A look back at the inauspicious inaugurations in US history

While regarded as historic and celebratory occasions, not all US presidential inaugurations have passed off as the solemn state event desired, as Robert Hume describes.

A look back at the inauspicious inaugurations in US history

At noon today in Washington, 10 weeks after stunning the world by winning the US election, Donald J Trump will take the Oath of Office and be sworn in as America’s 45th president.

A parade, three inaugural balls, and five days of celebrations and concerts will follow. Elton John and The Rolling Stones were quick to deny reports that they would be playing.

But not all presidential inaugurations have gone entirely to plan. Electrical faults, fluffed lines, drunken oratory, and an attack of explosive diarrhoea have blighted performances over the years.

Ode to… what’s his name?

Friday, January 20, 1961 brought snow eight inches deep, closed Washington airport, and left over 1,400 cars stranded on the inaugural parade route along Pennsylvania Avenue. Worse followed.

1961: Poet Robert Frost struggled to read his poem composed specially for president-elect, ‘Mr John Finley’.

1961: Poet Robert Frost struggled to read his poem composed specially for president-elect, ‘Mr John Finley’.

When John F. Kennedy began his address, a short circuit caused smoke to pour out from the lectern. “You must have a hot speech”, Dwight Eisenhower whispered to his successor.

When 86 year-old-poet, Robert Frost, took to the podium to read a piece he had composed specially, the dazzling glare reflecting off the snow caused him to squint at the page and stumble over his words, and he failed to get beyond the third line. Vice-President Lyndon B. Johnson offered his top hat as a shade, but Frost waved it aside, and instead recited from memory another ode, The Gift Outright, which he dedicated “to the president-elect, Mr John Finley”.

Liquored up

Having drunk heavily at a party the night before, vice-president-elect, Andrew Johnson, downed three glasses of “medicinal” whiskey to fortify himself, before walking “unsteadily” into the chamber at Abraham Lincoln’s second inaugural on March, 4, 1865, leaning on a colleague’s arm.

1865: Vice-President Andrew Johnson was tired and emotional at the second inauguration of Abraham Lincoln.

1865: Vice-President Andrew Johnson was tired and emotional at the second inauguration of Abraham Lincoln.

Instead of giving the required brief formal address, he disgraced himself by rambling on and on, his speech — mainly about himself — slurred and incoherent. Eventually, a second tug on his coat brought him to a stop. After this he gave the Bible a “tipsy kiss”. Too drunk and confused to swear-in the new senators, this job had to be done by a clerk.

As the ceremony was about to move into the open air, Lincoln was heard to whisper: “Do not let Johnson speak outside”.

“I was never so mortified in my life”, commented Senator Zachariah Chandler, “had I been able to find a hole I would have dropped through it out of sight”. But Lincoln was more understanding: “I have known Andrew Johnson for many years. He made a slip the other day but you need not be scared; Andy ain’t a drunkard”.

Loose talk

Following a stay at the National Hotel on Washington’s Pennsylvania Avenue, President-Elect James Buchanan went down with such a “violent” attack of diarrhoea and sickness on his inauguration day, March, 4 1857, that he wasn’t sure he could attend, and his doctor stood close by throughout.

1857: President-Elect JamesBuchanan suffered ’violent’ diarrhoea.

1857: President-Elect JamesBuchanan suffered ’violent’ diarrhoea.

Many other dignitaries who stayed at the same hotel also experienced diarrhoea, nausea, vomiting, and swollen tongues; and a few, including Buchanan’s nephew and secretary, died of the mysterious sickness, which became known as National Hotel Disease. The fashionable hotel was, in reality, a death trap.

An open sewer lay not far from where food was prepared, leaking pungent gas into the premises all day long; and a decomposing rat had recently been found floating in a water tank in the hotel’s attic. But at that time poor sanitation was ruled out and foul play was suspected. Some believed that radical abolitionists had introduced arsenic into the hotel’s water supply to try to poison Buchanan.

Killer speech

Military hero William Henry Harrison (68) turned down the offer of a ride in a closed carriage to his inauguration on a blustery cold March day in 1841, and instead insisted on travelling by train and horseback. Standing outside for the entire proceedings in a howling snowstorm, the ninth US president delivered his address without an overcoat, hat or gloves.

1841: William Henry Harrison died a month after ceremony.

1841: William Henry Harrison died a month after ceremony.

The speech, which he had written himself, proved excruciatingly dull, and at 8,445 words, was twice the length of any other president’s. It ran for one hour 45 minutes, and would have lasted longer if his secretary of state had not edited out references to seventeen Roman proconsuls. Harrison later attended his parade, and still wearing his wet clothing, partied at three inauguration balls.

Shortly afterwards he went down with a chill, leading to pneumonia and his death a one month later, on April, 4. No US president has served a shorter term. Many people at the time believed that he had been killed, literally, by his inaugural speech.

A pig of an inauguration

No flowers or confetti were thrown on January 20, 1969 to celebrate Richard Nixon being sworn in – just tomatoes, eggs, horse manure, rocks and smoke bombs, as his black limousine drove along Pennsylvania Avenue.

Determined to give Nixon a “rousing welcome”, demonstrators had been swarming into Washington for several days, many marching along the actual parade route, in protest against the Vietnam War. Flags were burned, and a counter-inauguration held in a tent on the National Mall.

A member of a small guerilla theatre group, called Super Joel Yippie, had presented a live sow, called “Ms Pigasus”, who he claimed was the wife of a certain Mr Pigasus who protesters in Chicago were ready to “in-HOG-urate” as president.

1969: An alternative in-HOG-uration was staged tocounter Richard Nixon’s celebrations.

1969: An alternative in-HOG-uration was staged tocounter Richard Nixon’s celebrations.

But Ms Pigasus escaped and had to be chased by three police officers on horseback, two in cars and one on foot. Eventually, Super Joel himself caught Ms Pigasus, and brought her back on stage to the delight of the crowds.

The inaugural ball offers further opportunity for mishaps:

Food fights

Ulysses S. Grant (left) had back-to-back disasters in this department. His first inaugural ball in 1869 turned out to be a free-for-all. Fights broke out over food, and the cook threatened guests when they complained.

1869-1873: Ulysees S Grant inauguration balls were plagued by fighting guests at the first and raining frozen canaries in the second.

1869-1873: Ulysees S Grant inauguration balls were plagued by fighting guests at the first and raining frozen canaries in the second.

Returning to the cloakroom to collect their coats, they found many of the staff insufficiently literate to be able to read the tickets.

Raining cats and dogs? No… birds!

The night before Grant’s second inaugural ball in 1873 was bitterly cold, the coldest on record for Washington to this day. After the previous fiasco, no permanent building had been allocated for the event. But nobody had thought of providing heating in the tent, which had been put in Judiciary Square.

At noon the temperature was still only -9 degrees Celsius, and gusts of cold wind made it feel still colder. Several cadets in the parade had been sent to hospital with frostbite. At the ball that evening, there were complaints that dinners were icy, and that the champagne was frozen solid. One guest described the coffee as “frappé”.

The musicians’ breath froze in their instruments, making it difficult for them to play. When they danced, guests tripped up and bumped into one another in their long overcoats and boots, which they had never dared to take off.

To try to add a festive touch, Grant had imported hundreds of canaries for the occasion, and had released them to perch above the celebrations and sing to the guests. Many froze, slipped from their perches, raining down on the heads of the unfortunate guests.

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