14 Surprising Facts About Aaron Burr

It’s fair to say that no Founding Father has attracted more scorn than Aaron Burr, the tragic antagonist of a certain Broadway smash hit. Born on this date in 1756, Burr is mainly remembered for two things: killing Alexander Hamilton in a duel and later getting himself tried for treason under President Jefferson. Less attention is paid to Burr’s other major accomplishments. Did you know, for example, that he basically invented modern campaign organizing? Or that he helped Tennessee join the union? Or that he had a remarkably progressive outlook on women’s rights for a man of his time? If you love the Hamilton musical, these 14 facts should give you a whole new outlook on the show’s most compelling character.

1. HE GRADUATED FROM PRINCETON AT AGE 16.

Burr was left an orphan at the age of 2. The toddler and his sister Sally (then nearly 4) were taken in by their maternal uncle, Timothy Edwards. For two years, the youngsters lived in Stockbridge, Massachusetts before they relocated with Edwards to Elizabethtown, New Jersey. An intelligent, precocious boy, Burr submitted an application to Princeton (then the College of New Jersey) when he was just 11 years old. An examiner barred his admission, but that didn’t stop Burr from reapplying two years later. This time, Burr—now 13—was accepted into the university, which his late father had presided over. Four years younger than most of his classmates, he earned the affectionate nickname “Little Burr,” a reference to both the teen’s age and his short stature. He graduated with distinction in 1772.

2. DURING THE REVOLUTION, HE SERVED UNDER BENEDICT ARNOLD FOR A TIME.

Both of these guys would one day know how it felt to be the most notorious person in America. In 1775, Colonel Benedict Arnold led a contingent of patriot soldiers from Massachusetts to Quebec City by way of Maine. Altogether, some 1100 men made the journey; Burr was one of them. En route, the impressed colonel remarked that this future vice president was “a young gentleman of much life and activity [who] has acted with great spirit and resolution on our fatiguing march.” Fatiguing march, indeed: Arnold had severely underestimated the severity of the trek, and around 500 of his men had run off, died, or been captured by the time they reached their destination.

Near the end of this northward trudge, Burr was sent to deliver a message to General Richard Montgomery who, having taken Montreal, was also on his way to Quebec City with his own force of 300 men. Montgomery took an instant liking to Burr and recruited him as his personal aide-de-camp—but their partnership would soon be cut short.

On December 31, in the midst of a snowy winter’s battle, the general was killed by a cannon blast on the outskirts of the city. Some eyewitnesses later reported that Burr tried in vain to retrieve his commander’s body from the battlefield, but historians have their doubts about this story.

3. BURR WILLINGLY LEFT GEORGE WASHINGTON’S MILITARY STAFF.

Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons

In 1776, Burr received an invitation to join Washington’s staff, and that June—after he returned from fighting in Quebec—he met the general in person to accept the position. But he wouldn’t retain it for long; not content to serve as “a practical clerk,” Burr began yearning for a job that would expose him to more combat action. Within a month, he requested and received a transfer to the staff of Major General Israel Putnam. From there, the relationship between Burr and Washington cooled. In 1798, the Virginian threw some shade on his one-time staffer, saying, “By all that I have known and heard, [Burr] is a brave and able officer, but the question is whether he has not equal talents at intrigue?” The tension was two-sided: According to John Adams, Burr once privately remarked that “he despised Washington as a man of no talents and one who could not spell a sentence of common English.”

4. HE ADMIRED MARY WOLLSTONECRAFT.

Unlike most of his contemporaries, Burr had feminist leanings. On July 2, 1782, he married his first wife, Theodosia Prevost Bartow. The two had much in common, including a deep admiration for women’s rights essayist Mary Wollstonecraft. (In fact, they even hung her portrait on their mantle.)

The mother of Frankenstein author Mary Shelley, Wollstonecraft’s best-known writing is, by far, her 1792 manifesto A Vindication of the Rights of Woman. Considered a watershed document in the history of feminism, it passionately argued that members of both sexes deserve the same fundamental rights, and denounced the educational systems of its era for failing to provide women with the opportunities afforded to men. The Burrs loved it: In 1793, Aaron described Wollstonecraft’s essay as “a work of genius.” To his dismay, however, his peers seemed to overwhelmingly disregard the text. “Is it owing to ignorance or prejudice that I have not yet met a single person who had discovered or would allow the merit of this work?” Burr once asked.

In keeping with Wollstonecraft’s philosophy, the Burrs saw to it that their daughter, also named Theodosia, received a top-notch education—the kind normally reserved for boys.

5. BURR FOUNDED WHAT LATER BECAME J.P. MORGAN CHASE & CO.

Jennie Augusta Brownscombe, Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons

Shortly after the war wrapped up, Burr established himself as one of New York City’s hottest lawyers—and its most prominent Democratic-Republican. For many years, his party found itself at a major disadvantage in the Big Apple. In the early 1790s, the city’s banks were all run by rich Federalists, and none of these establishments would lend money to Democratic-Republicans. So in 1798, Burr hatched a plot to get around this.

Taking advantage of a recent yellow fever epidemic, Burr asked the Federalist-controlled state legislature to give him a charter for what he called The Manhattan Company, a private organization that would provide New Yorkers with fresh, clean water. One of the most passionate supporters of Burr’s plan was none other than Mr. Federalist himself, Alexander Hamilton—though he would soon regret coming to his rival’s aid. In 1799, the legislature gave Burr that charter, which included a clause that allowed the Manhattan Company to employ “surplus capital” in any “monied transactions or operations not inconsistent with the constitution and laws of this state or of the United States.” Using this major loophole, Burr turned the Manhattan Company into a Democratic-Republican bank. It barely delivered water at all (although to keep the charter, a bank employee would ceremoniously pump water until 1923). Hamilton—along with the entire New York legislature—had been duped into helping Burr break the Federalist monopoly on banking in the city.

The Manhattan Company has since evolved into JP Morgan Chase & Co., one of the largest banking institutions in the world. It now owns the pistols that were used in the Burr-Hamilton duel.

6. IN THE SENATE, HE HELPED TENNESSEE ACHIEVE STATEHOOD.

Backed by New York Governor George Clinton and his family, Burr became a senator for the state of New York in 1791. Five years later, Senator Burr played a key role in Tennessee’s admission to the Union. Early in 1796, when the future state was still considered a federal territory, Governor William Blount spearheaded a constitutional convention at its voters’ behest. A constitution was drafted in Knoxville and then presented to both chambers of the U.S. Congress.

Upon reviewing the document, the House, with its Democratic-Republican majority, voted to grant Tennessee its statehood. However, the Senate was dominated by Federalists, who stalled—and a partisan gridlock ensued. As a manager of the bipartisan Senate committee that had been created to deal with this problem, Burr rallied most of his colleagues to Tennessee’s cause. In the end, the committee came out in favor of the territory’s bid for admission into the Union. Shortly thereafter, the Senate voted to give Tennessee statehood status. It officially became America’s 16th state on June 1, 1796.

Burr’s actions earned him the gratitude of many a prominent Tennessean. “I pronounce positively that Mr. Burr ... may be ranked among [Tennessee’s] very warmest friends,” Governor Blount declared. And when Burr visited the Volunteer State in 1805, Andrew Jackson entertained him as his personal houseguest in Nashville. At one point, Old Hickory even suggested that Burr relocate to Tennessee—where both men were quite popular—and seek public office there.

7. HE ONCE KEPT ALEXANDER HAMILTON OUT OF A DUEL.

NYPL, Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons

The man on the $10 bill nearly traded gunfire with America’s fifth president. Here’s what happened: In 1792, then-senator James Monroe and two of his fellow Democratic-Republicans had accused Hamilton of illegally giving government money to a man named James Reynolds, who was in prison for committing forgery. When they confronted him, Hamilton revealed that he was having an affair with Reynolds’s wife; Reynolds had demanded payment to keep quiet and to allow the affair to continue.

The investigation wrapped up shortly thereafter, but Hamilton wasn’t out of the woods yet: In 1797, muckraking journalist James Callender publicly exposed the affair. Convinced that Monroe must have leaked the story, Hamilton went to confront his longtime opponent. Angrily, the two politicians waged a shouting match. “Do you say I represented falsely? You are a scoundrel,” Monroe barked. “I will meet you like a gentleman,” Hamilton said. “I am ready,” Monroe replied, “get your pistols.”

Within a month, both founders were preparing themselves in earnest for a duel. But the showdown never came—and it was Burr who put an end it. Monroe picked Burr as his “second,” a designated go-between charged with negotiating the terms of this impending clash. For his part, Burr figured that both Hamilton and Monroe were being “childish,” and he did everything in his power to prevent them from squaring off. Eventually, he was able to calm both parties down: Thanks to Burr’s diplomacy, the duel went unfought.

8. HE LOVED CIGARS.

In Fallen Founder: the Life of Aaron Burr, historian Nancy Isenberg writes that John Greenwood, who served as Burr’s law clerk from 1814 to 1820, “knew Burr … as a constant cigar smoker, for instance—he had extra long cigars made especially for him.” Often, the law clerk would find his boss cloaked in a haze of tobacco smoke. During Burr’s travels in Europe, he’d sometimes burn through as many as six cigars a day. He also discovered that the choicer ones paired well with rancio wines, which he said “[recall] the spiciness of tobacco, and they are the ideal accompaniment for cigars, often complementing them better than brandies.”

9. HE’S ONE OF THE MOST IMPORTANT FIGURES IN THE HISTORY OF TAMMANY HALL.

To quote Gore Vidal, “Aaron Burr … professionalized politics in the United States.” Just look at Tammany Hall. Founded in 1788, this organization started out as the “Society of Saint Tammany,” a non-political New York City social club that appealed to immigrant and working families. But by the mid-19th century, it had been transformed into Gotham’s strongest political faction—and it was Burr who triggered the change.

During the election of 1800, Burr made it his mission to win New York’s 12 electoral votes for the Democratic-Republican party. To help him do so, he enlisted the Society of Saint Tammany. Though Burr never belonged to the club, he easily capitalized on the anti-Federalist sentiments of its immigrant members, who loathed the party of John Adams and his Alien & Sedition Acts. Under Burr’s leadership, Tammany volunteers campaigned door-to-door and raised money from local donors. All their hard work paid off in dividends when Thomas Jefferson and Burr carried New York en route to winning the White House.

10. AFTER BURR KILLED HAMILTON IN THAT DUEL, TWO DIFFERENT STATES INDICTED HIM FOR MURDER.

Like Washington, Jefferson eventually grew wary of Burr. Believing that the New Yorker had schemed to seize the presidency for himself in 1800, Jefferson resolved to drop his V.P. from the Democratic-Republican ticket in 1804. Realizing that he’d soon be out of the job, Burr made a bid to re-enter the arena of New York politics. In the spring of 1804, he ran for governor, but was roundly defeated by fellow Democratic-Republican Morgan Lewis.

It was during this campaign that Hamilton made the remarks that sealed his fate. While the race was going on, Hamilton vocally denounced Burr at a dinner party. Among those in attendance was Charles Cooper, a Democratic-Republican who sent off a letter to a friend describing Hamilton’s comments. Somehow, bits and pieces of the letter began appearing in local newspapers, prompting a stern denial from Hamilton’s father-in-law Philip Schuyler. An angry Cooper wrote a letter to Schuyler saying that Schuyler should be happy he had been “unusually cautious” and that “I could detail to you a still more despicable opinion which General Hamilton has expressed of Mr. Burr.” This letter too wound up in the press, and in June the relevant paper was sent to Burr, who wasted no time in contacting Hamilton. “You must perceive, Sir,” he wrote, “the necessity of a prompt and unqualified acknowledgement or denial of the use of any expressions which could warrant the assertions of Dr. Cooper.” Thus began an exchange of letters that culminated in the infamous duel of July 11, 1804.

As anyone who’s listened to the Hamilton soundtrack knows, Burr won. But what the show leaves out is the incident’s legal aftermath. That August, a New York coroner’s jury indicted him for murder. The following October, New Jersey—where the duel had been fought—did likewise. In a letter to his daughter, Burr explained his predicament thusly: “There is a contention of a singular nature between the two States of New York and New Jersey. The subject in dispute is which shall have the honor of hanging the Vice President. You shall have due notice of time and place.”

But Burr didn't hang. At the urging of Burr’s Democratic-Republican friends in the U.S. Senate, New Jersey dismissed its indictment against him in 1807; New York also dropped the murder charges.

11. BURR WAS FAMOUSLY TRIED FOR (AND ACQUITTED OF) TREASON.

Correctly assessing that the New York City area was no longer a safe place for him, Vice President Burr ran away to Georgia in August 1804, where he briefly stayed at the plantation of Major Pierce Butler. But as the sitting V.P., he couldn’t stay away from Capitol Hill for long. By November 4, he was back in Washington to preside over the impeachment trial of Samuel Chase, a Federalist Supreme Court Justice. The trial wrapped up on March 1, 1805 and Chase was acquitted. One day later, Burr gave a stirring farewell address to the Senate and took his leave. Soon, he would be replaced as Jefferson’s vice president by George Clinton. And yet, the administration hadn’t seen the last of Aaron Burr. Not by a long shot.

The word filibuster had a different meaning in the early 19th century. Back then, it was defined as “one who engages in unauthorized and irregular warfare against foreign states.” With his prospects on the east coast looking bleak, Burr headed westward to establish one in 1805. He attracted around 60 men to his cause and began arousing plenty of suspicion. His modern defenders argue that the former vice president was convinced there’d soon be a war between the U.S. and Mexico, and that he may have been planning to bide his time in the American south until said war broke out, at which point he’d lead his men into Spanish-controlled territory. But there were those who believed Burr wanted nothing less than to conquer America’s western holdings and create his own nation there.

President Jefferson assumed the worst. In 1806, the commander-in-chief called for Burr’s arrest. He got his wish on February 19, 1807, when Burr was apprehended in present-day Alabama. Burr was subsequently charged with treason and taken to the United States Court for the Fifth Circuit in Richmond, Virginia. Presiding over the case was John Marshall, Chief Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court, who said that the prosecution failed to provide sufficient evidence with which to convict Burr—and he was acquitted. Once again, though, Burr sensed that public opinion had turned sharply against him. In 1808, the disgraced politician set sail for Europe and didn’t return to the States until 1812.

12. WHEN BURR’S SECOND WIFE LEFT HIM, SHE HIRED ALEXANDER HAMILTON JR. AS HER DIVORCE ATTORNEY.

Talk about courtroom drama! Burr’s first wife had passed away in 1794, a victim of stomach cancer. He didn’t remarry until 1833, when he exchanged “I dos” with a rich widow named Eliza Jumel. (In the interim, his beloved daughter, Theodosia, vanished forever at sea.) After two turbulent years, Jumel accused Burr of committing adultery and of trying to liquidate her fortune, and sued for divorce. Her attorney during the proceedings was Alexander Hamilton Jr. Yes, the son of the man Aaron Burr had shot in 1804 represented his estranged second wife in a highly-publicized divorce case that was derided by haughty Whig newspapers. Burr died on September 14, 1836—the day this divorce was made final.

13. MARTIN VAN BUREN WAS RUMORED TO BE BURR’S ILLEGITIMATE SON.

They shared a knack for growing sideburns, but no genes. “Old Kinderhook,” as Van Buren was sometimes known, first met Burr in 1803. The two became reacquainted after Jefferson’s former V.P. came back from his self-imposed European exile and resumed his New York law practice. Together, they ended up collaborating on a handful of legal cases. This gave rise to the absurd rumor—as recorded by John Quincy Adams in his diary—that Van Buren was Burr’s bastard child.

14. A WORK OF AARON BURR EROTICA WAS ANONYMOUSLY PUBLISHED IN 1861.

No really, this exists. Burr’s enemies—including Hamilton—were known to accuse him of rampant womanizing. Such rumors help explain what is quite possibly the strangest work in American literature: 1861’s The Amorous Intrigues and Adventures of Aaron Burr.

Presented as a novelized biography, the book (whose author is unknown) retells everything from Burr’s birth in 1756 to his death 80 years later. But it also includes lurid descriptions of fictitious sexual conquests in several different states, with virgins, young widows, and unhappy wives constantly throwing themselves at our protagonist. For those who might be looking for a less racy novel about Jefferson’s first vice president, there’s Gore Vidal’s 1973 bestseller, Burr.

A New Ruth Bader Ginsburg Bobblehead Is Available for Pre-Order

The National Bobblehead Hall of Fame and Museum
The National Bobblehead Hall of Fame and Museum

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

The late Ruth Bader Ginsburg was a devout champion for feminism and civil rights, and her influence stretched from the halls of the Supreme Court to the forefront of popular culture, where she affectionately became known as the Notorious RBG. Though there are plenty of public tributes planned for Ginsburg in the wake of her passing, the National Bobblehead Hall of Fame and Museum has a new RBG bobblehead ($25) available for pre-order so you can honor her in your own home.

There are two versions of the bobblehead available, one of Ginsburg smiling and another with a more serious expression. Not only do the bobbleheads feature her in her Supreme Court black robe, but eagle-eyed fans will see she is wearing one for her iconic coded collars and her classic earrings.

RBG is far from the only American icon bobblehead that the Hall of Fame store has produced in such minute detail. They also have bobbleheads of Abraham Lincoln ($30), Theodore Roosevelt ($30), Alexander Hamilton ($30), and dozens of others.

For more information on the RBG bobblehead, head here. Shipments will hopefully be sent out by December 2020 while supplies last.

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Oral History: In 1985, Mr. Snuffleupagus Shocked Sesame Street

Sesame Workshop
Sesame Workshop

On November 8, 1971, during the third-season premiere of Sesame Street, Aloysius Snuffleupagus was introduced to the world and proved immediately indispensable: Lacking a watering pot, Big Bird was delighted to see the massive, lumbering creature use his trunk to tend to his garden. The two became fast friends.

No one else, however, could be absolutely certain that Mr. Snuffleupagus actually existed.

Time and again, “Snuffy” would shuffle into the frame, just missing the adult residents of Sesame Street. Big Bird would try to convince them his pal was real. They’d humor him, but never really believed it.

So it went for 14 years, until the show’s producers began to hear of a growing concern among viewers: In the wake of news reports about child abuse cases, Big Bird’s implausible eyewitness testimony about his oversized friend might have real-life consequences. If adults were ignoring Sesame Street's biggest star, would kids feel like they wouldn't be heard, either?

The solution? Get rid of the ambiguity and let Snuffy loose. Three decades after his coming-out party, Mental Floss spoke with the writers, producers, and performers who had the delicate, important task of restoring Big Bird’s credibility and resolving his droopy-eyed friend’s identity crisis.

I. The elephant in the room

Sesame Workshop

Sesame Street was just two years old when Jim Henson decided he wanted to incorporate a massive presence on the show: A puppet that required two men to operate. Dubbed Mr. Snuffleupagus, the character debuted in 1971. News media described him as a “large and friendly monster resembling an anteater.” Then-executive producer Dulcy Singer and writer Tony Geiss agreed he would be Big Bird’s not-quite-real friend—a reflection of the wandering imaginations of the show’s preschool-aged audience.

Norman Stiles (Writer/Head Writer, 1971-1995): The character was kind of a collaboration between [executive producer] Jon Stone and Jim Henson. I think the initial idea was really to be ambiguous in the sense that, well, Big Bird says he’s real and the audience sees him and yet he always manages to not be there when the other people were there—so is he real or isn’t he real? The whole idea was to not really answer that, but to leave it as an open question.

Emilio Delgado (“Luis,” 1971-2017): It was going with the whole thing of a child’s imaginary playmate, which a lot of kids have. Big Bird was the only one who could see him. When adults came around, he would be talking about Snuffy this, and Snuffy that. We’d just say, "Yeah, sure, OK." We didn’t believe him.

Carol-Lynn Parente (Executive Producer, 2005-2016): There was a lot of humor to be mined from the issue. We never explained whether he was imaginary or not. Kids were able to see him, but adults couldn’t. You never really knew—was he imaginary? Playing with that question was a lot of fun; kind of a healthy ambiguity.

Stiles: You really had to believe that it was just terrible coincidences and quirks of Snuffy’s own personality that made it so that he just wasn’t there when Big Bird wanted him to be there to introduce him to his friends.

Delgado: Jerry Nelson originally did the voice and was inside the puppet, in the front. Bryant Young was in the rear. Boy, did we get jokes out of that.

Parente: He’s one of the tougher puppets to operate. Just the massive size of him requires certain [camera] blocking. It’s very physical, and very warm inside his belly. It’s only so long the performers can go through takes before they stop and need to be fanned off before they can start again.

Delgado: Later, Jerry stopped doing it. Maybe his back was bothering him. That’s when Marty took it over.

II. Identity crisis

2004 Sesame Workshop

“Marty” is Martin P. Robinson, a puppeteer who assumed the front end and voice of Mr. Snuffleupagus in 1981. For the first 10 years, the character had been a proverbial one-joke pony (or elephant), catching sight of adults and getting so excited he somehow wound up missing them. This would continue for several more years, which eventually began to wear on the nerves of both Robinson and Caroll Spinney, the actor who has portrayed Big Bird since his inception in 1969. Robinson was especially vocal about Snuffy not being a figment of his friend's imagination.

Martin P. Robinson (via Still Gaming: Lee & Zee Show Podcast, 2009): He was never imaginary. I say that a lot. And I say it with great strength of conviction. He was my character, he was never imaginary; he just had bad timing. He was shy, he had bad timing, and the joke was, he’s big, you can’t miss him, but adults being the way they are—preoccupied, going to work, you know—they miss those little details. And Snuffleupagus just happened to be one of those little details that they kept missing year after year after year. So he was a good, real friend to Bird; it’s just that no one else ever took the time to actually meet him.

Delgado: How long can you play a joke out? As performers, as Muppeteers, as artists, you can only carry a story so far before you have to do something else with it. They probably felt that’s what was happening.

Robinson: Those scripts just got so old. Caroll and I would look at the scripts and say, "Oh, lord, this one again."

Delgado: The adults would play along, knowing he didn’t exist. At the same time, I liked the idea of Marty saying, "OK, he just happened to be there at the wrong time." People were barely missing him.

The actors’ desire to play off a new dynamic was soon joined by a more pressing, potentially catastrophic issue. In the early 1980s, news programs like 60 Minutes were reporting on troubling statistics involving child abuse both at home and in daycare centers. If Big Bird—ostensibly the show’s stand-in for the 6-year-old viewing audience—was being brushed aside when trying to convince people Snuffleupagus was real, there was the chance children might not be convinced adults would believe them if they came forward with more troubling claims.

Stiles: We started getting some letters from people who worked with children who had experienced some kind of abuse, and what we were told was that they often don’t think they’ll be believed because the stories are so fantastic in their minds.

Michael Davis (Author, Street Gang: The Complete History of Sesame Street): I remember having my own internal conversations about Snuffy. My kids were in daycare and there were a lot of those stories about what was happening in daycare, a lot of those stories about children being abducted and kids on the back of the milk cartons and all of that. It became kind of a national focus, sometimes bordering on a mania.

Parente: All this was really stemming from a specific set of incidences in the news, claims of sexual abuse going on in some daycare centers, and kids being questioned about what was going on. The fear was that if we represented adults not believing what kids said, they might not be motivated to tell the truth. That caused us to rethink the storyline: Is something we’ve been doing for 14 years—that seemed innocent enough—now something that’s become harmful?

Delgado: It was a very serious consideration. It was something that could happen in their lives, and the [Children’s Television] Workshop was very attuned to things like that.

The CTW—now Sesame Workshop—is the organization comprised of researchers, psychologists, and freelance child experts who generate and evaluate the show’s themes and messages to make sure they’re going to be understood. Revealing Snuffleupagus required a concentrated effort to make certain Sesame Street’s writers and producers were communicating the idea effectively.

Parente: The process has been pretty much the same all these years. We look to experts in childhood development and that helps guide us—what’s the best way to address what we want to address? That’s the model Sesame was founded on, with writers, producers, educators, and researchers all working together.

Davis: I do think that the result from Sesame Street was a smart one because Big Bird, as a character, is a projection of a 6-year-old. So to have a situation where the 6-year-old’s eyewitness reports are being doubted so deeply and ridiculed ... They are kind mocking him a little bit and rolling their eyes at him.

Parente: It’s rare a children’s show is grounded in the real world. Much of our competition is in the animated world, where fantastical things happen. This is a real neighborhood. We think of it as kids coming to a play date with real friends, and it requires a real investment in how you tell a story.

Lawrence Rubin, Ph.D. (Child Psychologist): The writers took a real-world concern and asked themselves, "Are we helping or hurting kids by keeping Snuffy in the imaginary closet, and do we have a moral imperative to respond to a real issue by changing something about the show?"

Stiles: We wanted kids to know that grownups will believe them, but we wanted to preserve the fun that we were having, so I proposed that we have some of the grownups believe Big Bird, and that was the first step.

For the show’s 16th season in 1984 to 1985, producers laid the groundwork for the eventual reveal by depicting Big Bird as knowing the difference between fantasy and reality, with a handful of adults taking him at his word even with Snuffy still at large.

Robinson: They devised this two-year scheme, where in the first year they would have some of the cast members learn from Bird that Bird could indeed tell the difference between what was real and what was imaginary, that he knew the difference and was very clear about it. And once they got that from Bird, they said, "Okay, you know the difference. If you say Snuffy is real, then he’s real and we’d love to meet him, whenever the timing is right." And the other half of the adults said, "What, are you crazy? He’s imaginary! There’s no such thing as a Snuffleupagus."

Stiles: That changed the dynamic between the grownups ... Now, Big Bird wasn’t alone. He had grownups believing him, and we had a new dynamic where the grownups who believed him would now actually try to see Snuffy. That went on, I think, for about a year. I don’t remember the exact combination of conversations, but we finally decided, alright, let’s move. Just creatively, this has run its course.

III. The reveal

The show’s 17th season premiere aired on November 18, 1985. As promised, Big Bird made arrangements to introduce Snuffy to the adults on Sesame Street by telling them he’d yell out a secret word (“Food!”) when they were ready. Unfortunately, Snuffy is too nervous to remain idle, and Big Bird has a few false alarms that make the adults even more dubious.

Rubin: Watching this now, I’m 60 years old, sitting on the edge of my chair, going, "Oh, God, don’t go away! Stay there! Wait!"

Stiles: [Our goal] was to do what we had always done before, which was, "If you stay here, he’ll be here."

Robinson: They did it in one show ... I always thought it would have been nice if they could have revealed him to one person at a time. So that one person would have actually seen him, and then go back screaming to the rest saying, "I saw him!"

In a somewhat bizarre non-sequitur, talk show host Phil Donahue appears to pick up his broken toaster from Luis’s Fix-It Shop and begins to engage characters on the merits of Big Bird’s preferred code word.

Davis: You know, the first thing that comes to mind is that bimodal audience that they always talked about and writing something that would be appealing to adults as much as it would be to kids. Having Phil Donahue being the protagonist kind of making fun of himself and his show was hilarious.

Parente: There are plenty of studies that prove kids get more of the educational value when there’s co-viewing going on, so things like Donahue and other celebrities are by design. When you have a parent viewing with their child, they can ask questions and spawn a conversation.

After some protracted teasing of the audience—Snuffy can’t seem to stay put—the entire cast meets Snuffy and stares at him in awe.

Robinson: He’s starting to peel off and Elmo actually grabs onto his trunk and holds him down. There was a shot when they actually pinned Elmo onto the trunk, and I’m whipping him around in the air like a pinwheel. But it held him up just long enough so that the cast actually showed up, and saw him there. And so, one by one, down the line, it was this line of shocked faces. And they all came up and shook hands with him.

Delgado: We were all amazed that this giant elephant-looking thing was actually real. You get a big reaction from everybody, and everybody was very happy Big Bird had been telling the truth all along. He was very happy people believed him.

Stiles: Big Bird [said] "Well, now what do you have to say?" You know, that was really his moment, and I just loved giving him the opportunity to say that.

Rubin: It was incredibly respectful of a child. The conversation did not diminish Big Bird, it wasn’t dismissive or pandering. It’s how you hope a conversation with someone wishing to be heard would go.

Delgado: It was kind of a big party. And Big Bird has a child’s mind, so he was satisfied. Like, "See, I told you he was real!"

Near the end of the episode, cast member Bob McGrath makes a pointed comment: “From now on, we’ll believe you whenever you tell us something.”

Rubin: It was so honest. Some parents get caught up in authoritarian mode and don’t have the flexibility to retract, recant, or acknowledge a kid’s reality. He was the collective voice of parents—"Sorry, we should’ve listened."

Parente: [A line like that] is exactly what we look to the child experts for, bringing in or soliciting experts to weigh in on specific dialogue to get it right. Simplicity is key, particularly with kids. It’s not about making it flowery with jokes, not doing it in the form of song. Songs are great, but often lyrical messaging is not necessarily the best takeaway. When it’s simple and straightforward, that’s when you have your best chance.

IV. Aftermath

Sesame Workshop

In 1985, Sesame Street was averaging 10 million viewers a week, making any pivotal episode hugely influential with its young audience. Later that year, they depicted the characters of Gordon (Roscoe Orman) and Susan (Loretta Long) adopting a child. Coupled with acknowledging the real-life death of cast member Will Lee (Mr. Hooper) in 1982, Snuffy’s status as a real Sesame citizen was part of the show’s overall evolution from teaching the alphabet to imparting life lessons.

Davis: I think it was a really smart thing for them to eliminate that as a possibility for the viewer and to say that even as outrageous as the claim sounded at first, here was this real-life big woolly mammoth of a friend that they just had not yet met. I give them a lot of credit for changing with the times and I remember some people saying, "Oh, it was politically correct," but it’s not that at all. It’s more that society changes and the way that we view things changes and Sesame Street has successfully negotiated those waters through the years.

Snuffy got topical again in 1992, when the show decided to depict his parents going through a divorce. Unlike his big reveal, this one didn’t go so well.

Parente: It was the first time in history we ever taped an episode and then didn't air it.

Stiles: He had kind of this family going and it helped that we had this family. There weren’t any other puppet families that we had, so I think it was a natural choice.

Delgado: He got a little sister later on.

Davis: It is interesting that they choose to have Snuffy’s parents get divorced because that character, he’s a little bit of a downer. He’s got a little Eeyore about him.

Parente: We knew enough to put it through the rigors of testing before it would air. And it was a lovely episode, but we found kids were upset after watching it. They were just not familiar with what divorce was.

Delgado: Kids freaked out.

Stiles: The shows weren’t necessarily for the child who’s watching whose parents are divorced, although that was part of it. It was, I think, more so that children would understand if they meet other children whose parents are divorced … The whole thing is difficult, because you’re opening up this can of worms for children who may not have even thought of the possibility that their parents might get divorced. Now all of a sudden, they walk into the kitchen and see their parents arguing about something and they go, "Uh-oh."

Parente: Snuffy’s family was going through it in real time, right in the midst of the crisis. We learned if we can see the characters after coming through divorce, it’s a better way of approaching it.

Despite the hiccup, Snuffy has remained a high-profile and viable member of the Sesame gang for well over 40 years. Most recently, he’s been spotted on Twitter, where he follows just one account: Big Bird’s.

Parente: One of my favorite things is to see people meet Snuffy for the first time. He’s bigger than life. He takes your breath away.

Davis: Sesame Street at its finest moments always found a way to include humor and to use it to help smooth things along and to help it go down in a way that was acceptable. You can’t give enough credit to the writers for brilliantly finding a way to make things funny for people who drink from sippy cups and people who drink from martini glasses.

Parente: We want to be helpful and useful for kids as well as parents. I think that’s why we’re here, 46 years later, always paying attention. What is it kids and parents need from us? In 1985, what they needed us to do was to stop that storyline and present a model of adults listening to children.

Delgado: It's definitely one of the biggest things to happen on the show.

Parente: The appeal of Snuffy is that he’s Big Bird’s best friend. People love Big Bird, so he benefits by association: "If that’s Big Bird’s friend, he’s my friend, too."

This story has been updated for 2020.