Tiber Creek: The Bathers
John Quincy Adams Takes a Deadly Chance, 1825
Peter Waddell, Tiber Creek: The Bathers, oil on canvas, 48″ x 72″, © White House Historical Association.
Essay by William Seale
Tiber Creek now flows safely beneath a masonry vault, over which passes Constitution Avenue. In the 1820s, the open creek raced dangerously to the Potomac River through the sweeping landscape you see here. From marshy creek banks the land rose gently to the elevation upon which the White House stood. Its muddy realities were covered by grasses and wild flowers.
President John Quincy Adams, sixth president of the United States, and son of the second president, liked to take his exercise swimming early mornings when the weather was welcoming. The fifty-seven year old president never swam alone, and his usual companion was the White House steward Antoine Michel Giusta. On June 13, 1825, his son John, who was in his early twenties and his father’s secretary, also went along.
On the morning the picture represents, the president decided to commandeer an abandoned boat, row it down Tiber Creek across the river then swim back, keeping the boat nearby for safety. Suspicious that the boat was too leaky, young John stripped-down, and waded away to the river, intending to dive in and accompany the swimmers on their return. But by the time the boat was swept into the Potomac from the swift creek, it was filling with water; danger was quickened by a sudden squall from the north, and the boat began to sink. Giusta, already naked, jumped into the water. The president scrambled overboard, still dressed, and would have been weighted down by his clothes, had Giusta not been at hand to pull him to the shore.
The president lay gasping on the riverbank, attended by his son, while Giusta departed to secure a vehicle. A visitor passing by saw the whole thing and quickly reported it to the waking capital, where the subject of a president dying in office remained current for days afterward. The incident, widely reported, was naturally an embarrassment to the president. He described the near-tragedy in detail that evening in his diary, concluding: “By the mercy of god our lives were spared, and no injury befell our persons.” And he pledged to try no further feats of athletic skill but to “strictly confine myself to purposes of health, exercise, and salutary labor.”
Historical Resources for
Tiber Creek: The Bathers
- Adams, John Quincy. The Diaries of John Quincy Adams: A Digital Collection. Boston, Massachusetts Historical Society. Diary 49: 853–854.
- Bowling, Kenneth R. The Creation of Washington, D.C.: The idea and location of the American Capital. George Mason University Press, 1991.
- Duhamel, James F. “Tiber Creek.” Records of the Columbia Historical Society 28 (1926): 203–225.
- Nagel, Paul C. John Quincy Adams: A Public Life, a Private Life. Harvard University Press, 1999.
- Passonneau, Joseph. Washington Through Two Centuries. New York: Monacelli Press, 2004.
- Seale, William. The White House Garden. Washington, D.C.: White House Historical Association, 1996.
Detail of President Adams's diary entry courtesy of the Massachusetts Historical Society