On April 5, 1841, the news that President William Henry Harrison was dead shocked a nation. So what killed a man who had just entered the White House 30 days prior to his death?
Traditionally, the story told for generations is that Harrison, 68, caught a cold while speaking outside while giving his inaugural address and never fully recovered. But recent research and other theories cast doubts on that story.
Harrison came to the White House as a populist candidate in the 1840 presidential election. He was a legitimate military hero who used the classic campaign slogan, Tippecanoe and Tyler, Too, despite the fact Harrison was born into an aristocratic Virginia family.
Harrison led troops that defeated an attacking American Indian force at the Battle of Tippecanoe in 1811, which made him a national figure. Following his military career, Harrison had mixed success as a political figure over the next 25 years. In 1836, Harrison finished second to the victorious Martin Van Buren in a divided presidential race.
Four years later, he rode into office by taking the Electoral College vote easily, but the popular vote was very close. The Whigs had won with 240 electoral votes, compared with 60 for the Democrats. But Harrison only took the popular vote by about 150,000 votes.
On March 4, 1841, Harrison gave the longest U.S. presidential inaugural address at 8,445 words. He also appeared outside without a hat or gloves, despite cold weather conditions at an estimated 48 degrees Fahrenheit. The new President then attended a parade and three inaugural balls, possibly in the same wet clothing he wore outside during the speech. He also drank at the inaugural balls.
In the week before his death, stories in appeared in national newspapers that Harrison had fallen ill after dinner on March 27, 1841. By Saturday, April 3, rumors were all over Washington that Harrison was seriously ill and regular bulletins were issued to the press. “We are led to fear the worst result,” reported the Baltimore Sun.
The next day, Harrison died of complications from what was believed to be pneumonia.
The official announcement came from his Cabinet, led by Daniel Webster. “An all-wise Providence having suddenly removed from this life William Henry Harrison, late President of the United States, we have thought it our duty, in the recess of Congress and in the absence of the Vice-President from the seat of Government, to make this afflicting bereavement known to the country by this declaration under our hands,” the statement read.
The official physicians’ report, also issued on April 4, said that Harrison fell ill shortly before March 27, 1841.
“The next day pneumonia, with congestion of the liver and derangement of the stomach and bowels, was ascertained to exist,” the report read. Different measures were taken, including the use of laxatives, mercury and opium, to help Harrison. “The stomach and intestines did not regain a healthy condition. Finally, on the 3d of April, at 3 o'clock p.m., profuse diarrhea came on, under which he sank at thirty minutes to 1 o'clock on the morning of the 4th,” the report concluded.
So for many, many years, the story persisted that Harrison was literally killed by his own inaugural speech in 1841, after which he developed pneumonia. His condition was aggravated by his age.
However, a 2014 New York Times article written by Jane McHugh and Philip Mackowiak theorized that in reality Harrison died from enteric or typhoid fever related to Washington's water supply
“A new look at the evidence through the lens of modern epidemiology makes it far more likely that the real killer lurked elsewhere — in a fetid marsh not far from the White House,” they said. During that era, untreated human waste was routinely dumped near a public water supply six blocks from the White House.
“As he lay dying, Harrison had a sinking pulse and cold, blue extremities, two classic manifestations of septic shock. Given the character and course of his fatal illness, his untimely death is best explained by enteric fever,” the authors concluded. (Their research was also published in the journal of the Infectious Diseases Society of America.)
The Washington Post recently hosted Mackowiak on a podcast to commemorate Harrison’s presidency.
“The weather was not that cold and not that damp. The whole scenario really doesn’t fit the association between the inaugural address and the illness because he didn’t become sick until three weeks later,” he said.
Doctors’ records also show the President initially thought his fatigue was related to presidential campaigning that had concluded the previous November. Mackowiak also noted that the fecal matter near the White House mostly likely came from some people who had prior illness.
Harrison’s last words were for his doctor. “I wish you to understand the true principles of government. I wish them carried out,” he said.
His vice president, John Tyler, would immediately face a daunting task in that area. The Constitution was very unclear about the concept of presidential succession. Tyler didn’t want to take the presidential oath, believing that his vice presidential oath covered the eventuality of his ascension to the presidency. His cabinet and many other officials disagreed, and Tyler decided to take the oath in public on April 6, 1841.
“I am the President, and I shall be held responsible for my administration. I shall be pleased to avail myself of your counsel and advice. But I can never consent to being dictated to as to what I shall do or not do. When you think otherwise, your resignations will be accepted,” Tyler said.
Tyler set the presidential succession precedent that stood until the 25th Amendment was ratified in 1967, making sure that it was clear that the Vice President became President upon a vacancy in that office.
Scott Bomboy is the editor in chief of the National Constitution Center.