The previous careers of a few of our presidents are, of course, common knowledge. Ronald Reagan was a journeyman Hollywood actor, Jimmy Carter was a successful peanut farmer; and, as we all well know, the former and 45th president of the United States, Donald Trump, was a real estate developer and reality TV star.
However, did you know about the previous jobs held by some of our other commanders and chiefs? The list of job titles they held ranged from interesting to hilarious to downright terrifying. So read on to discover which president made toys, which one shouted for a living, and which one was literally an executioner.
We’ve all heard the famous nickname ‘Honest Abe’ when referring to the 16th president of the United States, Abraham Lincoln. But did you know that moniker wouldn’t be earned in his time as a politician? He actually received that name while owning a bar and general store in New Salem, Illinois, and it was given to him by the patrons due to ‘the fairness in his dealings’.
After local store owner Denton Offutt’s (who gave Lincoln his first job as a store clerk) business failed in 1832 and Lincoln had played his part in the Black Hawk War, he decided to try his hand at owning and running a general store and drinking establishment himself with the help of an old militia friend named William F. Berry.
The new establishment, known as ‘Berry and Lincoln’, sold things like lard, bacon, firearms, beeswax, and honey and would receive their liquor license in 1833. The duo began selling brandy, wine, and whiskey, but this decision would ultimately be the undoing of their short-lived venture as Berry had a tendency to drink the stock.
His alcoholism would eventually lead the business to fail and put the two in considerable debt. Lincoln would leave the business in April 1833 to become the postmaster of New Salem, but the debt that followed him wouldn’t fully be paid off until 1848, when he was a congressman.
The man who would go on to be our country’s 17th president, due to the assassination of our last entry, Abraham Lincoln, had the most humble of beginnings. While growing up in abject poverty in Raleigh, North Carolina, Jackson would, along with his 14-year-old brother William, be apprenticed as a tailor at just age 10 with a man named James Selby.
The idea of Selby giving these two poverty-stricken boys a trade might seem honorable at first, until, that is, you learn that they were legally bound to serve him until their 21st birthdays.
Although Johnson was first taught to read and write by the citizens who came to the shop, he didn’t like the fact he was bound to servitude and, as such, ran away after five years along with his brother.
Selby, infuriated by this, placed a ten-dollar reward for the return of the two Johnson boys, even offering at one stage to give the reward for the return of Andrew Johnson alone. The brothers fled to Laurens, South Carolina, where they continued working as tailors.
Eventually, he wanted to return home to Raleigh and hoped that he might buy out his apprenticeship, but Selby was clearly an unreasonable man. Fearing he would be apprehended for abandoning Selby, he decided to head west to make his fortune.
We all know how, in the wake of ‘Tricky Dick’s’ escapades, Gerald Ford became the 38th President of the United States, and he had a lot to contend with. The healing of the nation after the failures and losses in Vietnam, presiding over the worst economy in the four decades since the Great Depression, and the continuing Cold War with the Soviet Union
However, few give Ford credit for some of the good he did in office (pardoning Nixon was not one of them). One of his overlooked achievements was the expansion of the National Park System; he added eighteen new areas in his time as president.
What is also overlooked is why he had such an affinity for America’s green and pleasant land.
He would describe the summer of 1936, when he was aged 23, as “one of the greatest summers of my life,” when he worked as a seasonal park ranger at Yellowstone National Park, and he would be the only US president to do so.
While serving in Yellowstone, one of Ford’s assignments was as an armed guard on the bear-feeding truck, a practice they would end in 1970.
This job would indeed give him a love for the great outdoors but also instill an early dislike of elitism. This would become quite apparent as his time at Yellowstone also saw him working at the Canyon Hotel and Lodge, where his job was to meet and greet visiting VIPs.
Ford would pointedly explain to his supervisor that it was “undemocratic and un-American to give special attention to VIPs.”
Many presidents have been known for their skills as great orators. These abilities have been honed over a number of years through public speaking, but one, the 23rd president of the United States, Benjamin Harrison, and grandson to the 9th president, William Harrison, earned his spurs by literally shouting for a living.
After graduating from Miami University in Oxford, Ohio, in 1852 and marrying his wife Caroline Scott the following year, he would study law with Judge Bellamy Storer of Cincinnati before eventually finishing his studies and ending up practicing law in the office of John H. Ray in Indianapolis, Indiana.
When Harrison arrived in Indianapolis, he quickly discovered that establishing a law practice of his own was much more difficult than he had anticipated. Thankfully, U.S. Marshal John L. Robinson was on hand to help him out and offered him the position of court crier for the princely sum of $2.50 per day.
Standing on the steps of the Federal Court of Indiana, he would bellow out the day’s proceedings to the passing crowds. Thankfully, this position would only last for about a year until he formed a law partnership with William Wallace, where he received a steady stream of clients and a regular non shouting income.
Although the 30th president of the United States, Calvin Coolidge, would eventually take a more conventional route to the Oval Office by becoming a lawyer, then governor (of Massachusetts), before taking the big job, his early days would see him take on a rather quiet path.
Known in his time as president as a man of few words, he would restore public confidence in the White House after his predecessor Warren G. Harding’s scandal-ridden administration (learn more about that here). His policy of minimal governmental interference in the economic affairs of individuals and American society, in general, earned him many admirers.
But where did this quiet demeanor and desire to leave people to just get on with their work come from? The answer may lie in the weekend job he took to pay for his high school education. Working at the Ludlow Toy Manufacturing Company, he would spend his time meticulously crafting doll carriages.
Bill Clinton’s tenure as the 42nd president of the United States would come with his fair share of controversies – yes, “that woman” – and some great successes, presiding over the longest period of peacetime economic expansion in American history. It might come as quite a surprise to learn that his business mind developed much earlier than you would think – at age 13, to be exact.
In 2012, he revealed the secret to his early success in a talk at the National Retail Federation’s 101st convention, when he recalled his first retail job working in a grocery store. While working there, the enterprising young Clinton decided that he wanted a little side business of his own and approached the owner with his idea.
During his early years, Clinton had built up quite a comic book collection, so he decided this would be his first business venture. He would convince the grocery store owner to allow him to set up his own retail business within the store to sell his collection. During the months he worked at the store, he would successfully sell every last one.
Clinton would make himself the tidy sum of $100 for his efforts, telling the convention how it made him feel like a millionaire. However, as Clinton would be good at in his later years, he regretted his decision, explaining, “I now know I was a fool. If I had saved those comic books, they’d be worth $200,000 to $300,000 today. But it was a good experience.”
This book might help you learn more about the life of Bill Clinton.
Harry S. Truman
Harry S. Truman (the S in his name just stands for S) has a legacy that few presidents would envy. His decision to drop atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, killing anywhere between 129,000 and 226,000, took a man willing to take decisive action. This wasn’t always the case, as his early career saw him try on a few hats.
After high school graduation at the age of 17, he took a few odd jobs but would eventually land himself a job as a bank clerk. By the age of 22, he had returned home to help his father with their farm, where he began courting his former classmate, Bess Wallace. After she initially declined his proposal of marriage, this made the young man even more determined to make a career for himself; he just wasn’t sure what.
After his father passed away, Truman would use the money from the estate to invest in both zinc and oil, but these endeavors would see him fall into debt. His ‘career’ was interrupted by WWI, where he served as a captain in the army. After the war, Truman, along with his military friend Edward “Eddie” Jacobson, decided to go into the haberdashery business.
So, on November 28, 1919, at 104 West 12th Street, Truman & Jacobson haberdashery would open its doors. Mostly selling gent’s accessories and suits, the business would see some initial success, but come September 1922, the doors had to be closed for good due to an economic downturn.
The failure of this business left both men heavily in debt, but the fact that Truman would always wear tailored suits, just not the ones he sold in his own store, probably didn’t inspire consumer confidence!
Throughout our 244-year history, many of our presidents have been the only ones to do certain things. James Buchanan was a bachelor for his entire time in office and remains the only president who can say that. Woodrow Wilson was the only president to have a doctorate.
Gerald Ford is the only president to hold a prom in the White House (and be a park ranger). And George W. Bush is the only one to have run a marathon. What about Grover Cleveland?
Well, apart from the distinction of being the only man to serve two non-consecutive terms in office as president, as both the 22nd and 24th, he held another astonishing position before being Commander and Chief: an executioner. When he was elected to the position of Erie County Sheriff in 1870, he would end the lives of two men with the hangman’s noose.
The first to find himself on the gallows was 28-year-old Patrick Morrissey, who had been convicted of murdering his mother with a bread knife during a drunken disagreement about money.
Although Cleveland had the right to appoint an executioner for $10, he felt he should hand down the punishment himself. On September 6, 1872, the future two-term commander and chief pressed the lever that released the trapdoor under Morrissey.
The second execution would not go as smoothly. The other man who had a date with Cleveland’s noose was John Gaffney. He had been convicted of fatally shooting a man in the head while playing cards at a saloon.
Again, Cleveland elected to do the deed himself; however, when pulling the lever this time, the 5-foot drop broke Gaffney’s neck but didn’t kill him. It took him an excruciating 23 minutes to die.
While you may look upon Cleveland favorably, thinking it took courage to do his duty by dispatching two clearly despicable men, you might want to read about his less-than-honorable deeds in Buffalo. A scandal that would come out just days after he was installed as the Democratic presidential nominee in 1884.
You should also read: These 4 US Presidents Were Far More Controversial Than Trump