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President William Henry Harrison’s fatal “pneumonia”

William Henry Harrison was 68 years old when he became the ninth president of the United States and the oldest US president until Ronald Reagan was elected nearly a century and a half later. He was sworn into office on 4 March 1841. Exactly one month later, he was dead. Since his death on this day 175 years ago, it has been taken for granted by even the most eminent presidential historians that an overly long inaugural address delivered in freezing weather without a hat, overcoat, or gloves led to a fatal case of pneumonia. Fatal pneumonia, however, is a diagnosis in several respects at odds with the detailed description of Harrison’s final illness left by his personal physician, Dr. Thomas Miller.

Although Harrison developed symptoms of pneumonia during the course of his final illness (i.e., fever, difficulty breathing, and cough productive of small amounts of blood-tinged sputum), they were intermittent rather than progressive and didn’t begin until two days after the onset of gastrointestinal complaints, which proved to be both relentless and progressive. Harrison’s initial complaints were constipation and abdominal distension, which persisted for 5 days in spite of repeated laxatives and enemas administered by Dr. Miller. On the sixth day of illness, Harrison’s bowels finally opened, producing a flood of “foetid,” watery diarrhea, a sinking pulse, cold blue extremities, and, ultimately, death. The character and course of the illness, including the pulmonary complaints, are typical of typhoid fever. Moreover, given the dominance of Harrison’s gastrointestinal complaints during the course of his fatal illness, it is more likely that he died of a gastrointestinal infection–specifically typhoid fever–with secondary involvement of his lungs than of a pulmonary infection (i.e., pneumonia) with secondary involvement of the intestine.

Portrait of President William Henry Harrison by Albert Sands Southworth (1811–1894) and Josiah Johnson Hawes (1808–1901). Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.
Portrait of President William Henry Harrison by Albert Sands Southworth (1811–1894) and Josiah Johnson Hawes (1808–1901). Edited by: Fallschirmjäger – The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Accession number: 37.14.44. Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.

In fact, there is ample reason to conclude that Harrison’s move into the White House placed him at considerable risk of contracting a gastrointestinal infection such as typhoid fever. In 1841 the nation’s capital had no sewer system (nor, for that matter, did any other American city). Until 1850, sewage from nearby buildings simply flowed onto public grounds a short distance from the White House, where it stagnated and formed a marsh. Even more ominous, the White House water supply, which came from springs in the square bordered by 13th, 14th, I, and K streets NW, would have been prone to contamination during heavy rain by pathogenic bacteria contained within Washington DC’s night soil depository situated just seven blocks above the springs. This might explain why three antebellum presidents – Harrison, James Polk, and Zachary Taylor – each developed severe gastroenteritis while residing in the White House. Polk recovered only to die of presumed cholera three months after leaving office. Taylor, like Harrison, succumbed to his episode of gastroenteritis while president.

If Harrison had survived long enough to serve out his term as president, the course of US history would have been different. How different will never be known, because he was unfortunate enough to have moved into the White House before the advent in Washington, DC of modern sanitation.

Featured image credit: Death of Harrison, April 4, 1841 by N.Y. : Lith. & pub. by N. Currier – This image is available from the United States Library of Congress’s Prints and Photographs division under the digital ID cph.3a06021. Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.

Recent Comments

  1. Chris Dowgin

    Harrison died of Typhoid. So did the other elected Whig president Zachary Taylor. Both of them had gone against Daniel Webster and Henry Clay who wanted them to create the Third Bank of the United States. There is also a contention if Polk died of Typhoid or Cholera a month before Taylor. Alexander the Great was rumored to have been killed by Typhoid as well. How easy is it to kill someone by typhoid? Typhoid Mary would kill people by just cooking them dinner.

    The rumor spread that he died of pneumonia was because Daniel Webster had wrote his inaugural address, but Harrison decided to read his own that was quite lengthy during a snow storm. This rumor was more to the fact Webster did not forgive the chide.

    Daniel Webster had much to gain if Harrison would of voted in the Third Bank of the United States for he was the director of the Boston branch of the Second Bank of the United States. Even more so his financier Stephen White.

    Stephen White’s daughter was married to Webster’s son and White’s other daughter was married to Webster’s brother-in-law. Webster was part of a powerful duo Stephen White had used to prior to the Second Bank of the United States lost its charter and after to attempt to create the Third Bank of the United States. The other half was Associate Supreme Court Justice Joseph Story. Webster and Story were the two most persuasive people who shaped how we view the Constitution today. They protected the rights of property and the national banks. Both within the power and control of Stephen White. White was the brother in law to Story’s 2 sisters and shared a compound that connected his house, his brother’s, Story’s, and another brother in law Forrester’s house by a series of tunnels. Joseph Story was also a director of the Second Bank of the United States in Philadelphia and Boston.

    During their lifetimes they did not get to see the creation of the Third Bank of the United States. That would not be seen till much later with the Federal Reserve. For Webster had tried to get Taylor to push forward a Fiscal Bank through Congress, but Taylor did not support the same bank with a new name. But give it time and most forgot about the Third Bank of the United States, so later generations approached it fresh and created it under a new name with the same problems. That 70% of its shares rest outside of this nation. The reason Jackson had not renewed the charter to the Second Bank of the United States.

    Why do I say these people murdered two presidents? Because Stephen White had gotten away of the murder of his uncle which Daniel Webster had tried two innocent men and had them hanged for being accessories. They had the unfortunate luck to be sons of a business partner that insulted the murder victim by having his favorite ship taken by a pirate. The person actually accused of the murder was found hanging in his cell from a low window by two silk handkerchiefs with his knees almost touching the ground. Two of the people that were hanged were Richard Crowninshield Jr. and Joseph Knapp Jr. The murder victim was a widower without an heir. His favorite nephew was set up to be his heir, Joseph “Jr.” White, but he died before him. Then his ship that Joseph Knapp Sr. lost to the pirate was like his baby. So the captain had his Revenge after his death on two business partners who insulted him by hanging their heirs. The name of the ship that was lost was the Revenge.

    Also the MA Chief Justice Isaac Parker (Parker Brothers bought Cluedo and named it Clue because they uncle’s involvement in the case) died 3 days after he had said he has been healthy all of his life and never missed a day of work. That the next Chief Justice was picked by Webster but could not hear the case because he already served on it freeing Selman and Chase who was accused with the murder. Joseph White the victim had been on his death bed for months before he was killed. He wanted revenge on the two men’s sons and heirs and he received it posthumously.

    This murder influenced Hawthorne and led Poe to write the Tell Tale Heart. More of this story and how George Peabody from Salem who is the founder of JP Morgan and the Rockefeller Foundation crashed the economy and sold the Second Bank of the United States to England in the forthcoming book “Subrosa”, the sequel to “Salem Secret Underground:The History of the Tunnels in the City”

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