Naturally, I will begin a series of posts ranking the presidents with a president that I will not rank: That man is William Henry Harrison, a Whig who served in 1841. The mischievous side of me wanted to place him No. 1 — having only served as president for one month before he died, he did the least amount of damage.
Harrison was a war hero, renowned for his exploits at the Battle of Tippecanoe in 1811 against Indians (hence his nickname “Tippecanoe” and his potent 1840 campaign slogan “Tippecanoe and Tyler Too”). Of course, nowadays no one much remembers anything he did during his life — except the way he died.
It is a good story. After his election, he gave the longest Inaugural Address in presidential history (8,445 words, lasting nearly two hours!). The weather was inclement (an ugly word that I have only ever read in the copy of sports writers) and, according to myth, he caught a cold, which worsened into pneumonia, and died only one month after his inauguration. Harrison’s example has been a cautionary tale to any verbose president: Keep it short, or else!
Like many of our myths, this one does not quite stand up to close scrutiny. He caught his cold more than three weeks after the supposedly cold day that caused his demise; Harrison complained of symptoms not associated with pneumonia; and his own doctor, who himself said it was pneumonia that killed the president, later wrote, “The disease was not viewed as a case of pure pneumonia; but as this was the most palpable affection, the term pneumonia afforded a succinct and intelligible answer to the innumerable questions as to the nature of the attack.”
This does not sound like a strong case. In fact, with everything taken into account, it appears that Harrison did not die from pneumonia, and his long-address did not kill him (to the relief of wordy politicians). What did kill him? Four decades of Capitol feces.
Seriously — Washington, D.C. had no sewer system in those days. “Until 1850, some sewage simply flowed onto public grounds a short distance from the White House, where it stagnated and formed a marsh,” write Jane McHugh and Philip Mackowiak in The New York Times. “The White House water supply was just seven blocks downstream of a depository for ‘night soil,’ hauled there each day at government expense.”
It wasn’t an overly long and winding presidential speech that killed Harrison; it was a bacterial disease that came from drinking water contaminated by Capitol Hill excrement.
I suppose one could make a larger point here about narrative, the importance we place in it, and the temptation of sacrificing the truth in order to tell a good story. After all, this is a problem, particularly for history writers, and Harrison’s death appears to be a pretty good example of it.
However, who among us can resist the urge to turn instead to toilet humor? Our first presidential assassin was not John Wilkes Booth; it was presidential poo.