The Weirdest Stories From Inside the White House

Photograph of President Theodore Roosevelt, by the Pach Brothers (c. 1904). Wikimedia Commons.

14. During a state luncheon at the White House President Theodore Roosevelt elected to demonstrate his judo skills on an unsuspecting Swiss minister

Sickly as a child, Theodore Roosevelt sought to improve his physical health through vigorous exercise, overcoming habitual illnesses during his teenage years at a gym built for him by his father. Remaining active for the rest of his life, enjoying riding, swimming, and hunting, Roosevelt encouraged similar pursuits in his son, informing him “rough, manly sports” were a panacea for life provided they did not “degenerate into the sole end of one’s existence”. Becoming a proficient boxer, sparring during his time at the White House with champion fighter John L. Sullivan in the residence’s gym, after taking up the martial art in 1904 Roosevelt became the first American to earn a brown belt in judo.

Actively participating in the sport, as well as hosting ju-jitsu bouts with Japanese experts in the East Room, Roosevelt practiced with a wide range of training partners including Secretary of War William Howard Taft, the Japanese naval attache, and Secretary of the Interior Gifford Pinchot. However, an exuberant and physical individual, Roosevelt’s passion for the martial art perhaps went too far during a state luncheon. Startling the guests, Roosevelt suddenly threw a Swiss minister to the ground and pinned him using a judo hold. Allegedly delighting the amused crowd, it is uncertain whether or not the anonymous Swiss guest had actually volunteered for the impromptu display.