Gaining and Losing: James C. Dahlman and William Howard Taft

James C. Dahlman, the colorful “perpetual mayor of Omaha,” made a jovial offer to President William Howard Taft just prior to Taft’s brief visit to Omaha in September of 1909. Mayor Dahlman, said the Omaha Daily News of August 14, “has become imbued with a strong desire to take on a little adipose tissue. He wants to add to his stage presence [when delivering Chautauqua lectures] by increasing his girth an inch or so and otherwise making his anatomical perspective more pleasing when viewed from a chautauqua seat. . . . On the other hand, President Taft wants to rid himself of something like fifty pounds of embonpoint. He has engaged a masseur and is taking daily exercises.”

Taft’s weight fluctuated throughout his life although it peaked during his stressful presidential years. Remembered as the largest man ever to be president, he weighed well over three hundred pounds during his term of office. Once he was said to have stuck in the White House bathtub and had to be pried out. Afterwards a wider tub, built especially for him, was installed. No one had more humor about Taft’s weight than Taft himself. He famously joked that he was the perfect gentleman because he once gave up his seat on a streetcar to three ladies.

The Daily News said: “There is a difference of nearly 200 pounds between the weights of the president and mayor of Omaha. What one is so anxiously trying to rid himself of, the other is hopefully trying to acquire.” Doubtless as a publicity stunt, Dahlman sent Taft a letter that was also shared with the Omaha press, including the News: ‘Dear Mr. President: I see by the press dispatches that you are taking a course of treatment to reduce your flesh. I have been trying to increase mine, but have failed up to now. If you will give me some pointers as to how to get fat, I will give you some as to how to get lean. These exchanges of ideas will be based on practical experience and therefore should bring about results. My secret I will gladly disclose to you only, provided you will do the same with me. Hoping to hear from you, and wishing you all kinds of success, I am, Yours truly, J. C. Dahlman, Mayor.'”

The Daily News on September 21 returned to the topic after a welcoming dinner attended by Dahlman and President Taft. Dahlman mentioned the offer during the dinner, not to Taft directly but to one of the assistant secretaries in the president’s entourage. The reply: “‘Of course, the president has been very busy arranging for this trip . . . . We received your letter all right and had a hearty laugh over it. You can take it from me, that the president has been taking off weight.'”

The mayor replied: “‘You may inform the president for me that I have been taking on weight and feel very pleased with my efforts to grow heavy.'”

Mayor James “Cowboy Jim” Dahlman of Omaha. From Omaha Police Department Official Historical Souvenir (1909).

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