Massachusetts

June 13, 1825: President John Quincy Adams Nearly Drowns in Tiber Creek

On June 13, 1825, President John Quincy Adams and his manservant, Antoine Michel Giusta, decided to paddle a canoe across the Tiber Creek. The creek, a tributary of the Potomac River, now flows through a tunnel underground.

Adams thought he would take off his clothes on shore and swim back. His son John, who had joined them, warned the boat was dangerous.

john-quincy-adams-president

John Quincy Adams [fully clothed] by George Peter Alexander Healy

The canoe sprang a leak and the wind kicked up. Adams and Antoine jumped overboard and swam to the opposite shore. Adams took off his waterlogged clothes and gave them to Antoine. Then the 57-year-old president lay gasping on the bank of the river.

Adams recounted the near-tragedy in his diary on June 13, 1825:

I attempted to cross the river with Antoine in a small canoe, with a view to swim across it to come back. He took a boat in which we had crossed it last summer without accident.

John, he wrote, undressed at the rock so he could meet them in the middle of the river when they swam back. The president then gave his watch to his son, bundled up his coat and waistcoat, put them in the boat and took off his shoes.

President John Quincy Adams Cheats Death

Adams then described how Antoine, completely naked, paddled the canoe halfway across the Tiber. But water half-filled the boat, and they discovered they had nothing with which to bail. Then, he wrote,

Just at that critical moment a fresh breeze from the northwest blew down the river as from the nose of a bellows. In five minutes’ time it made a little tempest, and set the boat to dancing till the river came in at the sides. I jumped overboard, and Antoine did the same, and lost hold of the boat, which filled with water and drifted away. We were as near as possible to the middle of the river, and swam to the opposite shore.

Antoine easily reached the opposite shore, wrote Adams. But he had difficulty, dragged down by his waterlogged clothes. His shirtsleeves hung “like two 56-pound weights against my arms.”

As Adams struggled for life and gasped for breath, he “had ample leisure to reflect upon my own indiscretion.”

He made it to shore, however, took off his shirt and pants, wrung them out and gave them to Antoine. His coat, waistcoat and shoes had sunk with the boat. He told Antoine to find his clothes or to find someone to go to the White House and find other. He also told Antoine to get a carriage to fetch him.

John then joined him across the river. Antoine sent a man to the White House to get a carriage and searched for the lost clothes. He found his own hat with his shirt and suspenders and one of the president’s shoes.

Earliest known photograph of the White House, taken in 1846.

The Mercy of God

While Antoine was gone, John and I were wading and swimming up and down on the other shore, or sitting naked basking on the bank at the margin of the river. John walked over the bridge home. The carriage came, and took me and Antoine home, half dressed. I lost an old summer coat, white waistcoat, two napkins, two white handkerchiefs, and one shoe. Antoine lost his watch, jacket, waistcoat, pantaloons, and shoes. The boat was also lost. By the mercy of God our lives were spared, and no injury befell our persons.

This story updated in 2022.

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