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Dead Presidents: An American Adventure into the Strange Deaths and Surprising Afterlives of Our Nation’s Leaders

Dead Presidents: An American Adventure into the Strange Deaths and Surprising Afterlives of Our Nation’s Leaders

by Brady Carlson




An entertaining exploration into the death stories of our nation’s greatest leaders—and the wild ways we choose to remember and memorialize them.

To public radio host and reporter Brady Carlson, the weighty responsibilities of being president never end. As Carlson sees it, the dead presidents (and the ways we remember them) tell us a great deal about ourselves, our history, and how we imagine our past and future. For American presidents, there is life after death—it’s just a little weird.

In Dead Presidents, Carlson takes readers on an epic trip to presidential gravesites, monuments, and memorials from sea to shining sea. With an engaging mix of history and contemporary reporting, Carlson recounts the surprising origin stories of the Washington Monument, Mount Rushmore, Grant’s Tomb, and JFK’s Eternal Flame. He explores whether William Henry Harrison really died of a cold, how the assassin’s bullet may not have been what killed James A. Garfield, and why Zachary Taylor’s remains were exhumed 140 years after he died. And he explains the strange afterlives of the presidents, including why “Hooverball” is still played in Iowa, why Millard Fillmore’s final resting place is next to that of funk legend Rick James, why “Who’s buried in Grant’s Tomb?” became a running gag for Groucho Marx, why Ohio and Alaska fought for so long over the name of Mt. McKinley (now known as Denali), and why we exalt dead presidents not just with public statues and iconic paintings but with kitschy wax dummies, Halloween costumes, and bobblehead dolls.

With an infectious passion for history and an eye for neglected places and offbeat characters reminiscent of Tony Horwitz and Sarah Vowell, Carlson shows that the ways we memorialize our presidents reveal as much about us as it does about the men themselves.

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780393243932
Publisher: Norton, W. W. & Company, Inc.
Publication date: 02/01/2016
Pages: 336
Product dimensions: 6.40(w) x 9.50(h) x 1.00(d)

About the Author

Brady Carlson is a reporter and the on-air host of NPR’s Weekend Edition for New Hampshire Public Radio. He lives in New Hampshire with his wife and children.

Table of Contents

Presidents of the United States xi

Introduction 3

1 Monument Man 9

On George Washington's Transformation from Mortal Man to Immortal Icon

2 Well-Timed Exits 25

On the Postmortem Fortunes (and Misfortunes) of John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, William Henry Harrison, Ulysses S. Grant, and Andrew Johnson

3 The First Patient 49

On James Garfield, Herbert Hoover, Zachary Taylor, and the Doctors Who Keep Presidents Alive (and Occasionally Make Them Worse)

4 Farewell, Mr. President 75

On William Henry Harrison, Woodrow Wilson, Gerald Ford, and Richard Nixon, and How the Presidential Funeral Was Born

5 Death Trips 93

On the Posthumous Travels of James Polk, James Monroe, John Tyler, and Abraham Lincoln

6 His Good Name 123

On William McKinley, Ronald Reagan, and Calvin Coolidge, and the Large (and Small) Hays Presidents Air Remembered

7 Robots and Sphinxes 141

On Lyndon Johnson, Rutherford B. Hayes, Franklin Roosevelt, Harry Truman, Richard Nixon, and Chester Arthur, and America's Presidential Libraries

8 Unintended Legacies 161

On William Taft, Andrew Jackson, Thomas Jefferson, and How Presidents' Reputations Change over Time

9 Eternal Flame 183

On John F. Kennedy, the City of Dallas, and What Ties Them Together Every November 22

10 The Rest of the Set 205

On the Many Types of Presidential Obscurity and Mediocrity, with Millard Fillmore, Franklin Pierce, Martin Van Buren, James Buchanan, and Warren Harding

11 Family Reunion 227

On the Adamses, the Harrisons, and Presidential Descendants

Epilogue 241

Acknowledgments 251

Notes 253

Illustration Credits 311

Index 313

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