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Presidential mysteries

The modern age has few secrets. We know about President Obama’s experiments with marijuana as a young man and the juicy details of President Clinton’s scandalous affair with Monica Lewinsky.

But back in the day, the personal lives of our presidents were less clear. Even though President Andrew Jackson claimed Tennessee as his home state after moving there in his 20s, North and South Carolina still quarrel over the honor of being the birthplace of the seventh American president.

In 1824, Jackson wrote in a letter that he was born in South Carolina at his uncle’s plantation. But another source said the birth tool place at another uncle’s home in North Carolina, according to Jackson’s mother. Both states built memorials to Old Hickory, with the Andrew Jackson State Park in South Carolina and a statue of Jackson at the North Carolina State Capitol in Raleigh.

On the other end of the life spectrum, when President Warren Harding died Aug. 2, 1923, he had been recovering from pneumonia. Multiple physicians could not agree on the specific cause of death (although most cited heart failure) and when first lady Florence Harding refused to permit an autopsy, rumors began to swirl.

Theories about the scandal-plagued Harding’s sudden death in San Francisco, one historian noted, range from “the straightforward and plausible to the speculative and bizarre,” including negligent homicide, suicide and murder. Flamboyant private detective and con artist Gaston Means penned a 1930 best-seller that all but accused Florence Harding of murdering her husband, with an assist from the couple’s eccentric personal physician, Charles E. Sawyer. The purported motivation: Mrs. Harding’s rage at her husband’s corruption and marital infidelity, and a desire to protect his reputation.

The Navy’s first berth?

No less than five American cities put in a claim to being the birthplace of the U.S. Navy.

The Navy claims Oct. 13, 1775, as its day of its founding, when a resolution was passed in Philadelphia to obtain two armed vessels, according to the Navy’s history page. However, official naval histories shy away from naming any one place as its birthplace because many towns apparently had a hand in the service’s creation.

Several towns other than Philadelphia claim the honor of “birthplace of the Navy.” Providence, R.I., claims the title because the establishment of a Navy was first officially proclaimed there. Two Massachusetts cities claim the title because George Washington’s first warship, the “Hannah,” was launched in Beverly but owned by residents of neighboring Marblehead. And the New York town of Whitehall has lodged its own claim to fame because several naval vessels were built there in 1776 and later saw action in the Revolutionary War.

The Navy’s website takes an inclusive angle, saying “perhaps it would be historically accurate to say that America’s Navy had many ‘birthplaces.’” But while the Navy seems to side with the Philadelphia claim due to its official birth date, the U.S. Congress officially declared Whitehall the Navy’s birthplace in 1965.

“I had no idea about that,” Navy veteran Alexander Rice said about the conflicting claims. “Personally, if I had to choose, I would pick Philadelphia because that’s where the resolution was made and that’s where the capital of the time was. … That makes it the official place as far as I’m concerned.”

The first Republicans

The first stirrings of the movement that grew to be today’s Republican Party are also in dispute. Party historians can’t say for certain where the party got its start, although they’re pretty sure it was somewhere in Wisconsin. The eastern Wisconsin town of Ripon claims the Republican Party started at a schoolhouse there on March 20, 1854, when residents gathered and pledged to fight against the spread of slavery. In 1974, the “Little White Schoolhouse” became a national landmark.

But the claim is not undisputed. Many New Hampshire politicians insist the Republican Party can trace its origins to a meeting organized by abolitionist Amos Tuck on Oct. 12, 1853, in Exeter.

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