Everybody loves a story with a touch of scandal. Even better if it stars one of the many men who’s served as president of the United States. You’ve probably heard stories about presidents with terrible tempers. And you’ve almost definitely seen historians’ opinions on which presidents were actually terrible people. But have you heard that some presidents had a big secret: an illegitimate child?
Read on to discover which U.S. presidents have fathered illegitimate children over the years. Plus, don’t miss the opportunity to check out the rumors and conspiracy theories that Donald Trump has an illegitimate child — and see whether or not those stories have any basis in fact.
George Washington might have had an illegitimate son
- 1st president of the United States
- In office: 1789 to 1797
The Washington Post reports that the first president to supposedly father an illegitimate child was actually our very first president: George Washington. Descendants of a slave named Venus claimed in the 1990s that they descended from Washington. In fact, they hoped to find DNA evidence to prove their lineage. They said that Washington fathered a son, West Ford, with Venus, who lived on the estate of his half brother.
Historians initially responded with skepticism. They noted that Washington might have been sterile, as his wife bore four children to her first husband but none to him. However, some historians later showed support for the idea that Ford could have been a blood relation to Washington, if not his son. Some believe West Ford was fathered by Bushrod Washington, the nephew of our first president.
Thomas Jefferson had at least one illegitimate child
- 3rd president of the United States
- In office: 1801 to 1809
In the 1990s, DNA evidence proved that Thomas Jefferson fathered at least one illegitimate child with a young slave named Sally Hemings. As the Times reported when the evidence emerged, Hemings was 28 years Jefferson’s junior. During his lifetime, Jefferson indirectly denied accusations of an affair with Hemings. Yet the truth finally came out.
As a historian and a geneticist wrote at the time, “Our heroes — and especially Presidents — are not gods or saints, but flesh-and-blood humans.” In addition to proving that he had an illegitimate child, the evidence of Jefferson’s interracial affair also renewed questions about Jefferson’s stance on slavery. The revelations about the third president even seemed to add a new dimension of hypocrisy to Jefferson’s reservations about ending slavery.
William Henry Harrison may have had an illegitimate child
- 9th president of the United States
- In office: 1841
Most Americans today know William Henry Harrison as the president to serve the shortest term in office. Harrison also had the dubious distinction of becoming the first president to die in office. (In fact, he lasted just 32 days in office, as he developed pneumonia after delivering a two-hour inauguration speech without a coat or hat.) But The Washington Post reports that historian Kenneth Robert Janken discovered another interesting piece of information about Harrison.
Janken “uncovered a possible relationship between Harrison and one of his slaves, Dilsia.” Her descendants claim that she had six children with Harrison. They also report that four were sold to a Georgia plantation. In fact, one of her descendants is believed to be Madeline Harrison, the mother of 20th century African American leader Walter Francis White.
John Tyler may have had an illegitimate son
- 10th president of the United States
- In office: 1841 to 1845
Harrison’s successor to the presidency, John Tyler, also might have fathered an illegitimate child. John William Dunjee — alternately known as John Dungy or John Dugee — became a prominent African American missionary and educator. He was born a slave in Virginia, but reportedly escaped to Canada through the underground railroad. He returned to the U.S. after the Civil War, and founded many Baptist churches across the country.
Why are we telling you his story? Dunjee claimed to be the illegitimate child of Tyler and one of Tyler’s slaves. Some sources have claimed that Tyler fathered a number of illegitimate children by his slaves. Dunjee’s family also asserted the claim that they descended from Tyler, who actually fathered 15 (legitimate) children during his lifetime.
Grover Cleveland had an illegitimate child
- 22nd president of the United States
- In office: 1885 to 1889 and 1893 to 1897
Deseret News reports that Grover Cleveland, the only president to serve two non-consecutive terms, positioned himself as a morally superior candidate. “So when his Republican opponents found that he had fathered an illegitimate child when he was a lawyer in Buffalo, N.Y., Republicans would go to his campaign rallies and chant, ‘Ma, Ma, where’s my Pa?'”
Cleveland opted to tell the truth. He admitted that he had become “illicitly acquainted” with a woman named Maria Halpin. That seemed to earn the respect of voters, and the scandal didn’t impede his path to the White House. Nonetheless, Halpin’s story differed substantially from Cleveland’s. In fact, their “acquaintance” sounds a lot more like rape than Cleveland and his aides admitted.
Warren G. Harding had an illegitimate daughter
- 29th president of the United States
- In office: 1921 to 1923
The Daily Beast reports that Warren G. Harding has become the latest president we’ve learned fathered an illegitimate child. According to The New York Times, DNA evidence proved that Harding’s mistress Nan Britton bore the president’s love child. Genealogists recently validated Britton’s daughter, Elizabeth Ann Blaesing, as Harding’s biological child.
What the Times refers to as the “Nan Britton affair” wasn’t the first time that a president was accused of an extracurricular love life, as you’ve probably gathered. But it did mark the first time that a “self-proclaimed presidential mistress [had] gone public with a popular tell-all book.” Britton’s book scandalized the country, and unleashed a ferocious backlash against her.
John F. Kennedy may — or may not — have had an illegitimate child
- 35th president of the United States
- In office: 1961 to 1963
Americans seem endlessly fascinated with John F. Kennedy and all the things that he didn’t want people to know about his personal life. JFK also seems to have become the favorite subject for presidential conspiracy theories. Historians refer to Kennedy as a “compulsive womanizer.” So it’s no surprise that rumors have swirled that Kennedy fathered an illegitimate child.
As Vanity Fair reported in 2008, a Texas-born banker named Jack Worthington II claimed that Kennedy was his father. Worthington stood by his story despite a lack of evidence. He didn’t recant even when unidentified members of the Worthington family released a statement decrying his claims as false. Other Americans have made numerous other claims that Kennedy fathered an illegitimate child. Yet, so far, little compelling evidence has emerged.
Lyndon B. Johnson may have had an illegitimate son
- 36th president of the United States
- In office: 1963 to 1969
A woman named Madeleine Brown claimed to have been Lyndon B. Johnson’s mistress for 21 years. People reported in 1987 that though Brown couldn’t provide much evidence, “her account comports with Johnson’s reputation among his friends and aides as an incurable womanizer.”
After she made public her claims of having slept with Johnson, Brown also claimed to have had borne Johnson an illegitimate son. Her son, if actually Johnson’s biological child, would have been the president’s only male heir. Brown’s son, Steven, filed a $10.5 million suit against Lady Bird Johnson, “alleging he has been deprived of his birthright.” However, evidence didn’t seem to be on his side.
Donald Trump probably doesn’t have an illegitimate child
- 45th president of the United States
Several rumors and conspiracy theories have alleged that Donald Trump has an illegitimate child. But as with some of the stories about other men who have served as U.S. president over the years, the rumors about Trump don’t seem to have much basis in fact, nor any compelling evidence to back them up.
A Hispanic man born in Texas to Mexican immigrants claims to be Trump’s illegitimate son. The man said of Trump, “He’s crazy like me, we look alike. I feel like the blood is the same. And one day I dreamed that Donald was my real dad.” Other conspiracy theories have circulated, perhaps spurred by a story from a prank news site, a joke by comedian Tracy Morgan, or a mockumentary that imagines that Trump has an illegitimate Muslim daughter. But as you might guess, none of the stories that Trump has fathered an illegitimate child seem particularly credible.
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