback snack even comes in the classic canister fans remember.

Buy it: Amazon

Sign Up Today: Get exclusive deals, product news, reviews, and more with the Mental Floss Smart Shopping newsletter!

This article contains affiliate links to products selected by our editors. Mental Floss may receive a commission for purchases made through these links.

History Vs. Bonus Episode: Fact Checking Theodore Roosevelt


You often hear Theodore Roosevelt described as “larger than life,” which I think we can all agree is pretty accurate. And, as with many other larger than life characters, there are plenty of myths and misconceptions surrounding TR—some of which were encouraged and perpetuated by Roosevelt himself. As Kathleen Dalton writes in Theodore Roosevelt: A Strenuous Life, “He sought to keep his inner life and less attractive traits well hidden. He also encouraged his friends and authorized biographers to tell an upbeat, socially acceptable, stiff-upper-lipped version of his life. Many of his friends and biographers obliged him.” Dalton goes on to say that the guardians of his story would edit or destroy letters they deemed embarrassing, and would even hide the family’s secrets to present a better picture of Roosevelt’s life.

Austin Thompson: A lot of this fact checking stuff is to do with his legacy. They really intertwine because these myths and legends are such a part of the story.

That’s Mental Floss’s fact checker, Austin Thompson, who has been taking a magnifying glass to stories on Mental Floss’s website and to our YouTube videos for years, and he looked at every script of this podcast, too. He knows better than many how complicated unraveling the truth behind history can be, so for this final bonus episode of History Vs., I couldn’t wait to get him on the phone to debunk some TR myths and talk fact checking one of the most famous figures in history.

Thompson: I found an absolutely brilliant 1912 New York Times article about Theodore Roosevelt which was saying if you had four experts who swore that he boiled his grandmother and ate her in the 1890s, he would come back with documentary proof that she actually died in the 1880s.

Just a quick break here to say that when Austin was fact checking this script, he realized that he’d misremembered what the article said—it was actually 20 experts, not four. OK, carry on.

Thompson: If you have people who swear under oath that he had a meeting with Standard Oil at this date, he would come back with a dated photograph of him talking to a mother's congress. I think it really has to do with ... that he does come to the White House, and all his history, from a perspective of being a historian. He knows that he's great. He knows his greatness. Everyone his entire life has been clear, he is great. He can produce dated evidence for anything you might say he did. I think it's because he wanted to control his historical view in a way that other people wouldn't, but nowadays we wouldn't think is that weird.

When we were putting these episodes together, the general process went like this: I came up with the themes for each episode, then put together outlines that pulled together a ton of information around those themes. In each outline were sources, quotes, and beats that I wanted to hit, along with pieces of the interviews I conducted that I wanted to include. Then the writer—sometimes me, sometimes another Mental Floss staffer—would use that outline to write the script, which would go through an editing process where myself and members of the production team would weigh in and make tweaks. And finally, before I recorded, the script would go to Austin, and he’d dig in. And I mean really dig in. Not only did he find errors—hey, I’m not perfect—but he would also nearly always find some new piece of information or interesting story that I’d want to include.

Thompson: As I was researching Theodore Roosevelt and looking at all sorts of things, there were two things that struck me about him. One makes fact checking a lot easier, the other one made it basically impossible. He mythologizes, but you can get so much information about him from other sources that aren't him. It'll be like, you spent five minutes with him 10 years ago, you're suddenly writing a book, the time I spent with Theodore Roosevelt. The family he's staying with in Germany who's saying, "Oh he's going to be President." That all exists independent of anything he did. So … he is in control of his image to a certain extent but there's such a world that you can pretty much verify most things he's saying.

And then the other thing that makes this harder, that we've talked about, is the changing views of Theodore Roosevelt. It's like, if you read something from the 1910s, it is a different perspective than if you read something from the 1940s. It's lucky because with Theodore Roosevelt we have so many of his primary documentation, but it's still really hard to sort of sift through all of that to say, well is this person saying this about Theodore Roosevelt because this is actually how it is, or is it just because that was the prevailing view at the time?

Also, socio-culturally we like to think of history as this great monolithic thing. It happened and now we can just kind of go back and look at bits and pieces of it. We as a culture, I don't think we really like to view history as having trends. That there are differences in how history is being viewed from one day to another, one culture to another. We're not taught to think of history in that way.

Erin McCarthy: So when you're fact checking something like the podcast scripts, do you usually try to go for the primary documentation first? Or, in the case of Theodore Roosevelt when you know that he did not like to write about things that were difficult, like, for example, he didn't include his first wife in his autobiography at all, are you looking elsewhere when you're fact checking?

Thompson: Well it depends on the thing. I mean, you know he's there to tell a story. So as long as you read it knowing, read what he says knowing this is the story he wants you to hear, then I always like to go back to primary sources, cause Roosevelt just gave us so many of them. And as I said, so many of the people who even interacted with him briefly would be writing books about the events that happened.

It is when you get into more sort of obscure—especially obscure leaders or figures in history—that it does start to really become a problem of, how much weight are you willing to put on this secondary source? I'm sure if you read some of my podcast suggestions, there are times when it'll be really awkwardly suggesting saying, "This person says this," and that's because it's maybe true but these other sources, say, aren't necessarily as strong.

McCarthy: So we often go back and forth and play a little bit of like, is this OK? What do you think about this phrasing? 'Cause we don't want to mislead anybody, right? We want to make sure that we're being accurate.

Thompson: I have spent ages, like I don't even know how long, debating whether a single word is correct. 'Cause it does make a difference.

McCarthy: Do you want to get into some myths now or do you … do you have other thoughts?

Thompson: I think so. I don't think I have anything else I wanted to talk about with the process of fact checking. It's just kind of like, you go through documents and try to decide is this reasonable? Is this accurate? Does this person say what this person says? Is this person correct? Is this person citing some lost documentation that was found at the top of a monastery in Outer Uzbekistan and then the monastery burned down so you're relying entirely on them? It's hard. 

TR myths, coming up after the break.


In the course of making this podcast, we came across a number of TR myths and misconceptions, some of which we touched upon briefly in the regular episodes, and some we just didn’t have time to get to. So we figured we’d finish up this season by digging deeper into a few of them. And if you’re going to take on TR myths and misconceptions, you might as well start at the beginning.

Everyone knows that Theodore Roosevelt was a sickly, asthmatic kid, who, after a directive from his father, built his body to the point where he had cured himself of asthma. Right?

Well … not so fast.

Thompson: According to Theodore Roosevelt, that is what happened. But there's a really interesting paper from a couple years ago, "The Misunderstood Asthma of Theodore Roosevelt." What makes the article interesting, so it says no, the asthma went away when he was somewhere between 12 to 15. And that's about the age you'd expect the asthma to lighten itself up, even if he was doing absolutely nothing.

As the paper notes, “[This] phenomenon is well recognized by clinicians today but was unknown in TR's time. Looking back at TR's inference, it is tempting to speculate about how his misplaced sense of accomplishment may have influenced his thinking about what else he might achieve if he set his mind to solving new problems.”

In reality, his asthma didn’t fully go away and, in fact, it sometimes reared its ugly head later on in his life.

Thompson: When Edith was in labor, Alice—his daughter Alice—remarked something like "the train and my father came in wheezing as he rushed to be by her side." He had asthma attacks throughout his entire life, but they were not as bad. According to the article, at the time and for all of Theodore Roosevelt's life, asthma was thought to be psychosomatic.

The idea that they thought at the time asthma was psychosomatic, I think probably was a really big part of why Theodore Roosevelt wanted to proclaim himself as having cured his asthma. I mean, this was a guy who thinks basically everything is weaker than he is. So if he's truly feeling that his asthma is entirely in his head, it makes sense to me why he would then pretend that it wasn't. That's my opinion on the matter, but yeah.

McCarthy: OK, this is one of my favorites. So there is a photo floating around on the internet in which Theodore Roosevelt is riding a moose. So … did Theodore Roosevelt ever ride a moose?

Thompson: Well not that we know of. He spent a lot of time in Maine, so … but no. The picture is definitely fake. But it was never supposed to be viewed as real. It was from a 1912 New York Tribune. If you just take the picture by itself it's "whoa, manly, that's awesome." But the whole triptych is Taft riding an elephant, Theodore Roosevelt riding a moose, and Woodrow Wilson riding a donkey. It's for the president, and they were whatever the 1912 version of Photoshopped was onto the animal of the respective party. And then I can only imagine someone found a copy of that picture and thought "Theodore Roosevelt, manly!" and went with it.

What I think is kind of interesting about that picture, though, is since it was debunked several years ago, there’s a secondary myth that has since emerged, that the New York Tribune made up that picture as a way to help Roosevelt. When that's not true either—there's no evidence. I mean, yes in the picture, Theodore Roosevelt is bigger than the other two but there's nothing in the New York Tribune to suggest that it's being done to support Roosevelt at the expense of the other candidates. But it's just this sort of weird secondary myth that emerged after the first myth was debunked.

It says a lot about a president by what kinds of myths surround them as we go back. So George Washington, he's not telling a lie. Abraham Lincoln, he's beating 300 people in a wrestling match. It's a myth, but we still want to attach because it's truthfulness and ruggedness on the frontier.

Meanwhile, the great myth about William Howard Taft is he gets stuck in the bathtub. So I think it says a lot about Roosevelt's misconceptions, almost all of the misconceptions we're going to be going through they have to do with how manly he is. By force of will, he punks his asthma. He rode a moose. I think that says a lot not about Theodore Roosevelt, but about how our view of Theodore Roosevelt is shaped.

McCarthy: So one thing that you will often see floating around has to do when TR was sworn in after William McKinley was assassinated. So TR was on vacation in the mountains. McKinley takes a turn for the worse. He barrels down to Buffalo to try to make it to the President's side. The President dies and TR is sworn in, in some guy's house in Buffalo on not a bible. And so the myth is, or the popular conception is, that TR is the first president who was not sworn in on a bible.

Thompson: Yeah, most of those facts are fine until you get right to the end with the bible fact.

The story is that they were in such a rush they couldn't grab a bible. But the guy whose house it was, Ansley Wilcox, he commented later that there were loads of bibles around the house it just didn't occur to anyone to use the bible because that was not the tradition in the area they were in at the time. So you do have earlier that definitely didn't do a bible. John Quincy Adams says explicitly in his diary it was on a book of law. And then later it's sort of hit or miss who's on the bible because most people weren't explicit in recording that until later. What I think the interesting one is after Theodore Roosevelt, Calvin Coolidge, when he's inaugurated after the death of Harding, he did the exact same thing. That they had a bible at hand but it wasn't used because that wasn't the tradition of the area. So it just would not have occurred to anyone that, "Oh yeah we need to use this bible," until later. So yes Theodore Roosevelt was sworn in without a bible. No, he wasn't the first. And despite what some seem to think, no, there's absolutely zero meaning to such a thing, other than nobody thought of it at the time.

McCarthy: But then, you know, like when he was actually elected of his own accord, wasn't he sworn in on a bible at that point?

Thompson: Yes. See, he wasn't making any point. In Upstate New York, they didn't use bibles, and nobody thought anything of it until afterwards, and they're like, “oh yeah, that's how you do it in the rest of the country. Huh.”

McCarthy: OK, I have one more note here for something that ... It's just a question mark. Tattoo? Question mark?

Thompson: Oh god.

McCarthy: And I feel like we have to talk about it because we've talked about it before.

Thompson: Yes. It's like, tattoos and judicial recall. Those are the two stories I'd been hoping to avoid.

McCarthy: OK, so the rumor goes that Theodore Roosevelt had a tattoo on his chest of the Roosevelt Family crest. And it's everywhere. But, dot dot dot, and I'll let you take it from there.

Thompson: Probably not but maybe—is that enough? So I spent, I don't even want to think how long, trying to figure out, like ... did he have a tattoo? And in the end, my guess is probably not, because there are clear descriptions of him doing things bare chested when a tattoo would have been notable, but nobody commented on it. That being said, they might just not have commented on it. And there aren't many pictures of, like, a shirtless Roosevelt during the time period where he's said to have the tattoo. I was really hoping that I could find his autopsy report, but turns out that he didn't have an autopsy after he died, so ...

McCarthy: This got dark.

Thompson: That's the kind of thing you have to look at. Yeah.

McCarthy: It just goes to show the lengths that you will go to ... to figure something out.

Thompson: Yeah. And so, I then tried to trace the myth back, and I don't think I was able to get the myth before the 1970s. So there's like a 50-year gap where there's no mention of Theodore Roosevelt having a tattoo, then it just kind of appears. And I've never, despite lots and lots of looking, been able to close that gap. So ... that is not proof that he didn't have a tattoo, but I'm pretty confident he didn't because, as I said, there were times when people are describing his bare chest and a tattoo would have been noteworthy, and they didn't comment on it.

McCarthy: Yeah. So we end where we began: tattoo, question mark?

Thompson: Yeah, basically.

McCarthy: Are you sick of Theodore Roosevelt yet?

Thompson: No, I'm not sick of Theodore Roosevelt because he's just interesting. I mean, he's definitely such a good person for the first season of this podcast ‘cause I was thinking: There aren't that many people who have reinvented themselves so many times. Most people are fairly consistent in their lives. Theodore Roosevelt, he was like, never more than five, six years at any one thing in his entire career, which makes him a very interesting person to research. And you just keep learning new things about him.

I mean one of the things I find amazing about Theodore Roosevelt is that his entire life he just kind of … he just kind of overshadowed everyone around him. People at the time were saying William McKinley was essentially the next Lincoln. He was viewed as a truly great president. And now: William McKinley who?

McCarthy: Yeah.

Thompson: He makes lists of the most forgotten president and that's because Theodore Roosevelt is just this force of nature that everything around him is dimmed by his incredible Theodore Roosevelt-ness.

Yeah, a very bright light.

A huge thanks to Austin Thompson for hopping on the phone to chat and for fact checking every episode of this podcast. I truly could not have done it without him.

And with that, we’re wrapping up this first season of the podcast. I have to be honest, we did not intend to stick with TR this long. We had initially planned to launch a new season in June, and then COVID-19 happened and messed up all of our best-laid plans.

But I’m happy to announce that we’ll be back in early 2021 with a brand new season of the podcast, although it’s going to be slightly different than what we did for this first season.

First, we’re going to be changing the name of this feed so that we can put all of our Mental Floss podcasts here, though we’ll only be doing one season at a time, so don’t worry, we won’t be spamming you.

Also, rather than bring you another season of History Vs., we’re going to explore a different topic with a different host—but I promise it’s incredibly compelling, and the host is someone you’ve heard on this podcast before. And there is a bit of a TR connection. So stay tuned!


History Vs. is hosted by me, Erin McCarthy. This episode was written by me, with fact checking by Austin Thompson.

The Executive Producers are Erin McCarthy, Julie Douglas, and Tyler Klang.

The Supervising Producer is Dylan Fagan.

The show is edited by Dylan Fagan and Lowell Brillante.

For transcripts, photos, and even more about Theodore Roosevelt, check out our website at

History Vs. is a production of iHeart Radio and Mental Floss.