One hundred and seventy-six years ago today, on April 4, 1841, William Henry Harrison, President of the United States, died in the White House. His last words were to his doctor, but were probably intended for Vice-President John Tyler: “Sir, I wish you to understand the true principles of the government. I wish them carried out. I ask nothing more.” He’d been the nation’s chief executive for only 30 days. Though it’s often stated that Harrison died of pneumonia he caught while giving his turgid two-hour inaugural address–which took place on a raw, cold and rainy morning in March–medically there is some dispute as to whether this is really true. Nonetheless, Harrison’s abrupt shuffling off this mortal coil was the first of eight occasions in American history when the intercession of the Grim Reaper elevated an unsuspecting (or fully suspecting) veep to the Oval Office.
Anyone who begins to study the history of Presidential death will instantly note a curious fact. Harrison, elected in 1840, was the first of seven chief executives elected in years ending in zero who died in office. Indeed, between 1841 and 1963, not a single President elected in a zero year left office alive. Lincoln (elected 1860) had his last curtain call at Ford’s Theater; Garfield (elected 1880) was blown away by a narcissistic lunatic hiding in the ladies’ room; McKinley (elected 1900) took a slug in his very ample gut while shaking hands with an anarchist at the World’s Fair; Harding (elected 1920) croaked in a San Francisco hotel room while talking to his wife; FDR (elected 1940) made a fatal faceplant at Warm Springs while having his portrait painted; and Kennedy (elected 1960) was done in by Lee Harvey Oswald, who, as I stress every time his name comes up, acted alone and not as part of a conspiracy. The “Twenty Year Curse” or the “Year Zero Curse” attached in popular culture, and seemed to enjoy an incredible run across 123 years–more than half of all of U.S. history. Supposedly the curse was “broken” by Ronald Reagan, elected in 1980, who lived out his two terms; so did George W. Bush, proclaimed the winner of the 2000 election by the U.S. Supreme Court.
The death of President Zachary Taylor, elected in 1848, died in 1850, does not fit the “Twenty Year Curse” pattern. He died possibly from cholera, or maybe from tainted cherries consumed at a holiday barbecue.
Professionally speaking, curses are not part of history. Even if a “curse” was a real thing it would be impossible to tell what could cause it or why one might choose to dispatch the Grim Reaper at neat intervals of decades. Still, the “Twenty Year Curse,” rubbish though it is as a historical concept, is an interesting tool for drilling into the broader subject of Presidential mortality. Just how likely is it that a person elected to the highest office won’t survive the experience? What implications does the likelihood of Presidential death carry in our government and society? These are much better questions to ask than trying to figure out why the Reaper supposedly has it out for men elected in zero years. It’s also an interesting “meta” look at U.S. Presidential history.
First of all, the “Twenty Year Curse” is hardly as uniform at it might appear at first glance. Note that of its seven “victims,” three (Lincoln, McKinley and Roosevelt) were multi-term Presidents who also won an election in a year other than one ending in zero. Furthermore, there’s a Presidential death within the span of the curse that doesn’t fit the pattern. Zachary Taylor, elected in 1848, died–some say of fatal indigestion–in the summer of 1850. It’s probably a good idea to at least consider the near misses that almost resulted in further Presidential fatalities. James Madison nearly died of illness in the summer of 1813; Andrew Jackson survived a point-blank encounter with a gunman in 1835 only because the assassin’s pistols misfired; Arthur was terminally ill while President but barely managed to get to the end of his term; the 1919 stroke that left Woodrow Wilson a vegetable might easily have killed him; so too for Eisenhower’s 1955 heart attack; and Gerald Ford survived two attempted shootings in one month in September 1975. The only “near miss” that comes anywhere near the pattern is the attempt to kill Ronald Reagan in March 1981, but keep in mind that the creeper who pulled that one off, Hinckley, had been stalking Jimmy Carter in late 1980 and might well have tried to do him in too.
President William McKinley was shot at the Temple of Music in Buffalo, New York in September 1901 by an anarchist lunatic. Had he suffered the same wound today, with modern medical care he probably would have survived.
As for which is more likely to send a President to an early grave–disease or some nefarious human agency–the statistics are exactly evenly split. Four Presidents died of either an infectious disease (Harrison, Taylor) or a congenital or chronic condition (Harding’s heart; FDR’s brain). The other four died by violence. But even this tally is misleading. At the time of his assassination in 1865, Abraham Lincoln was dying of cancer, a hypothesis I covered in an article and also on my podcast. Had Booth not shot him, he would probably have been dead by the beginning of 1866. John F. Kennedy too was in very poor health, with nearly every system of his body manifesting some side-effect of his Addison’s disease (or unwise attempts to treat it). Conversely, it seems some of the unhealthiest Presidents generally had no problem making it through their terms. Franklin Pierce and James Buchanan were both very heavy drinkers. Ulysses Grant spent most of his two terms with a glass of whiskey in one hand and a cigar in the other. Cleveland and Taft were morbidly obese, the latter weighing 330 pounds at one point during his Presidency. Today the President has world-class medical care literally an arm’s length away 24 hours a day, but even in the disease-prone 19th century it seems the Grim Reaper called at the White House somewhat less often than you might expect.
Unfortunately, given the law of averages, his next visit may be overdue. It’s been 54 years since any President died in office from any cause. That’s the longest period of collective Presidential longevity since the office was founded. Contrast that with the 25 year period between 1840 and 1865 which saw no less than three Chief Executives pushing up daisies. Even accounting for increased life spans and medical advances in our time, some future President is likely to wind up with the short straw eventually. A Presidential death, regardless of who it occurs to or how, is inevitably a tragic and disruptive event in history. But it has happened, and it will likely happen again. The “Twenty Year Curse” is nonsense, but that doesn’t mean that Presidents are any less mortal than the rest of us.