It’s a wonder it hasn’t happened more often to our U.S. Presidents.  I’m talking about real life impinging on late middle aged men and terminating their tenure before they barely got out of the starting block.

I will expand on this subject in just a few lines but I feel this is also a good time to announce that if you are the hopelessly partisan political type; go ahead and stop reading now as your mind will no doubt shift to wishing the worst for your least favorite Republican or Democrat executive.

So sorry to disappoint you by just sticking to historic record here without any pontification.

Now I can move on.

Our recent presidential inauguration made me pause to reflect on the cruelly curtailed executive careers of President’s William Henry Harrison and Zachary Taylor in that order.  Both stand out as trivial pursuit fates of dubious distinction; seeing as they were the first Presidents to die in while in office.

And what a short time in office each one had!

William Henry Harrison was the ninth President of theUnited States (1841), an American military officer and politician, and the last president born as a British subject. He was 68 years, 23 days old at the time of his inauguration, which made him the oldest President until Ronald Reagan in 1981. Harrison died 31 days into his term of complications from pneumonia, serving the shortest tenure in United States presidential history.

Reportedly, during his address, the new president wore no coat or hat. Apparently in his younger career as a soldier, farmer, and outdoorsman, this was nothing new to Harrison as he had spent much of his life in bad weather. But he was far removed from that by this time, and when he followed the address with a round of receptions in his wet clothing, it resulted in a bad chill. Within days, he had a cold, which developed into pneumonia.

Doctors were called in, but their medical practices were crude and the same bleeding tactics that had killed George Washington were applied.  All this only weakened Harrison further, and three weeks after taking office, he was clearly dying. As a last resort, a number of Native American “remedies” were tried, including one involving the use of live snakes, which must have made for an alarming bed side visit for the delirious man.

Exactly one month after taking the oath of office, Harrison was dead. Due to this fleetingly brief period, we can safely say that William Henry Harrison is clearly off the hook in terms of judging his legacy.  The poor man never had a fighting chance.

Now we move the clock up to July 4, 1850 and the newly elected President Zachary Taylor is attending a ceremony at the unfinished Washington Monument; temperatures were blistering, and when he finally returned to the White House afterwards, the twelfth President of the United States was ravenously hungry.  And despite his physician’s caution that over-indulgence was “imprudent,” Taylor hastily wolfed down a variety of raw vegetables — cucumbers, cabbage, and corn.

Then he reportedly ate only raw vegetables, cherries and milk.

Indeed some accounts attest that he drank “a jug of iced milk and an enormous bowl of cherries.”

Either way, an hour later, the President fell violently ill.

And he, like Harrison before him, took ill in the worst manner imaginable–with violent stomach cramps and diarrhea the following day and died on July 9 of acute gastroenteritis.

Taylor became the second president to die while in office.  Was it cholera?  Or was their foul play?  The latter was officially ruled out in the 1990’s after the former President’s body was exhumed and analyzed for arsenic poisoning in a medical lab.  The results said that the causes were natural.

What do we take from all this?  Perhaps to be grateful for our Mother’s remonstrations for us to practice good old fashioned moderation.  Namely to dress warmly and to NOT over indulge with our eating.  Because the one common thread in all this, beside it just being God’s time to take them, was that both men had been immersed in outdoor ceremonial activities for an extended period (one in the middle of winter, one in the middle of summer) as antecedents to contracting their fatal ailments.

All of which goes to show that even the most important TO DO lists and responsibilities by the highest level of professional has to take a back seat to good health.

So the next time you are trying to memorize the order of U.S. Presidents, take some time to bow your head and think about Harrison and Tyler.  For theirs was not a happy ending fit for Hollywood.  I mean, how many casual historians are fascinated in replaying the last minutes and seconds leading up to Harrison’s arrogance in choosing to leave behind his coat before he stepped outside or Tyler’s foolishness in immersing himself with too many cherries.

It’s not even near approaching the behind the scenes drama of Lincoln or Kennedy.

Still, as I said earlier: the symbolism is clear:  “Listen to your Mother and heed her advice.”

Even heads of nations aren’t immune from what ails the common man.

Maybe that’s why today’s executives require so much more vacation time and golfing as compensation.

There Mother’s (or wives) don’t want them to remain outside in Washington D.C.s messy climate for too long so as to suffer the same fate as Harrison and Tyler too!



About John Watts

I like to write transcendental community based essays and stories along with photo journalism pieces.
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  1. Thomas Polk says:

    Maybe America should move the inauguration to a warmer month?

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