10 Things You Might Not Know About Ronald Reagan

Michael Evans, The White House/Getty Images
Michael Evans, The White House/Getty Images

As the 40th president of the United States, actor and politician Ronald Reagan (1911-2004) led America’s charge through the neon-lit 1980s, navigating tense relations with the Soviet Union and tackling a highly controversial war on drugs. Though not everyone agreed with his politics, many consider him to be among the most charismatic leaders in the country’s history. If you’re thin on “Gipper” trivia, take a look at some facts about his life, his time in office, and how a chimpanzee nearly did him in.

1. HIS DAD CALLED HIM “DUTCH.”

Ronald Reagan in a publicity shot during his acting days
Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Reagan had several nicknames throughout his life, but his first was given to him by his father "Jack" Reagan shortly after he was born on February 6, 1911 in Tampico, Illinois. Marveling at his son’s heft, Jack referred to the baby as a "fat little Dutchman,” a nickname strengthened by the “Dutch boy” haircuts he received as a child. According to Reagan’s autobiography, when he was older he began asking people to call him Dutch because he didn’t feel “'Ronald' was rugged enough for a young red-blooded American boy.”

2. HIS ACTING RESUME WAS LONG.

As a sports broadcaster, Reagan primarily covered Chicago Cubs games. Because the team held their spring training in southern California, Reagan was able to convince the broadcaster to let him use the training as a vacation away from Iowa’s winters. In 1937, on one of these trips, Reagan met up with Joy Hodges, a singer he knew from back home who went to Hollywood. She put him in touch with a talent agent who called up a casting director.

He got a screen test and scored a contract with Warner Bros. (At the time, studios were still in the business of signing exclusivity deals with actors, doling them out to whatever parts needed filling in their productions.) Reagan acted in over 50 movies over the next three decades, including Knute Rockne, All American, where he played real-life college football player George “Gipper” Gipp. The part gave him his “Gipper” nickname.

3. STILL, HE WAS UPSET ABOUT NEVER WINNING AN OSCAR.

President Ronald Reagan sits behind his desk in the Oval Office
Michael Evans, The White House/Getty Images

Most of Reagan’s films were not exactly award contenders, but that didn’t stop the president from feeling like he was owed a little consideration from the Academy. Reagan aide Mark Weinberg wrote in his 2018 memoir, Movie Nights with the Reagans, that during his time in the White House, the Commander-in-Chief expressed annoyance that no one from his former profession acknowledged his evolution from performer to world leader with an honorary award. “You would think that after what I’ve done—being the only one from that profession to do so—they would commemorate it in some way,” he reportedly told Weinberg in the 1980s. “But I guess their political agenda has taken over good manners.”

Reagan did have one flirtation with the Oscars. On March 30, 1981, he was shot by would-be assassin John Hinckley Jr. The award ceremony, scheduled to take place that day, was postponed by 24 hours out of respect for the president. (Reagan made a full recovery.)

4. HE WAS NEARLY KILLED BY A CHIMP.

Ronald Reagan poses with Peggy the chimpanzee
Washington/AFP/Getty Images

The nadir of Reagan’s acting career may have been 1951’s Bedtime for Bonzo, in which the future leader of the free world tries to corral a mischievous chimpanzee. While shooting a scene with Peggy, the chimp portraying Bonzo, the animal became intrigued by Reagan's tie and began pulling on it like a rope. Refusing to let go, she compressed the knot into something no bigger than Reagan’s fingernail. After finally being released by his animal assailant, Reagan was tended to by crew members who had to cut the tie off his neck.

5. HE WAS AN FBI INFORMANT.

Ronald Reagan poses with first wife Jane Wyman
Hulton Archive/Getty Images

In the 1940s, Reagan—then still an actor, but becoming increasingly involved in politics—became a real-life FBI informant. Both Reagan and first wife Jane Wyman tipped off the Bureau to suspected Communist activity in Hollywood. (His code name was T-10.) Reagan apparently had some misgivings about his actions, fearing Hollywood was using too heavy a hand in persecuting suspected red sympathizers. He once asked an agent, "Do they expect us to constitute ourselves as a little FBI of our own and determine just who is a Commie and who isn't?”

6. HE WAS AN AVID FAN OF WRITING LETTERS.

Ronald Reagan makes an address from behind his desk
Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Reagan carved out time in his day to both read and answer letters, and he wasn’t discriminating about where they came from. A seventh-grader once wrote to the president asking for federal assistance because his mother declared his bedroom a disaster area. Tickled by the kid’s sense of humor, Reagan responded and suggested he clean the room. In 1984, Reagan wrote a letter of support to entertainer Michael Jackson, who had been badly burned during the shooting of a Pepsi commercial: “You've gained quite a number of fans along the road since ‘I Want You Back’ and Nancy and I are among them.”

7. HE GOT COMPLEMENTARY JELLY BEANS FOR YEARS.

Ronald Reagan shares a laugh with Bill Clinton
Paul Richards, AFP/Getty Images

Reagan first began snacking on jelly beans in 1966 after he gave up pipe smoking. Goelitz Candy, which made his preferred jelly bean, sent him shipments while Reagan was holding office as governor of California from 1967 to 1975. After debuting the Jelly Belly line in the '60s, the company continued to ship their goods to the White House during all eight years of Reagan’s presidency. They even received permission to issue jelly bean jars with the official presidential seal to be given out at functions.

8. HE HELPED DE-STIGMATIZE HEARING AIDS.

Ronald Reagan addresses a crowd from behind a podium
Hulton Archive/Getty Images

In 1983, Reagan admitted he relied on use of a hearing aid in order to address age-related hearing loss. Previously, hearing aids had been stigmatized in the U.S. as representing a feeble constitution. After Reagan’s announcement, sales of hearing aid equipment soared. Starkey Laboratories, which made the president’s device, quadrupled its sales in the months following the publicity.

9. THERE HAVE BEEN AT LEAST 10 STATUES ERECTED IN HIS HONOR.

A statue erected in Ronald Reagan's honor
Ben Stansall, AFP/Getty Images

Reagan’s hometown of Dixon, Illinois has no shortage of tributes to their most famous resident. A statue of Reagan stands near his boyhood home, while a second—this one depicting Reagan on horseback—is near Rock River. Reagan has also had statues erected in his honor at the California Capitol (with an exact replica at the Reagan Library in Simi Valley), at Reagan National Airport in Arlington, and in Newport Beach. There are two in Budapest, one in London, and one in Warsaw. The largest to date—a 10-foot-tall monument of Reagan saluting—stands in Covington, Louisiana. Yet another is planned near Lowell Park in Dixon, where Reagan reportedly saved 77 lives while serving as a lifeguard there for seven summers. A local joke has it that some of them were women who faked distress in order to get his attention.

10. WILL FERRELL UPSET HIS FAMILY.

Actor Will Ferrell is photographed at a public appearance
Scott Barbour, Getty Images

Following Reagan’s death in 2004 from pneumonia, the Reagan estate was quick to cut down any suggestion that his longtime struggle with Alzheimer’s disease affected his role while in office. In 2016, his children, Michael Reagan and Patti Davis, chastised actor Will Ferrell for considering a comedy titled Reagan in which he would play a neurologically-afflicted president whose behavior leads to “alternative” takes on world history. The Alzheimer’s Association said in a statement it was “appalled” by the idea. Ferrell quickly distanced himself from the film, which has yet to be made.

The Time Abraham Lincoln Stopped a Murder Trial in its Tracks

Abraham Lincoln as a lawyer, circa 1847
Abraham Lincoln as a lawyer, circa 1847

One day at the end of May, 1841, William Trailor hopped into a one-horse buggy and began the long journey to Springfield, Illinois, where he planned to reunite with his brothers Henry and Archibald. Joining him was his friend and housemate, a handyman named Archibald Fisher.

In Springfield, the men decided to go for a walk after lunch. But as the afternoon wore on, the brothers somehow lost sight of Fisher. When they returned to Archibald's Springfield home for supper, Fisher wasn't there. The brothers looked briefly for Fischer, but may have assumed he was still out enjoying himself.

But when Fisher failed to show up the next morning, the brothers began to feel uneasy. They spent the day in a fruitless search for the missing man. The same was true of the following day. William eventually left Springfield without him.

According to the local postmaster, rumors circulated that Fisher had died and left William with a large sum of money. True or not, the local postmaster knew about William's trip to Springfield and alerted the postmaster in that city of a possible crime. News of the missing man (and William’s supposed financial windfall) quickly spread.

Within days, all of the Trailor brothers would be arrested—charged with the disappearance and murder of Archibald Fisher.

 

Nobody could find the body. “Examinations were made of cellars, wells, and pits of all descriptions, where it was thought possible the body might be concealed,” wrote Abraham Lincoln, then a young defense lawyer in Springfield. “All the fresh, or tolerably fresh, graves at the grave-yard were pried into, and dead horses and dead dogs were disinterred.”

As locals searched for Fisher’s corpse, both Springfield’s mayor and the Illinois state attorney general ruthlessly interrogated Henry Trailor. For three days, Henry maintained his innocence. But he also began to show signs of cracking. “The prosecutors reminded him that the evidence against him and his two brothers was overwhelming, that they would certainly be hanged,” William H. Townsend wrote in the American Bar Association Journal in 1933, “and that the only chance to save his own life was to become a witness for the State.”

With that bait, Henry confessed: He claimed that his brothers, Archibald and William, had clubbed Fisher to death and had taken all of his money. Henry insisted that he had taken no part in the murder. Rather, he had simply helped his brothers dump the body in the woods.

News of Henry’s confession ignited the public's curiosity, prompting hundreds of people to rush to the forest where Fisher’s body was reportedly hidden. “The story related by Henry Trailor aroused the most intense public indignation, and the murder became almost the sole topic of conversation,” Townsend wrote. “Business was practically suspended as searching parties and amateur detectives scoured the woods and by-ways.”

There, in a dense thicket, investigators found buggy tracks and signs that something large had been dragged through the grass. A nearby pond was partially drained and a dam destroyed, despite protests from the dam's owner. Yet the body continued to elude investigators. The public became antsy.

“It was generally conceded that only a speedy trial and swift punishment could allay the clamor of the populace for the blood of the prisoners and avert the disgrace of a lynching,” Townsend wrote. By June 18, the murder trial had already begun—and a conviction seemed assured.

The courtroom, muggy from the summer humidity, was packed with spectators. Called to the stand, Henry Trailor repeated his confession, claiming that he had helped dispose of Fisher's body. Additional evidence was provided by a local woman who had seen two of the Trailor boys walk into the woods with Fisher—only to see them return alone. Furthermore, investigators claimed they had found human hair in the area near the buggy tracks. The tracks themselves, they noted, had led suspiciously to the pond, as if somebody had tried to dump something.

When the prosecutor rested his case, it seemed like there was no hope for the Trailor brothers.

But the defense had a secret weapon—a 32-year-old lawyer named Abraham Lincoln. The future president calmly stood up and called his one and only witness to the stand.

 

Dr. Robert Gilmore was a widely respected physician in those parts of Illinois. Sitting in the sauna-like courtroom, the doctor patiently explained that he knew Archibald Fisher well—the man had twice lived in his home. Years ago, Gilmore explained, Fisher had suffered a serious head injury from a gun-related accident and had never fully recovered his wits. The poor man was prone to spells of amnesia, blackouts, and derangement. It was very possible that Fisher had just wandered off.

Dr. Gilmore then calmly told the court that he had proof to back up his theory, and proceeded to drop a bombshell: Archibald Fisher was alive and staying in his home.

The courtroom murmured in shock.

Dr. Gilmore continued. Fisher had suffered from a terrible bout of memory loss and had no recollection of his time in Springfield. In fact, Fisher had wandered all the way to Peoria before regaining his senses. The only reason the man had failed to show up to the courtroom today was because his health prevented it.

Lincoln scanned the crowd with glee. “When the doctor’s story was first made public, it was amusing to scan and contemplate the countenances and hear the remarks of those who had been actively engaged in the search for the dead body,” he would later write in a letter, “some looked quizzical, some melancholy, and some furiously angry.”

At first, many were skeptical of the doctor’s claims, but officials were quick to confirm that Fisher was indeed alive. He’d eventually show up to court, later explaining how, indeed, he had no memory of ever visiting Springfield.

To the prosecution's great embarrassment, much of the evidence was proven bunk: It was soon discovered that the controversial path in the forest was, in fact, created by children who had been building a rope swing; meanwhile, the hairs in the woods belonged to a cow. It also became awfully clear that Henry Trailor had been coerced into making a false confession—when the officers had threatened Henry's life, Henry told them what they wanted to hear instead.

All of the charges would be dropped and the men's lives spared. “We have had the highest state of excitement here for a week past that our community has ever witnessed,” Lincoln would write after the trial.

In fact, the case enchanted Lincoln so much that he tried to immortalize the events in a short story written in the style of the true-crime genre. The future president, of course, was justifiably proud of the outcome: It wasn't every day that a single surprise witness helps solve a mystery and saves two people from the hangman's noose.

 

To read Lincoln's own account, check out this excerpt at Smithsonian.

A Brief History of Presidential Funeral Trains

Funeral Train of President Abraham Lincoln
Funeral Train of President Abraham Lincoln
Library of Congress, Wikimedia Commons // Public domain

The body of President George H. W. Bush will be transported by train along a 70-mile route to College Station, Texas, where it will be taken to its final resting place at the George H. W. Bush Presidential Library and Museum at Texas A&M University. The train—Union Pacific 4141, named for the 41st president—is painted robin's egg blue (just like Air Force One) and will tow a special transparent viewing car, allowing the public one last chance to pay their respects to the former head of state.

It's the first time a president's body has been moved by funeral train in almost 50 years.

Funeral trains, however, used to be something of a tradition for departed politicians: Presidents Abraham Lincoln, James A. Garfield, Ulysses S. Grant, William McKinley, Warren G. Harding, Franklin D. Roosevelt, and Dwight D. Eisenhower were all transported to their final resting places by a ceremonial train. (As were other government figures, including Robert F. Kennedy, Douglas MacArthur, and Frank Lautenberg.)

Lincoln's funeral train, the first, was arguably the most memorable. Traveling 1654 miles from Washington D.C., to Springfield, Illinois, the train chugged at a steady speed of 20 mph and stopped at 180 cities over the course of 13 days. The steam engine featured a portrait of Lincoln at the front and carried nine cars covered in elaborate mourning bunting. According to Olivia B. Waxman at TIME, "When it was in transit, a train traveling 30 minutes ahead of the Lincoln Special sounded a bell to alert those in the area that the funeral train was approaching. Those who could only see it at night camped out at bonfires along the route." Millions of people turned out to show their respects.

The next presidential funeral train was for another head of state who sadly also succumbed to gunshot wounds—James A. Garfield. According to the James A. Garfield National Historic Site blog:

"All along the route mourners stood at trackside, heads bowed as the train went by and church bells tolled. Bridges and buildings were draped in black. At Princeton, New Jersey, students scattered flowers on the track and then retrieved the crushed petals after the train had passed to keep for souvenirs. The train was met in Washington by the Chief Justice, Garfield's entire cabinet, and Presidents Grant and Arthur."

In many cases, the funeral trains traveled through places beloved by the presidents. Ulysses S. Grant's train was saluted as it passed through West Point. McKinley's train made haste to reach his beloved home in Canton, Ohio. (Many onlookers, not content to just bring flowers, made mementos by placing coins on the tracks and watched as the train flattened them.)

Meanwhile, FDR's funeral train—which embarked on a nine-state, three-day ride—carried much more than the president's remains: It also carried some of the most important people in government, including Roosevelt's family, the vice president and his family, every Supreme Court Justice, and most of the administrative cabinet. According to the MacMillan synopsis of Robert Kara's book FDR's Funeral Train, "Many who would recall the journey later would agree it was a foolhardy idea to start with—putting every important elected figure in Washington on a single train during the biggest war in history."

In some cases, the deceased had a special connection to the train itself. Eisenhower's body was transported in a car named "The Old Santa Fe." It was a familiar place: Ike had ridden the same car when he made his first campaign speech in 1952. Similarly, Bush—a train lover—had been acquainted with his funeral train for more than a decade, having given the 4300-horsepower locomotive his seal of approval back in 2005. At the time, he even gave the train a two-mile test drive and called it, "The Air Force One of railroads."

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