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Ten Fun Facts on US Presidential(ish) Death Mysteries


President Harding's sudden death was rumored to have been murder - perhaps by his wife.

Each week I set out to research and document ten "fun facts" on a topic loosely based on the two books I've reviewed that week.  "Loosely" being the operative word. 

This week I reviewed 18 Tiny Deaths, Bruce Goldfarb's biography of Frances Glessner Lee, the Chicago heiress who became instrumental in establishing the forensic sciences in the United States, and Alexis Coe's short and fun biography of George Washington You Never Forget Your First.

Washington died at his home at Mount Vernon on December 14, 1799 after suffering chills and a cold. His doctors provided the best medical care of the time, which is to say that they bled him, and quite a lot, quite possibly contributing to his demise. There was no forensic science practiced in 1799, and no one attending Washington's death thought it mysterious. But no clear cause of death was established, and ever since medical experts have tried to determine why he died.

Frances Glessner Lee established a library at Harvard of books and materials of interest to those studying what at the time was called "Legal Medicine". Among the materials she collected for the library were the handwritten memoirs of Charles Guiteau, penned while he awaited execution for the assassination of President James Garfield. Garfield did die after the assassination attempt, though only after lingering for over 70 days, and not as a direct result of the bullet wound.

There have been mysteries and unanswered questions surrounding presidents and the deaths of presidents almost from the beginning of the US Presidency, and many of those mysteries may have been resolved by forensic science had it been available. There's also an interesting story of mysterious circumstances around the death of a former Vice President.

Here then are this week's ten fun facts on US Presidential(ish) Death Mysteries:

US Presidential(ish) Death Mysteries

  1. What Exactly Did George Washington Die of? - It will likely never be established with certainty what caused Washington's death. He had been out in cold and rainy weather riding the grounds of his landholdings before complaining of a "cold", and within a few days he was dead. His doctors did the best they could with the knowledge and tools available to them, and it was not uncommon at the time for men of Washington's age (67) to expire. Four potential underlying causes were identified at death. Since his death , and with advancements in medicine, additional theories have been advanced. the most recent in 2014 being acute bacterial epiglottitis.
  2. Did Wm. Harrison Really Die from Speaking Too Long? - William Henry Harrison had the shortest time in office of any President, dying a month after his inauguration. He is famous for having delivered the longest inaugural address ever, on a very cold day while not wearing a coat. The story told of his unexpected death was that he caught pneumonia, and this was mythologized as having happened because of that speech on Inauguration Day, though his symptoms didn't appear until three weeks later. At the time of his death in 1841 many questioned the ability of his doctors and how they may have, through poor care, contributed to the President's demise.
  3. Did White House Drinking Water Kill James Polk? - Most presidential scholars agree on the cause of death of our 11th President James Polk - he died of cholera in June of 1849, three months after leaving office. How he got cholera has been debated though. Polk was considered by his peers to have been exhausted by his presidential term and not in good health when he left. Cholera outbreaks were reported on his route to his home in Tennessee, and it's assumed by most that he caught the disease en route, expiring at Polk Place in Nashville. But a study in 2016 suggests that he may actually have caught cholera while still in the White House, from poor sanitary conditions and contaminated drinking water. After death, Polk has had almost as much notoriety as in life - his body has been moved three times, with a fourth move failing in the Tennessee House by one vote
  4. Was Zachary Taylor Poisoned by Arsenic? - Zachary Taylor died unexpectedly in office on July 9, 1850. His death has been attributed to gastroenteritis caused by eating too many cherries with milk. However, in 1991 Taylor became the first President whose body was exhumed for examination, after a historian published a book noting that his symptoms matched those of death by arsenic poisoning. After examining samples from Taylor's body, the Kentucky medical examiner ruled his death was NOT caused by arsenic poisoning.
  5. Was Garfield Really Assassinated? - Though Charles Guiteau did shoot James Garfield on July 2, 1881, and was convicted of murder and hanged in 1882, there is real question as to whether his actions alone caused the President's death. Garfield did not die until September 19th, and his doctors assigned the cause of death as septic blood poisoning and heart attack. Guiteau claimed "The doctors killed Garfield, I just shot him." The mishandling of Garfield's care, particularly by Dr. Bliss, is the subject of Candice Millard's compelling book Destiny of the Republic. 
  6. Is There a Curse on Ex-Presidents Serving in Congress? - Andrew Johnson is the only ex-President to serve in the US Senate, and John Quincy Adams is the only ex-President to serve in the House of Representatives. Both men suffered strokes and died while in Congressional office.
  7. Did Warren Harding's Wife Kill Him? - Warren Harding is considered by many scholars to have been America's worst President. His time in office was marked by repeated scandal and corruption, and he himself was rumored to be having sexual encounters with his mistress Nan Britton in a closet of the Oval Office (DNA tests in 2015 confirm he fathered a child by Britton). Harding fell ill in 1923 on a trip to the west coast, allegedly of food poisoning, and died a few days later in a San Francisco hotel room, with his wife Florence at his side. Doctors at the time said he died of a stroke. However, his wife had refused doctor's requests for an autopsy and had Harding embalmed within hours of his death. Rumors began flying that Mrs. Harding had poisoned her husband in retaliation for his marital indiscretions. A book to that effect was published in 1930. Doctors today believe that Harding actually died of a heart attack. Mrs. Harding never faced any charges over the rumors surrounding her supposed involvement in his untimely death.
  8. Did FDR Have Melanoma? - Roosevelt died in office on April 12, 1945. Thought his death was unexpected, the President was considered by those around him to be in failing health. His death was attributed to a cerebral hemorrhage / stroke. But what brought on the stroke was never determined. In 2010, focus narrowed to a spot over Roosevelt's eyebrow that seems to have disappeared after 1940. Supposition is that spot may have been a cancerous melanoma that was a contributory cause of his death. 
  9. What Happened to Kennedy's Brain? - Among the many mysteries conspiracy theorists point to concerning the assassination of John F. Kennedy in 1963 is one that is not in dispute - the President's brain is missing. Three years after Kennedy's assassination, his brain was acknowledged to have gone missing. The brain had been removed from the President's during autopsy and stored in the National Archives. To this day, no one knows where it is. Some say it was removed to conceal that Kennedy was not in fact shot from behind, or that his brother Robert removed it to conceal underlying medical conditions the President had. We may never know what happened to it.
  10. Did VP Nelson Rockefeller Die at His Desk? - He never made it all the way to President, but Nelson Rockefeller did serve as Gerald Ford's Vice President. On January 26, 1979, former Vice President Nelson Rockefeller died at his desk in his office in New York City. Didn't he? Well, that's the official story that the family's spokesman announced early the next day. The police report, uncovered by the press later, tells a decidedly different story - that Rockefeller had died at his townhouse in the company of a 22 year old blonde female.  After much back and forth between the press and the family, it was revealed that Rockefeller was having an affair with the 22 year old and had been in "undeniably intimate circumstances" with her the evening of his death.
So there you have it. Do you have any thoughts on this week's fun facts? Leave a comment below.