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Did William Henry Harrison Really Die From Pneumonia?

Did William Henry Harrison Really Die From Pneumonia?


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It’s common wisdom that William Henry Harrison delivered one killer of a speech after being sworn in as the ninth president of the United States—and it had nothing to do with anything he said.

Ignoring the advice of vigilant mothers everywhere, “Old Tippecanoe” swore off his overcoat, hat and gloves while giving his inaugural address on a freezing, wet winter day. And in a quest to prove his virility while silencing critics who thought him an intellectual lightweight, the 68-year-old Harrison definitely overcompensated by delivering a whopping 8,445-word speech that droned on for nearly two hours. Many believe that history’s lengthiest inaugural address led directly to the briefest of presidencies as Harrison died exactly one month later on April 4, 1841—with the official cause listed as pneumonia.

It is unlikely, however, that the long-winded speech caused the president’s death because he didn’t become sick, complaining of anxiety and fatigue, until more than three weeks after his inauguration. Plus Harrison’s lung ailments didn’t arise until the fifth day of his illness and were not nearly as relentless or progressive as the severe abdominal discomfort and constipation he experienced.

After taking a fresh look at the case, Jane McHugh and Dr. Philip A. Mackowiak of the University of Maryland School of Medicine wrote in a 2014 edition of the journal Clinical Infectious Diseases that Harrison likely died from enteric fever, not from a fatal chill contracted during the inauguration.

The pair pointed to contaminated drinking water as the true cause of Harrison’s demise. Before 1850, the sewage of Washington, D.C., was dumped in a fetid marsh just seven blocks upstream from the White House’s water supply, and the researchers surmised that bacteria seeped into the drinking water and caused the president’s severe gastroenteritis. Harrison’s history of dyspepsia put him at additional risk to the tainted water, which the authors noted may have also contributed to the death of another president, Zachary Taylor.

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Did William Henry Harrison Really Die From Pneumonia? - HISTORY

"Tippecanoe" Harrison, the oldest President at inaugural and the last to be born a British subject, was the first Whig to hold the office and the first incumbent to die. His term, a mere month, was the shortest on record. Like Jackson, he was an erstwhile frontier general and war hero, but he was born in a Tidewater Virginia mansion instead of in a backwoods log cabin. His grandson, Benjamin, became the 23d President.

Harrison, the youngest of seven children, was the son of planter Benjamin Harrison, who signed the Declaration of Independence and served as Governor of Virginia. The youth was born in 1773 at Berkeley plantation. He received his elementary education at home and attended Hampden-Sydney College, probably some time during the years 1787-90, but apparently did not graduate. In the latter year, he matriculated at an academy in Southampton, Va., and later in the year began studying medicine in Richmond and then in Philadelphia, but he never qualified as a doctor.

In 1791, after his father's death, Harrison turned to a military career. Accepting a commission as an ensign in the Army, he was assigned to the Northwest Territory and based at Fort Washington, in the Cincinnati area. As an aide to Gen. "Mad Anthony" Wayne, in 1794 he fought against the Indians in the Battle of Fallen Timbers, Ohio. The next year, he married Anna Symmes, daughter of a prominent land speculator-colonizer, from whom the couple apparently purchased a log cabin and a large tract of land in North Bend, Ohio, near Cincinnati.

This portrait of William Henry Harrison, painted in Philadelphia, shows him at the age of 27 while he was serving as the Northwest Territory's Delegate to Congress. (Engraving, 1800, by Charles B. J. Fevret de Saint Mémin, Library of Congress.)

William Henry Harrison. (Oil, 1879, by Eliphalet F. Andrews after James H. Beard, 1840.)

After 3 more years of military service, Harrison resigned from the Army and served briefly as Secretary of the Northwest Territory. As its first Delegate to Congress (1799-1800), he was instrumental in obtaining legislation splitting off Indiana Territory from the Northwest Territory. In the latter year, President John Adams appointed him as Governor of Indiana Territory (1801-12). During this time, he lived in Vincennes and resided mainly in Grouseland, which he built in 1803-4. Although theoretically he was charged with protecting the rights of the Indians, his actual primary assignment was to effect cession of their lands to expedite white settlement. His success generated strong Indian resistance.


Anna Harrison

Jane Harrison
(hostess)

In 1811, to suppress a confederation led by the Shawnee chief Tecumseh and his half-brother The Prophet, Harrison took advantage of the former's journey to the South in search of allies and attacked Prophet's Town, an Indian stronghold near Tippecanoe Creek. After a brief but bloody battle, Harrison's forces burned the town and scattered the inhabitants. Although the battle was celebrated as a great victory and was to make Harrison a national hero, it was actually indecisive and military losses were far heavier than those of the natives. The Indians were driven into the hands of the British, and resistance remained intense.

After the outbreak of the War of 1812, Harrison obtained another opportunity to quash the Indians. Quickly winning the rank of brigadier general in the Regular Army, he was chosen to command U.S. forces in the old Northwest. After training his inexperienced troops and participating in various engagements, he recaptured Detroit from the British and in October 1813, by which time he had become a major general, defeated them and their Indian allies in the Battle of the Thames, in Canada, during which Tecumseh was killed. Indian resistance in the Northwest disintegrated, and the British were afterward unable to mount offensive action there.

Sheet music published during Harrison's vigorous Presidential campaign in 1840. The Whigs claimed their aristocratic candidate was a log-cabin-dwelling frontiersman. (Lithograph, 1840, by Gimber, published by Ferdinand C. Unger, Library of Congress.)

In 1814, after a disagreement with the Secretary of War, Harrison resigned his commission and moved back to North Bend. He mingled farming and some unsuccessful commercial ventures with political activity. His offices included U.S. Representative (1816-19), State senator (1819-21), U.S. Senator (1825-28), and Minister to Colombia (1828-29). For the next 7 years, to support his family, he held minor local governmental posts in North Bend and ran his farm, which grew into a thriving estate.

In 1836 Harrison was one of the regional Whig candidates who unsuccessfully challenged Van Buren for the Presidency. In the wake of the subsequent economic depression, the Whigs, sensing victory over Van Buren, decided to nominate a military hero for the 1840 race and rallied behind Harrison, hero of Tippecanoe, under the slogan "Tippecanoe and Tyler, too." In a circus-like and acrimonious campaign, the Whigs painted the aristocratic Harrison as a log-cabin-dwelling, hard-cider-drinking frontiersman who was a major military hero Van Buren was labeled as a champagne-sipping dandy and plutocrat. Coonskin caps, miniature log cabins, and plenty of hard cider appeared at Whig rallies.

As Governor of Indiana Territory, Harrison shoved the Indians aside to expedite white settlement. This sketch depicts one of his acrimonious meetings with Tecumseh, who led the opposition. (Engraving, undated, by W. Ridgway, after a drawing, ca. 1860, by [John C.?] Chapin, Library of Congress)

HISTORIC SITES & BUILDINGS

Grouseland
Berkeley

Harrison's solid victory brought joy to his party, especially to leaders Henry Clay and Daniel Webster, who anticipated they would dominate the administration. Webster accepted the office of Secretary of State, and Clay planned to supervise enactment of his long-advocated "American System" from the Senate. Harrison immediately summoned a special session of Congress to deal with the Nation's economic problems.

But, within a month after taking office, Harrison was dead, at the age of 68, the victim of exhaustion and pneumonia, likely contracted during exertions associated with the inaugural. Mrs. Harrison, who had not yet arrived in Washington because of illness, survived him by more than 22 years. She had given birth to six sons and four daughters. Their father was buried in North Bend.


Wasn't Harrison treated by doctors?

He was, but you have to remember it was a time before the invention of penicillin.

Some reports have also suggested his doctors used a whole host of weird and wacky procedures, deemed completely normal at the time.

They include applying opium, castor oil, leeches and Virginia snakeroot, a native American plant.

Apparently the treatments only made Harrison worse and he became delirious before succumbing to his illness.


Contents

Harrison's inauguration was marked by several novelties he was the first president-elect to arrive in Washington, D.C. by train, and for the first time an official inaugural committee of citizens had formed to plan the day's parade and inaugural ball. [1]

At 68 years, 23 days of age at the time of his inauguration, he was the oldest president-elect to take office until Ronald Reagan in 1981.

Harrison's wife, Anna, was too ill to travel when her husband left Ohio for his inauguration, and she decided not to accompany him to Washington. Harrison asked his daughter-in-law Jane Irwin Harrison, widow of his namesake son, to accompany him and act as hostess until Anna's proposed arrival in May.

The outgoing president Martin Van Buren did not attend Harrison's inauguration, making him the third president up to that time to do so (John Adams and John Quincy Adams being the others). [2] While Van Buren and Harrison were on good personal terms, Van Buren was still smarting from the Whig party's attacks on him during the campaign. His son Martin Jr. was also ill, which may have led him to skip the ceremony. Instead, he stayed at the Capitol signing legislation until just before the ceremony began. [3]

The day of the inauguration was overcast with cold wind and a noon temperature estimated to be 48 °F (9 °C), but the president-elect chose to not wear an overcoat, hat, or gloves for the ceremony. [1] Harrison delivered the longest inaugural address to date, running 8,445 words. [1] He wrote the entire speech himself, though it was edited by soon-to-be Secretary of State, Daniel Webster. Webster said afterwards that in the process of reducing the text, he had "killed seventeen Roman proconsuls". [4] That evening Harrison attended three inaugural balls, including one at Carusi's Saloon entitled the "Tippecanoe" ball, which at a price of US$10 per person attracted 1000 guests. [5]

On March 26, Harrison developed a cold. According to the prevailing medical misconception of that time, it was believed that his illness was directly caused by the bad weather at his inauguration however, Harrison's illness did not arise until more than three weeks after the event. [6] Despite doctors' attempts at treating him, Harrison died on April 4 from pneumonia that developed from the cold. The first President to die in office, his presidency was, and remains the shortest in American history.


Attack of the Killer White House – Did the White House itself lead to the death of several 19th century Presidents?

It may seem strange, but there is very strong evidence that the White House killed a number of presidents in the mid-nineteenth century. The deaths of Zachary Taylor, William Henry Harrison, and James K. Polk are all linked to something in the White House – although many believed that some presidents were poisoned by their enemies. William Bodkin explains all…

A poster of Zachary Taylor, circa 1847. He is one the presidents the White House may have helped to killed.

President of the United States is often considered the most stressful job in the world. We watch fascinated as Presidents prematurely age before our eyes, greying under the challenges of the office. Presidential campaigns have become a microcosm of the actual job, with the conventional wisdom being that any candidate who wilts under the pressures of a campaign could never withstand the rigors of the presidency. But there was a time, not so long ago, when it was not just the stress of the job that was figuratively killing the Presidents. In fact, living in the White House was, in all likelihood, literally killing them.

Between 1840 and 1850, living in the White House proved fatal for three of the four Presidents who served. William Henry Harrison, elected in 1840, died after his first month in office. James K. Polk, elected in 1844, died three months after he left the White House. Zachary Taylor, elected in 1848, died about a year into his term, in 1850. The only occupant of the Oval Office during that period to survive was John Tyler, who succeeded to the Presidency on Harrison’s death. What killed these Presidents? Historical legend tells us that William Henry Harrison “got too cold and died” and that Zachary Taylor “got too hot and died.” But the truth, thanks to recent research, indicates that Harrison, Taylor, and Polk may have died from similar strains of bacteria that were coursing through the White House water supply.

Conspiracies and Legends

On July 9, 1850, President Zachary Taylor, Old Rough and Ready, former general and hero of the Mexican-American War, succumbed to what doctors called at the time “cholera morbus,” or, in today’s terms, gastroenteritis. On July 4, 1850, President Taylor sat out on the National Mall for Independence Day festivities, including the laying of the cornerstone for the Washington Monument. Taylor, legend has it, indulged freely in refreshments that day, including a bowl of fresh cherries and iced milk. Taylor fell ill shortly after returning to the White House, suffering severe abdominal cramps. The presidential doctors treated Taylor with no success. Five days later, he was dead.

Taylor’s death shocked the nation. Rumors began circulating immediately concerning his possible assassination. The rumors arose for a good reason. Taylor, a Southerner, opposed the growth of slavery in the United States despite being a slave owner himself. While President, Taylor had worked to prevent the expansion of slavery into the newly acquired California and Utah territories, then under the control of the federal government. Taylor prodded those future states, which he knew would draft state constitutions banning slavery, to finish those constitutions so that they could be admitted to the Union as free states.

Taylor’s position infuriated his southern supporters, including Jefferson Davis, who had been married to Taylor’s late daughter, Knox. Davis, who would go on to be the first and only President of the Confederate States of America, had campaigned vigorously throughout the South for Taylor, assuring Southerners that Taylor would be friendly to their interests. But in truth, no one really knew Taylor’s views. A career military man, Taylor hewed to the time honored tradition of taking no public positions on political issues. Taylor believed it was improper for him to take political positions because he had sworn to serve the Commander-in-Chief, without regard to person or party. Indeed, he had never even voted in a Presidential election before running himself.

Tensions between Taylor and the South grew when Henry Clay proposed his Great Compromise of 1850, which offered something for every interest. The slave trade would be abolished in the District of Columbia, but the Fugitive Slave Law would be strengthened. The bill also carved out new territories in New Mexico and Utah. The Compromise would allow the people of the territories to decide whether those territories would be slave or free by popular vote, circumventing Taylor’s effort to have slavery banned in their state constitutions. But Taylor blocked passage of the compromise, even threatening in one exchange to hang the Secessionists if they chose to carry out their threats.

More speculation

Speculation on the true cause of Taylor’s death only increased throughout the years, particularly after his former son-in-law, Davis, who had been at Taylor’s bedside when he died, became President of the Confederacy. The wondering reached a fever pitch in the late twentieth century, when a University of Florida professor, Clara Rising, persuaded Taylor’s closest living relative to agree to an exhumation of his body for a new forensic examination. Rising, who was researching her book The Taylor File: The Mysterious Death of a President, had become convinced that Taylor was poisoned. But the team of Kentucky medical examiners assembled to examine the corpse concluded that Taylor was not poisoned, but had died of natural causes, i.e. something akin to gastroenteritis, and that his illness was undoubtedly exacerbated by the conditions of the day.

But what caused Taylor’s fatal illness? Was it the cherries and milk, or something more insidious? While the culprit lurked in the White House when Zachary Taylor died, it was not at the President’s bedside, but rather, in the pipes.

During the first half of the nineteenth century, Washington D.C. had no sewer system. It was not built until 1871. The website of the DC Water and Sewage company notes that by 1850, most of the streets along Pennsylvania Avenue had spring or well water piped in, creating the need for a sanitary sewage process. Sewage was discharged into the nearest body of water. With literally nowhere to go, the sewage seeped into the ground, forming a fetid marsh. Perhaps even more shocking, the White House water supply itself was just seven blocks downstream from a depository for “night soil,” a euphemism for human feces collected from cesspools and outhouses. This depository, which likely contaminated the White House’s water supply, would have been a breeding ground for salmonella bacteria and the gastroenteritis that typically accompanies it. Ironically, the night soil deposited a few blocks from the White House had been brought there by the federal government.

Something in the water

It should come as no surprise, then, that Zachary Taylor succumbed to what was essentially an acute form of gastroenteritis. The cause of Taylor’s gastroenteritis was probably salmonella bacteria, not cherries and iced milk. James K. Polk, too, reported frequently in his diary that he suffered from explosive diarrhea while in the White House. For example, Polk’s diary entry for Thursday, June 29, 1848 noted that “before sun-rise” that morning he was taken with a “violent diarrhea” accompanied by “severe pain,” which rendered him unable to move. Polk, a noted workaholic, spent nearly his entire administration tethered to the White House. After leaving office, weakened by years of gastric poisoning, Polk succumbed, reportedly like Taylor, to “cholera morbis”, a mere three months after leaving the Oval Office.

The White House is also a leading suspect in the death of William Henry Harrison. History has generally accepted that Harrison died of pneumonia after giving what remains the longest inaugural address on record, in a freezing rain without benefit of hat or coat. However, Harrison’s gastrointestinal tract may have been a veritable playground for the bacteria in the White House water.

Harrison suffered from indigestion most of his life. The standard treatment then was to use carbonated alkali, a base, to neutralize the gastric acid. Unfortunately, in neutralizing the gastric acid, Harrison removed his natural defense to harmful bacteria. As a result, it might have taken far less than the usual concentration of salmonella to cause gastroenteritis. In addition, Harrison was treated during his final illness with opium, standard at the time, which slowed the ability of his body to get rid of bacteria, allowing them more time to get into his bloodstream. It has been noted, that, as Harrison lay dying, he had a sinking pulse and cold, blue extremities, which is consistent with septic shock. Did Harrison die of pneumonia? Possibly. But the strong likelihood is that pneumonia was secondary to gastroenteritis.

Neither was this phenomena limited to the mid-nineteenth century Presidents. In 1803, Thomas Jefferson mentioned in a letter to his good friend, fellow founder Dr. Benjamin Rush that “after all my life having enjoyed the benefit of well formed organs of digestion and deportation,” he was taken, “two years ago,” after moving into the White House, “with the diarrhea, after having dined moderately on fish. Jefferson noted he had never had it before. The problem plagued him for the rest of his life. Early reports of Jefferson’s even death stated that he had died because of dehydration from diarrhea.

Presidents after Zachary Taylor fared better, once D.C. built its sewer system. The second accidental President, Millard Fillmore, lived another twenty years after succeeding Zachary Taylor. But what about the myths surrounding these early Presidential deaths? They were created, in part, by a lack of medical and scientific understanding of what really killed these men. With the benefit of modern science we can turn a critical eye on these myths. But we should not forget that myth-making can serve an important purpose past simple deception. In the case of Zachary Taylor, it provided a simple explanation for his unexpected death. Suspicion or accusations of foul play would have further inflamed the sides of the slavery question that in another decade erupted into Civil War, perhaps even starting that war before Lincoln’s Presidency. In Harrison’s case, that overcoat explanation helped the country get over the shock of the first President dying in office and permitted John Tyler to establish the precedent that the Vice-President became President upon the death of a President. In sum, these nineteenth century myths helped the still new Republic march on to its ever brighter future.

What did you think of today’s article? Do you think it was the water that killed several Presidents? Let us know below…


CASE SUMMARY

According to Miller, President Harrison first consulted him on 26 March (3 weeks after his inauguration) because of several days of anxiety and fatigue, ostensibly due to the intense physical and mental pressures of a hard-fought campaign and the stress of his first weeks in office. He told Miller that he felt unwell but expected to recover soon with the help of a regimen of fasting and medicine (of uncertain composition). He also told Miller that he had a long history of “neuralgia, affecting his head, stomach and often his extremities,” in addition to chronic dyspepsia, which he had learned to control with a diet consisting principally of “animal food.” His recent fast, he said, had caused a minor flare of his old dyspepsia. Miller advised Harrison to go to bed and on returning later that evening, found him claiming to be feeling better than he had in days.

At 1:00 pm the next day, Miller was again summoned to the White House, this time because of a severe chill, for which Miller applied a mustard to the president's stomach and prescribed warm drinks along with a gentle diaphoretic draught, tartar emetic (antimony potassium tartrate), with spiritus Mindereri (acetate of ammonia). These induced slight perspiration. When seen again at 5:00 pm , Harrison was “much improved his skin warm and moist, his thirst allayed … his pulse was soft, about seventy-five.” He complained only of a slight pain over his right eye. Because Harrison's bowels had not moved for 2 days, Miller ordered Mars Hydrarg (a mercury-containing compound) and Ex. Colocynth Comp (a bitter apple laxative) to be taken at bedtime.

Shortly after midnight the next day, the president developed a violent pain over his right brow and in his right side. The pain in his side, which he attributed to his continued constipation, was accentuated by deep inspiration and motion but not by pressure. When seen by Miller, he also complained of thirst and occasional nausea his pulse was 80 and soft. Miller ordered enemas, mustard plasters applied to the painful side, and a Seidlitz powder (a tartaric acid/sodium bicarbonate/potassium tartrate laxative).

The president's discomfort began to ease at 8:30 am, and by 10:00 am the pain in his side and head had nearly resolved. Because the enemas had produced only small, offensive, fluid evacuations with a few lumps of indurated feces, Miller ordered more Mars Hydrarg, along with Pulv. Rhei (a rhubarb, ginger, and magnesium oxide laxative) and camphor. He left directions for cups to be applied to the president's side if his pain returned. At half past 11, Harrison was restless and would not allow his side to be touched.

Harrison was chilly at noon and asked for laudanum (tincture of opium) to be applied to his painful right side. Miller gave him a second laxative pill, which induced only a small discharge of black, fetid water. At 2:30 pm , Harrison's skin was warmer and drier than it had been his pulse somewhat faster his breathing more hurried and his face a little flushed. Upon examining him, Miller “was satisfied that the lower lobe of the right lung was the seat of pneumonia, complicated by congestion of the liver.” Because Harrison now complained of feeling nauseated and faint, Miller decided not to bleed him, as was the standard treatment for pneumonia, and continued the cups instead.

At 3:00 pm Miller applied a blistering preparation to Harrison's right side and gave him 20 drops of laudanum, along with another laxative pill. These relieved the president's pain but not his constipation. Miller gave him 5 grains of calomel (mercury chloride) with 10 drops of laudanum, which quieted Harrison's stomach, relieved his pain, and put him to sleep.

The president spent that night troubled by dyspnea and a slight dry cough. He was urinating freely but passed only several small black and fetid stools in response to 2 more laxative pills and 3 grains of calomel. His pulse was 80 and soft. The pain in his side was now mild and dull in character. Miller ordered Dover's powder (ipecac plus opium) to allay Harrison's restlessness and a small dose of castor oil for his persistent constipation.

When examined at 2:00 pm , Harrison was breathing heavily and coughing occasionally without expectorating. He had had a dark fluid bowel movement in spite of failing to take the castor oil ordered by Miller. He was producing small quantities of concentrated urine. Though febrile, his pulse was only 90 beats per minute. Miller ordered more Mars Hydrarg, along with antimony and ipecac. That evening Harrison began expectorating “pinkish mucus.”

Following a comfortable night, the president seemed to be improving, though he remained constipated and distended. Miller gave him more Mars Hydrarg and ipecac, along with opium camphor and Pulv. Rhei. That afternoon, Harrison was again febrile with a pulse of 85 and most comfortable lying on his right side. By 7:00 pm he had had several bowel movements, voluminous and debilitating enough that Miller felt obliged to order more Mars Hydrarg, ipecac, and camphor, together with opium.

The next day (31 March) Harrison was having fewer bowel movements. His cough, though no more frequent, was now producing copious yellow mucus tinged with blood. Miller discontinued the laxative pills and ordered serpentaria (Virginia snake weed root) and seneka (Polygala senega) enemas. When Harrison's fever returned later in the day, Miller reinstituted alternating doses of Mars Hydrarg, ipecac, antimony, and spirits of ammonia every 3 hours.

Because Harrison looked worse on the morning of 1 April, Miller decided to discontinue all medicines temporarily, except for Mars Hydrarg, which he applied “over the whole abdomen and blistered surface.” That afternoon, Harrison was incoherent, “muttering while dozing picking at the bed clothes.” A small green bowel movement in the morning gave way later in the day to frequent discharges. Miller applied blisters to the inside of Harrison's thighs, which seemed to sooth him.

Dr N. W. Worthington of Georgetown and Dr J. C. Hall of Washington City joined Miller as consultants. “After a minute examination … they perfectly agreed with [Miller], both in their opinion of the character of the case, and in the propriety of the treatment.” The group decided “to continue the serpentaria and seneka infusion [ie, enema], with the addition of a few drops of the aromatic spirits of ammonia to each dose.”

Harrison continued to complain of intermittent pain in his side and over his right brow, which were relieved by warm poultices over the blistered surface and Granville's lotion along the spine. A new complaint, soreness of his gastrocnemius muscle, responded promptly to message. Mars Hydrarg, camphor, and opium were administered sequentially every 2 hours.

On the morning of 2 April, Harrison was expectorating brownish mucus tinged with blood. Miller gave him 2 grains of blue mass (another mercury-containing medication) every 2 hours while continuing the serpentaria and seneka enemas. These induced several small, brownish, watery bowel movements initially and then another “copious evacuation.”

The president slept fitfully but was perfectly lucid when aroused. His cough, now dry and hacking, “was relieved by a teaspoonful of squill (Scilla maratima root, used as an expectorant, diuretic, emetic, and purgative), morphia, and Tolu (cough syrup), in equal quantities.” He appeared flushed and was warm to the touch. His pulse was quicker than it had been.

At 2:30 pm the president passed a very large and feculent stool, which left him “feeble and languid.” Miller gave him “twenty drops of laudanum to check an inclination to another passage.” However, the watery diarrhea simply increased in intensity, and Harrison became progressively more lethargic and difficult to arouse. His pulse was “slow, hobbling and intermittent, [his] skin dark and muddy,” his abdomen distended. Miller ordered stimulants, mustard plasters applied to the extremities and abdomen, along with starch, laudanum, a kino (dark red dried juice of certain plants used for tanning and drying) enema, spirit of turpentine sponging, and camphor and carbonate of ammonia emulsion with a hot brandy toddy. By then, Harrison's “pulse [was] sinking extremities blue and cold.”

At 8:45 pm on 3 April 1841, President William Henry Harrison uttered his last words, “Sir, I wish you to understand the true principles of government I wish them carried out, I ask nothing more.” At half past midnight on 4 April, “without a groan or a struggle, he ceased to breath.”


In 1841, pneumonia killed the president in 31 days. His doctors were accused of incompetence.

“We are happy to announce that the health of the president is decidedly better, the disease with which he was afflicted having assumed a more favorable aspect,” a Washington newspaper reported.

The president was William Henry Harrison, who had been sworn in on March 4, 1841. On the day the news article was published, April 1, 1841, Harrison actually was fighting for his life.

Just as reports on President Trump’s condition and treatment for the coronavirus were incomplete and contradictory before his release Monday from Walter Reed National Military Medical Center, so were the reports on Harrison’s illness.

The White House didn’t issue public statements about Harrison’s condition. The varying reports came from leaks to newspapers from people who had contacts in the White House.

A common myth is that Harrison died because he caught a cold after giving the longest inauguration speech in history on a freezing and rainy day without wearing a coat and hat. He did give the longest inaugural speech ever — one hour and 45 minutes. But it wasn’t raining. And he didn’t come down sick until three weeks later.

At age 68, Harrison, a general in the War of 1812, was America’s oldest president to that point. (Trump is 74.) Harrison had just completed an exhausting presidential campaign and a long trip to Washington from his farm in Ohio. As president, he had to deal with the constant demands of job seekers, who in those days could barge right into the White House.

But Harrison seemed fine until Wednesday, March 24, when he went on his daily sunrise walk to the local food markets without wearing a coat or hat. He got caught in a sudden rainstorm, but didn’t change his wet clothes when he got back to the White House.

Harrison’s immune system already was weakened, making him vulnerable to germs. On Friday, he called a doctor. Harrison, who had once studied medicine, said he hadn’t felt well for several days. But he told the physician he was feeling better after taking medicine for “fatigue and mental anxiety.”


March 4, 1841: Harrison is inaugurated and delivers the longest inauguration speech in history. He stands in the rain and cold without a hat or coat and delivered a 2 hour speech. Afterwards, Harrison attends 3 inaugural balls.

March 5, 1841: Harrison nominates Daniel Webster as Secretary of State.

March 9, 1841: The Supreme Court rules in favor of the Africans onboard the Amistad that were kidnapped in the Havana harbor and then rebelled and killed the members of the ship&rsquos crew. This landmark case was called U.S. v. The Amistad.

April 1, 1841: Brook Farm, a utopian community near Boston, Massachusetts, and inspired by American Transcendentalism, seeks to combine manual labor and intellectual pursuits.

April 4, 1841: President Harrison dies of pneumonia. He becomes the first president to die in office. John Tyler is sworn in as president the next day.


The Brief Presidency of William Henry Harrison

Welcome to THE MAKING OF A NATION – American history in VOA Special English.

In November of 1840, the American people elected their ninth president, William Henry Harrison. The election of the retired general was expected. Still, it was a great victory for the Whig Party and a sharply felt loss for the opposing party, the Democrats. They failed to put their man, President Martin Van Buren, in the White House for a second term.

Whig leaders made most of Harrison's campaign decisions. Some of those leaders, especially senators Henry Clay of Kentucky and Daniel Webster of Massachusetts, believed they could control the newly elected president. But Harrison saw what was happening. When he made a trip to Kentucky, he made it clear that he did not want to meet with Clay. He felt that such a meeting might seem to show that Clay was the real power in the new administration.

But Clay made sure that Harrison was publicly invited to visit him. The newly elected president could not say no to such an invitation. He spent several days at Clay's home in Lexington.

This week in our series, Maurice Joyce and Jack Moyles discuss the presidency of William Henry Harrison.

Daniel Webster, without even being asked, wrote an inaugural speech for the new president. Harrison thanked him, but said he already had written his speech. Harrison spoke for more than one and a half hours. He gave the speech outside, on the front steps of the Capitol building.

It was the coldest inaugural day in the nation's history. But Harrison did not wear a coat or hat. Harrison caught a cold, probably from standing so long outside in the bitter weather of inaugural day. Rest was his best treatment. But Harrison was so busy, he had little time to rest.

Hundreds of people demanded to see the new president. They wanted jobs with the government. Everywhere he turned, Harrison was met by crowds of job-hungry people. And there was a problem that worried him. Henry Clay and Daniel Webster were fighting each other for power in the new administration.

Harrison had offered Clay any job he wanted in the cabinet. But Clay chose to stay in the Senate. Harrison then gave the job of Secretary of State to Webster. He also gave Webster's supporters the best government jobs in New York City.

Clay did not like this. And he told the president so. Harrison accused Clay of trying to tell him -- the president -- how to do his job. Later, he told Clay that he wanted no further words with him. He said any future communications between them would have to be written.

Harrison's health grew worse. Late in March 1841, his cold turned into pneumonia. Doctors did everything they could to cure him. But nothing seemed to help. On April fourth, after exactly one month as president, William Henry Harrison died.

Vice President John Tyler was then at his home in Williamsburg, Virginia. Secretary of State Webster sent his son Fletcher on horseback to tell Tyler of the president's death. The vice President was shocked. He had not even known that Harrison was sick. Two hours after he received the news, Tyler was on his way to Washington. He reached the capital just before sunrise on April sixth, 1841.

There was some question about Tyler's position. This was the first time that a president had died in office. No one was really sure if the Constitution meant that the vice president was to become president or only acting president. Webster and the other members of the cabinet decided that Tyler should be president and serve until the next election. Tyler also had decided this.

Tyler was sworn-in as the tenth president on April sixth. He was fifty-one years old. No other man had become president at such an early age. Tyler was born and grew up in the same part of Virginia as William Henry Harrison. His father was a wealthy planter and judge who had been a friend of Thomas Jefferson. John completed studies at the college of William and Mary, and became a lawyer. He entered politics and served in the Virginia legislature. Then he was elected a member of Congress and, later, governor of Virginia. He also served as a United States senator.

Tyler believed strongly in the rights of the states. As a congressman and a senator, he had voted against every attempt to give more power to the federal government. Tyler's political beliefs were strongly opposed to those of the northern and western Whigs. Henry Clay firmly supported the ideas of a national bank, a protective tax on imports, and federal spending to improve transportation in the states. Tyler was just as firmly against these ideas.

There was something else. Clay expected to be the Whig Party's presidential candidate in 1844. If he supported Tyler, then the new president might become too strong politically and win a second term in the White House.

Tyler quickly established his independence after becoming president. Webster told him that President Harrison had let the cabinet make the decisions of his administration. He said Harrison had only one vote. the same as any member of the cabinet. Webster asked if Tyler wanted this to continue.

"I do not," said Tyler. "I would like to keep President Harrison's cabinet. But I, alone, will make the decisions. If the cabinet members do not approve of this, let them resign."

Tyler wanted to change the cabinet, but could not do so immediately. All but two members of the cabinet were supporters of Senator Clay. Tyler wanted to put these men out and appoint men who would support him. But if he did this immediately, it would split the party. He would have to wait.

The Whig Party controlled both houses of Congress after the 1840 elections. Clay wanted a special session of the new Congress. He was able to get Harrison to call such a session before the president's death. At the session, Clay offered six resolutions as a plan of work for Congress. These proposed putting an end to the independent treasury, the establishment of a new national bank, and a tax increase on imports. They also included a new plan to give the states the money received by the federal government from the sale of public lands.

It was no problem to put an end to the independent treasury. Tyler had opposed it during the campaign and in his message to Congress. Congress soon passed a bill repealing the independent treasury act. And Tyler quickly signed it.

But a dispute arose on the issue of a new national bank. Tyler had his Secretary of the Treasury send Congress the administration's plan for a national bank. It would permit such a bank to be established in Washington. And it would permit the bank to open offices in a state, but only if the state approved.

This was not the kind of bank Clay wanted. He wanted no limits of any kind on the power of a national bank to open offices anywhere in the country. Clay then offered a bill that would create just this kind of bank. There was much debate. And Clay finally agreed to a compromise. Bank offices would be permitted in any state where the state legislature did not immediately refuse permission.

The Congress accepted the compromise. But President Tyler did not. He vetoed the bank bill and sent it back to Congress. This had been a difficult decision for Tyler to make. He wanted peace and unity in the party. But he also wanted to show that he -- and not Henry Clay -- was president. The people knew he opposed Clay's bill. If he accepted it, the people would feel that Clay was the more powerful.

Clay did not have enough votes to pass the bill over the president's veto. Another effort was made to get a bank bill that the president would approve. This time, members of Congress met with Tyler to get his ideas. He explained, again, the kind of bank he would accept. He said the states must have the right to approve or reject bank offices.

The congressmen wrote another bill. They said it was exactly what the president wanted. But the president did not agree. He said this second bill would also be vetoed unless changes were made in it. The changes were not made. And Tyler did as he said he would do. He vetoed it. This second veto caused a crisis in Tyler's cabinet.


Watch the video: Experts Revealed The Real Reason Why William Henry Harrison Died After Less Than A Month In Of (May 2022).