We’ve all seen our share of talented children — the ambidextrous baseball pitchers, the ones who knock out “Für Elise” on the piano with surprising ease, or impress with a recitation of obscure facts from their favorite subjects.
Chances are, we’re witnessing something promising but hardly unusual; adept kids emerge in every generation. However, once in a blue moon, a youngster unleashes such a mind-blowing show of talent that global recognition becomes a distinct possibility. Here are eight such prodigies who quickly dispensed with the training wheels before zooming to the top of their respective fields.
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart
Intrigued by the harpsichord at age 3, Austrian Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart accelerated through lessons and delivered his first musical composition in 1761 at age 5. That was enough for his father, who sent young Mozart and his older sister — also a gifted musician — on a tour of European cities over the next decade. Mozart thrived despite the grueling traveling conditions, dashing off his first symphony at age eight and his first operas not long after. At age 14, he transcribed Gregorio Allegri's “Miserere” from memory after hearing it performed at the Sistine Chapel, and returned a few weeks later to make only minor corrections to his notes. Mozart, of course, went on to become one of the greatest composers of the classical period, and the early realization of his abilities allowed him the time to create more than 600 works despite an early death at age 35.
Few child stars in history have as much notoriety as Shirley Temple. When she was 4 years old, Temple was already lighting up the screen in a series of film shorts called Baby Burlesks (1932). By age seven, she had already appeared in more than 10 feature films and earned a special juvenile Academy Award, and that was before she became Hollywood's No. 1 box office draw for four years running. Temple eventually aged out of her bread-and-butter roles as America's dimple-cheeked sweetheart, and her film career was over by the time she legally became an adult. Fortunately, she avoided the tragedies that plagued many of the child stars who followed in her footsteps by launching a successful second act as a prominent diplomat. Temple, who eventually went by her married name, Shirley Temple Black, was a delegate to the U.N. General Assembly from 1969 to 1970, served as U.S. ambassador to Ghana from 1974 to 1976, was the chief of protocol for President Gerald Ford, and served as ambassador to Czechoslovakia from 1989 to 1992, among other diplomatic roles.
Born in Chicago, Illinois in 1943, Bobby Fisher began playing chess at age 6 after his big sister purchased a $1 set. His talent had blossomed by age 13 when Fisher defeated former U.S. champion Donald Byrne in the "game of the century." He went on to become the youngest national champion at age 14, the game's youngest grandmaster at age 15, and the first American to claim the world championship. Unfortunately after these early successes, an increasingly erratic Fisher became better known for his bigoted rants and troubles with the law, though his place in history is secure thanks to the early show of brilliance that popularized the insular game of kings.
Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz
There weren't many pathways to success for girls born to unwed parents in 17th-century Mexico, but Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz managed to transcend her origins with a dazzling mind and a deft pen. Largely self-taught, she wrote her first dramatic poem at age eight, studied the Greek classics, and was instructing children in Latin by age 13. A few years later, she joined the court of the Viceroy Marquis de Mancera, where she famously wowed a panel of professors with her expertise in numerous subjects. Sor Juana then entered a convent, where she enjoyed the freedom to pen numerous plays, poems, and carols, as well as the proto-feminist manifesto Respuesta a sor Filotea de la Cruz. A clash with authority figures forced her to abandon her creative pursuits shortly before her death in 1695, but she endures as one of the most important literary figures of the New Spanish Baroque.
John Stuart Mill
English philosopher John Stuart Mill's legacy as one of the great writers and thinkers of the 19th century was forged by a childhood devoted to academia. Undertaking a rigorous curriculum, Mill was studying ancient Greek by age three, wrote a history of ancient Rome by age six, and mastered Latin by age 8. The training left him positioned to aid his philosopher father's intellectual pursuits, but it also produced an inner turmoil that manifested in a nervous breakdown and a period of depression in his early 20s. It wasn't until he started reading poetry that Mill began understanding the feelings that had been repressed since childhood, paving the way for his groundbreaking works on utilitarianism, intellectual freedom, capitalism, and gender equality.
In 1903, at just 2 years old, Jascha Heifetz began learning the violin and rapidly developed fluency with the instrument that would carry him from his native Russia to all corners of the world. He made his formal public debut at age age, performed before a reported 8,000 people at age 10, and played with the Berlin Philharmonic as an 11-year-old. A seasoned pro by his teenage years, Heifetz made his long-awaited Carnegie Hall debut at 16 and launched a prolific recording career shortly afterward. Heifetz was also a gifted pianist, and he enjoyed success as a Tin Pan Alley composer under the pseudonym of Jim Hoyl, though he remained most beloved for the violin wizardry that was apparent from the very beginning.
John von Neumann
While not nearly as well-remembered as fellow European emigree and scholar Albert Einstein, John von Neumann was also a certifiable genius who made an enormous imprint on the world around him. Born in 1903 in Budapest, Hungry, his turbo-charged intellect was apparent by the early stages of grade school. Von Neumann could converse in ancient Greek and multiply two eight-digit numbers in his head by age 6 and within two years he was already learning calculus. His dad tried to dissuade his son from a career in mathematics over fears that it was an unsustainable career, but von Neumann not only proved he could make a comfortable living in the field, he also showed his training could be applied to the development of game theory, personal computers, weather forecasting, and other real-world applications.
Billiards legend Willie Mosconi got his start playing the game in his father's Philadelphia pool hall, even as his father tried to steer him toward a stage career. After the boy kept sneaking in to practice with a potato and broom handle, a resigned papa figured he could make the most of his son's determination. In 1919, at age 6, Mosconi more than held his own in a match against world champion Ralph Greenleaf, and at age 11, he became the juvenile champ. From there, there was no slowing the man The New York Times called the Babe Ruth of his sport, who once sunk a record 526 shots in a row and won the world billiards title 13 times over 15 years.
One thing’s for sure: U.S. Presidents are the stuff of legends. However, just because personal tales about the leaders are passed down from generation to generation doesn't mean the stories are rooted in truth. In fact, many of the stories are so outlandish that it’s amazing people believed them in the first place.
From flammable teeth to ridiculous bathtub debacles, we take a look at the eight of the oddest presidential myths out there — and set the record straight.
Myth: George Washington Had Wooden Teeth
Cherry tree aside, one of the most chewable facts is that the nation’s first President had a mouth full of wooden teeth. While it seems like an odd story to be linked to the founding father, a deeper dig gets to the root of the issue. Washington did indeed have terrible teeth, so much so that he had multiple dentures made. Those mouthpieces were made out of ivory, gold, lead, and even human teeth, but never any wood. Wood was not used by dentists at the time, because not only could wooden dentures cause splinters, but wood is also susceptible to expanding and contracting due to moisture — not ideal for something that lives in your mouth.
Myth: Thomas Jefferson Signed the Constitution
It seems incomprehensible that a big-name founding father like Thomas Jefferson missed out on signing the U.S. Constitution, but he never inked the deal. He was actually absent during the Philadelphia Constitutional Convention in 1787, as he was across the Atlantic Ocean in Paris, France, as the U.S.’s envoy.
Myth: Abraham Lincoln Wrote the Gettysburg Address on an Envelope
There’s no doubt that the 16th President was a brilliant orator. But the idea that he haphazardly scribbled one of the most important speeches in American history on the back of an envelope during a train ride sounds a little far-fetched. In reality, Abraham Lincoln toiled away at different versions of the Gettysburg Address, which he gave on November 19, 1863. Not just that, it was anything but a solo project. He collaborated with several associates on it — and there are even five original copies of the speech, not one of them on an envelope.
Myth: William Howard Taft Got Stuck in a Bathtub
One of the stranger presidential myths might be chalked up to potty humor. Somehow, 27th President William Howard Taft became associated with an embarrassing incident around getting stuck in a bathtub. While it’s true that he was larger in stature, weighing in at 350 pounds, he never had to be rescued from a tub.
That said, there is a reason he’s associated with baths. During his presidency, a super-sized porcelain tub that was 7 feet long, 41 inches wide, and a ton in weight was installed in the White House. It was so massive that four grown men could fit inside. In another bath incident after his presidency, he filled a tub at a hotel in Cape May, New Jersey, a little too high and when he stepped into it, it overflowed to the point that the guests in the dining room below got a bit of a shower.
Myth: The Teddy Bear Got Its Name After Theodore Roosevelt Saved a Real Bear
Theodore Roosevelt had long been a hunter, but didn’t exactly show off his best skills on a bear hunt in November 1902. Everyone else in the group had had a fruitful hunt, so to help Roosevelt, the guide tracked a 235-pound bear to a watering hole, clubbed it, and tied it to a tree so the President could claim it. As the story goes, Roosevelt refused to shoot the bear.
The incident made its way to the Washington Post, which published a satirical cartoon about the President sparing the bear. New York City store owners Morris and Rose Mitchom saw the cartoon, were inspired by the President's act of heroism, and created stuffed animals in his honor, appropriately naming them “Teddy’s bear.”
The problem? Roosevelt didn’t shoot the bear, but he didn’t save it either. He saw that it had been mauled by dogs so savagely already that he asked for the bear to be killed with a hunting knife. Given the dark nature of this true tale, it makes sense that the details are often ignored when talking about this beloved childhood toy.
Myth: John F. Kennedy Won the Election Because of the TV Debates Against Richard Nixon
The televised broadcast of a 1960 presidential debate between John F. Kennedy and Richard Nixon is often said to have clinched the victory for JFK, who many found to be more photogenic and charismatic. But when you truly look at the election numbers, it didn’t really have that big of an effect on the results. The candidates were pretty much neck-and-neck throughout the campaign, even appearing to be tied in the polls before and after the four debates. Kennedy seemed to have a slight boost after the first one on September 26, but then Nixon hit it out of the park on the others, especially with his foreign policy take during the final one. In the end, Kennedy won the election by a mere 119,000 votes.
Kennedy and Nixon’s September 1960 debate is often credited as the first televised presidential debate, but that is also a myth. In 1956, a televised debate aired during the run-off between Republican President Dwight Eisenhower and Democrat Adlai Stevenson. However, neither of them attended, and sent surrogates in their place. Eisenhower sent Maine senior senator Margaret Chase Smith, while Democrats went with Eleanor Roosevelt, and it aired on CBS’ Face the Nation.
Myth: Zachary Taylor Was Poisoned
Just over a year and four months into his term, 12th President Zachary Taylor fell ill and died while in office. For years, many thought that he may have been the first President to be assassinated, since it was rumored that he was poisoned. Despite his death in July 1850, it wasn’t until 1991 that Kentucky scientists definitively concluded there was no arsenic in his blood. Another story, that he died of eating cherries in iced milk, unfortunately may have more truth to it. After leaving the Washington Monument dedication in 1850, he had that combo as a snack and likely came down with severe gastroenteritis — an inflammation of the digestive system — dying five days later.
Myth: Gerald Ford Was a Total Klutz
Throughout Gerald Ford’s presidency, many joked that his Vice President, Nelson Rockefeller, was only a banana peel away from the presidency, since the 38th President was so often caught being clumsy. He tumbled down ski slopes, slipped in the rain, and fell coming out of Air Force One, so much so that he was spoofed by Chevy Chase on Saturday Night Live. But in actuality, Ford was quite an athlete in his younger days. He was a football star at the University of Michigan, where he earned his letter for three years. He even tackled future Heisman Trophy winner Jay Berwander in 1934. During his White House years, he also swam and skied regularly, and played tennis and golf, so perhaps all that falling was just to add to his relatability.