William Howard Taft: Fat Jokes

severe obesity
"Not much can be said about Taft's health without saying a great deal about his size" 1a. Taft was 5 feet 11.5 inches tall 2. He weighed 243 pounds when he graduated from college 3a and, by all accounts, carried it well. By age 48, when he had been Secretary of War for two years, he weighed 320 pounds 3b. Under the guidance of English physician Dr. N. E. Yorke-Davies, he lost 70 pounds over the next year and a half 3b. But two years after that, he was once again over 300 pounds MORE. He weighed 335-340 pounds when he left the White House [see photo MORE ]. He then lost weight rapidly, dropping to 270 in a year and a half. The summer before he died, he weighed 244 pounds, just one pound more than his college weight. Details and graphs are available on the Apneos web site and in reference 4.

Taft was big almost from birth. It's clear, however, that he had an enormous appetite. MORE

Taft's size impressed some people, but often made him the butt of jokes SEE BELOW. Note: Judged solely by body mass index, a 5-foot 11-inch person weighing more than 290 pounds is severely obese.

Be careful. The web has much information about Taft's body size, a great deal of it stemming from an unfortunate error-filled article in a medical journal in 2013 5 that Dr. Zebra took pains to refute 6. Taft was not 6-feet 2-inches tall and there is no record he ever weighed more than 340 pounts.

Taft's size made him an imposing presence:
  • "He was fat, but he had the frame that carries weight with an effect of majesty, of the sort that primitive men, and even modern men in the average, like to see in their kings and leaders." 7a

  • "He looks like an American bison, a gentle, kind one." 7b

  • "It is good to see Big Bill Taft enter a room after a number of other men. He reminds you of a great battleship following the smaller vessels, coming into port with her brass bright and plowing deep. You feel that when a giant is so amiable it would be impolite not to agree with him; and, moreover, it would be unwise, considering that the power of the United States is behind him. Foreigners have observed that he looked like the United States personified whatever they mean by that. With his smile and his inflexible purpose he has managed to keep the gun covers on when a smaller man might have had to take them off. Besides, he does give the impression that if he did begin firing it would be in broadsides to the bitter end; and that helps in any negotiation." 7c

More often, however, Taft's size made him the target of jokes. "They made infinite jests ahout his fatness -- and no one heard or repeated the jokes with greater savor than Taft himself. Making a speech he would pause, with an effect of suspense, just long enough to intensify the audience's attention; then throughout the immense torso and up into the broad features would run little tremors and heavings, rising to a climax in a rumbling chuckle as infectious as only a fat man could achieve, and Taft would tell a story in which the point was, as he would say in an engaging falsetto, 'on me.'" 7a

  • "While he was in the Philippines, disturbing reports about his health caused Secretary of War Root to send a cabled inquiry. Taft cabled back that he was perfectly all right -- he had just finished a twenty-five-mile horseback ride and was feeling fine. Root read that, smiled, and sent off another cable of solicitude: 'How is horse?'" 7a

  • "Justice Brewer of the Supreme Court said that 'Taft is the politest man in Washington; the other day he gave up his seat in a street-car to three ladies.'" 7d

  • "One day I was in the President's private room ... when [good-natured Senator] Chauncey Depew came in. ... After we had talked serious matters for a few minutes and were about to depart, Mr. Depew stepped up to Taft and, taking liberties that I never would have thought of taking with a president, said to him, putting his hand on Mr. Taft's big frontal development: 'What are you going to call it when it comes, Mr. President?' It was just about that time when Mr. Taft was beginning to have some difficulty with [Theodore] Roosevelt, and he quickly responded: 'Well, if it's a boy, I'll call it William; if it's a girl, I'll call it Theodora; but if it turns out to be just wind, I'll call it Chauncey.'" 8a

  • "A lady calling on him in the interest of her son's career in the army, had received the assurance she wished, and, departing, said, as the highest feminine conception of showing appreciation: 'Mr. Taft, you're really not near so fat as they say you are.'" 7e

  • After Taft lost the election of 1912, Yale University sent a man to the White House to suggest that Taft accept a Chair of Law at the University. Taft replied that a Chair would not be adequate, but that if the University would provide a Sofa of Law, "it might be all right" 2a.

  • Taft once sat down in a theater and found his bulk firmly locked into the too-narrow seat. He remarked to his brother: "Horace, if this theater burns, it has got to burn around me" 9a. As a Yale professor, Taft had his own specially-widened seat in the front row of the main university auditorium. The audience once saw him come down the aisle "accompanied by a protesting usher, who departed, apparently satisfied, after a brief whispered colloquy." Taft settled into his seat, then said to the woman next to him, "I lost my ticket, but was fortunately able to establish my identity by the breadth of my beam and the corresponding breadth of this seat" 2b.

    Taft was the first President to use automobiles regularly. There was a debate in Congress whether money should be appropriated to acquire autos for the White House. One Congressman remarked during the debate: "The incoming President [Taft] proposes to abandon horses for reasons that the gentleman well knows: he does not wish to violate the law against cruelty to animals" 10a.

  • Theodore Roosevelt remarked that Taft should give up riding because it was doing him no good and because it was "cruelty to the horse" 11a.

  • As Secretary of War, Taft once got stuck in fresh asphalt "like a giant Stegosaurus in a tar pit" 12a. [If you know a more complete reference to this story, please contact me. Thanks.] Taft also got stuck in a leather chair on a hot day, held in place by perspiration.

  • Taft and his wife visited Japan in 1900. "On account of his unusual proportions [Taft was] an object of tremendous interest to the Japanese." 13a For example, at dinner with high-ranking Japanese officials "the mammoth American attempted in vain 'to achieve the squatting position.' ... Finally a Japanese politely rushed out of the room and returned with a padded stool for Taft. For the rest of the evening he 'looked majestically' on the rest of the party. During his visit, Taft discovered that the Japanese enjoyed looking at him as much as he did at them." 12b.

  • In one remote Japanese village, Taft had to take a ricksha from the railroad station to his hotel, no other transportation being available. When Taft got in, "the unfortunate coolie to whom it belonged began to utter strange sounds. He rolled his eyes and gesticulated frantically until he prevailed upon a second man to help him in propelling his unaccustomed burden. But even then his excitement did not abate. As they approached the first rise in the road some of the villagers along the way, attracted, no doubt, by the coolie's weird cries, came out to stare and, as usual, remained to laugh. The little 'ricksha man began chattering and grimacing at all of them and kept it up until he had enlisted the services of at least half the population of the village to help him in attaining the crest of the hill." 13b

  • On a visit to Hong Kong, Taft's sedan chair, borne by coolies, had collapsed under his weight. For Taft's second visit the American Consul General in Hong Kong took care to prevent a recurrence. "He solemnly contracted with one Yu Wo, a chair builder of the city, to fashion a sedan which would be amply strong. The documents in the case were duly forwarded to the State Department at Washington and released for publication in New York" 3c:
    I, the undersigned, Yu Wo of 15B Wellington Street agree to make a sedan chair for the American consul general. . . . This chair is to be used to carry the American giant, the Honorable William Howard Taft. Said Taft being one of the most conspicuous ornaments of the American Wai Wu Pai [Imperial Cabinet], it would obviously discredit this nation if the chair should disintegrate. . . . To avert international complications of this sort, I, Yu Wo, assert my skill as a chairmaker.

    It shall be reinforced at all weak points. . . . The shafts shall be of double diameter. The body itself shall be of eventful width. ... Red cloth shall adorn the seat of the chair and gleaming brass look defiantly out to a point that unconsciously, fokis, amahs and dealers in rice shall say: "Certainly this nation of the open door that has so long befriended the Middle Kingdom is a great power." ...

    The consul general may have the use of the chair October 11 and 12, 1907, after which the chair belongs to me, with the understanding that if ex-President Cleveland, also reputed to be of heroic size, tours the world, the consul general shall direct his steps to my shop. . . . With such precautions do I safeguard the dignity of a friendly power and contribute an honest chairmaker's part in preserving the Peace of the East.

Alas, "by the time Taft had been a year in the White House, the fat man jokes about him, which when he was Secretary of War had been genial and kindly, began to take on a caustic tang." 7f
  • During one cross-country Presidential trip, Taft's aide was appalled by "the bad manners of our children [in addressing the President]. It was better when we reached the South, but even there we sometimes heard saucy little brats yell out, 'Hello, Bill,' and sometimes, 'Hello, Fatty.'" 14a
Cited Sources
  1. Bumgarner, John R. The Health of the Presidents: The 41 United States Presidents Through 1993 from a Physician's Point of View. Jefferson, NC: MacFarland & Company, 1994.
    a  p.167

    Comment: Devotes one chapter to each President, through Clinton. Written for the layperson, well-referenced, with areas of speculation clearly identified, Dr. Zebra depends heavily on this book. Dr. Bumgarner survived the Bataan Death March and has written an unforgettable book casting a physician's eye on that experience.

  2. Hicks, F. C. William Howard Taft, Yale Professor of Law & New Haven Citizen. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1945.
    a  pp.111-112  b  pp.113-114
  3. Pringle, Henry F. The Life and Times of William Howard Taft: A Biography. New York: Farrar & Rinehart, Inc., 1939.
    a  p.1072  b  p.287  c  p.334
  4. Sotos, JG. Taft and Pickwick: sleep apnea in the White House. Chest. 2003;124:1133-1142.
  5. Levine, DI. Corpulence and correspondence: President William H. Taft and the medical management of obesity. Annals of Internal Medicine. 2013; 159: 565-570.

    Comment: This error-filled article should be ignored.

  6. Sotos, JG. Corpulence and correspondence. Annals of Internal Medicine. 2014; 160: 580.

    Comment: Refutes the unfortunate Levine article.

  7. Sullivan, Mark. Our Times: 1900-1925 (Six volumes). New York: Charles Scribners' Sons, 1926-1940.
    a  p.III-14  b  p.III-14 quoting Arthur Brisbane  c  pp.III-15-16 quoting Frederick Palmer  d  pp.III-14-15  e  p.III-15  f  p.IV-408
  8. Watson, James. As I Knew Them: Memoirs of James E. Watson. Indianapolis, IN: Bobbs-Merrill, 1936.
    a  p.133
  9. Dole, RJ. Great Presidential Wit. NY: Scribner, 2001.
    a  p.134
  10. Bromley, Michael L. William Howard Taft and the First Motoring Presidency. Jefferson, NC: MacFarland, 2003.
    a  p.76
  11. Abbott, Lawrence F. (ed.). The Letters of Archie Butt: Personal Aide to President Roosevelt. Garden City, NY: Doubleday, Page & Company, 1924.
    a  p.165
  12. Anderson, Judith Icke. William Howard Taft: An Intimate History. New York: W. W. Norton, 1981.
    a  p.28  b  p.68
  13. Taft, Mrs. William Howard (Helen Herron Taft). Recollections of Full Years. New York: Dodd, Mead & Company, 1914.
    a  p.57  b  pp.57-58
  14. Butt, Archibald W. Taft and Roosevelt: The Intimate Letters of Archie Butt, Military Aide. Garden City, NY: Doubleday (1930). Volume 1: pages 1-432. Volume 2: pages 433-862.
    a  p.760

    Comment: Butt, an Army officer, was military aide first to President Theodore Roosevelt and then to President William Taft. On April 14, 1912, Butt was at sea aboard the Titanic returning from a European vacation that Taft had insisted he take. President Taft later said: "When I heard that part of the ship's company had gone down, I gave up hope for the rescue of Major Butt, unless by accident. I knew that he would certainly remain on the ship's deck until every duty had been performed and every sacrifice made that properly fell on one charged, as he would feel himself charged, with responsibility for the rescue of others." Taft was correct. Butt did not survive the sinking.

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