A fun, anecdote-filled, encyclopedic look at the circumstances surrounding the deaths of every president and a few “almost presidents,” such as Jefferson Davis.
Packed with fun facts and presidential trivia, The President Is Dead! tells you everything you could possibly want to know about how our presidents, from George Washington to Gerald Ford (who was the most recent president to die), met their ends, the circumstances of their deaths, the pomp of their funerals, and their public afterlives, including stories of attempted grave robbings, reinterments, vandalism, conspiracy theories surrounding their deaths, and much more.
The President Is Dead! is filled with never-before-told stories, including a suggestion by one prominent physician to resurrect George Washington from death by transfusing his body with lamb’s blood. You may have heard of a plot to rob Abraham Lincoln’s body from its grave site, but did you know that there was also attempts to steal Benjamin Harrison's and Andrew Jackson’s remains? The book also includes “Critical Death Information,” which prefaces each chapter, and a complete visitor’s guide to each grave site and death-related historical landmark. An “Almost Presidents” section includes chapters on John Hanson (first president under the Articles of Confederation), Sam Houston (former president of the Republic of Texas), David Rice Atchison (president for a day), and Jefferson Davis. Exhaustively researched, The President Is Dead! is richly layered with colorful facts and entertaining stories about how the presidents have passed.
Skyhorse Publishing, as well as our Arcade imprint, are proud to publish a broad range of books for readers interested in historybooks about World War II, the Third Reich, Hitler and his henchmen, the JFK assassination, conspiracies, the American Civil War, the American Revolution, gladiators, Vikings, ancient Rome, medieval times, the old West, and much more. While not every title we publish becomes a New York Times bestseller or a national bestseller, we are committed to books on subjects that are sometimes overlooked and to authors whose work might not otherwise find a home.
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About the Author
Louis L. Picone is the author of Where the Presidents Were Born: The History & Preservation of the Presidential Birthplaces. An information technology professional, he has served on the board of the Roxbury Historic Trust and is a member of the Authors Guild and Mensa International. He has traveled to all fifty of the United States to visit presidential historic sites and is currently working on a masters degree in history. He resides in Roxbury, New Jersey.
Read an Excerpt
Bloodletting and Blistering
The First President
George Washington * 1789–1797
CRITICAL DEATH INFORMATION:
Date of death: December 14, 1799, between 10:20 and 11:00 p.m.
Cause of death: Acute epiglottitis (a viral throat infection)
Age at death: 67 years, 295 days
Last words: "'Tis well."
Place of death: Mount Vernon, Virginia
Funeral: Mount Vernon, Virginia
Final resting place: Mount Vernon, Virginia
Cost to visit grave: $15.00
For more information: www.MountVernon.org
Significance: The first president was the first to die
Thursday, December 12, 1799, was a cold winter day in northern Virginia. Almost three years earlier, George Washington had left the presidency, and now he spent most of his days at his beloved estate, Mount Vernon. As he did nearly every day, Washington saddled his horse around 10:00 a.m. to inspect his farm. Almost immediately snow began to fall, until about three inches had gathered. Returning five hours later, he did not change out of his soaked clothing. The next day, Washington awoke with a severe sore throat, but the tough old general who had braved Morristown and Valley Forge would not be deterred from venturing back outside into the snow. That night his condition grew worse, but he was still strong at 67 and not one to complain, and he forewent medicine and treatment. His condition declined throughout the night. By 3:00 a.m. on Saturday, December 14, he struggled to breathe and speak. Finally, Washington conceded he needed medical attention, although had he known what he would endure at the hands of his doctors, he might have reconsidered.
The first call was not to his family doctor but to overseer George Rawlins, a skilled bleeder who also cared for Washington's slaves. Washington held out his arm and reassured him: "Don't be afraid." Rawlins cut, and blood began to trickle out. Washington looked at the incision and said weakly, "The orifice is not large enough." So Rawlins cut deeper and the blood flowed freely until 12 to 14 ounces had drained. By 6:00 a.m., Washington was worse: his throat was raw, he struggled to breathe, and he had a fever. His next call was to his good friend and physician of 40 years, Dr. James Craik. Before Craik arrived from Alexandria, Washington's personal secretary, Tobias Lear, gave him a cocktail of butter, molasses, and vinegar to ease his pain, but instead, it nearly choked him.
Craik arrived at 9:00 a.m. and found Washington in the upstairs master bedroom. He applied a "blister of cantharides" to his throat, an excruciating practice that was believed to "draw out the deadly humors." Craik then drew more blood, this time from Washington's neck and arm. At noon, he performed an enema and later had Washington gargle with sage tea and vinegar. With the president's condition, not surprisingly, worsening, Dr. Craik sent for two consulting physicians, Dr. Elisha Cullen Dick and Dr. Gustavus Richard Brown from Port Tobacco. Before they arrived, between 3:00 and 4:00 p.m., Dr. Craik again bled the president. The three doctors surveyed the patient and apparently decided that if there was any blood left, it should be removed. Another 32 ounces was siphoned out of the weakened Washington. All told, a staggering 82 ounces of blood — almost 2.5 liters — was drained in a matter of hours! Finally, the doctors mercifully stopped, but the fact that Washington was still alive after 40 percent of his blood was drained showed how tough the old general was.
Those with him during those final hours admired how Washington faced the excruciating and humiliating treatment and prospect of death with the same dignity and courage he demonstrated in the rest of his life. But his primary concern was perhaps a fate worse than death: being buried alive. And this fear — taphephobia — was not unfounded. At the end of the 18th century, doctors could not always distinguish a comatose patient from a dead one, and in some instances, people were indeed buried before their time. This led to the invention of "safety coffins," which were equipped with a string inside attached to a bell located above ground. For several days after the burial, someone would stand guard and listen for a ring to alert them that the person in the coffin was still alive.
In a barely audible voice, Washington pleaded with Tobias Lear: "I am just going. Have me decently buried, and do not let my body be put into the vault in less than three days after I am dead." A saddened Lear nodded, but Washington was so worried about being buried alive that he would not let a silent nod suffice. "Do you understand me?" he demanded, in as strong a voice as he could muster. Lear replied, "Yes, sir." Satisfied, Washington uttered what were to be his final words, "'Tis well." At 10:20 p.m., Washington leaned back and placed his fingers on his wrist to feel his own weak pulse. Sometime before 11:00 p.m. on the evening on Saturday, December 14, Washington's fingers slipped off his wrist; he took his last breath, and died. With him were his wife, Martha; Dr. Craik; Lear; his valet, Christopher Sheels; and three of his slaves. Dr. Craik gently closed Washington's eyes.
In those final hours, Washington's step-granddaughter, Elizabeth Parke Custis Law, had summoned another doctor, William Thornton. Dr. Thornton believed a tracheotomy, a rare and risky procedure at the time, would save his life, but when he arrived at Mount Vernon, Washington was already dead. Thornton was not ready to concede. Convinced the cold weather would hold Washington in a state of suspended animation, Thornton proposed ... well, what Thornton proposed is probably best told in his own words: "First to thaw him in cold water, then to lay him in blankets, and by degrees and by friction to give him warmth, and to put into activity the minute blood vessels, at the same time to open a passage to the lungs by the trachea, and to inflate them with air, to produce an artificial respiration, and to transfuse blood into him from a lamb." Thankfully, Washington was spared this desecration when the other doctors wisely convinced him it would not work. Thornton later suggested that the president should rest for eternity not at Mount Vernon, as Washington himself wished, but in the capital city named in his honor. In addition to being a doctor, Thornton was the architect who designed the United States Capitol. In it he planned a rotunda, and envisioned this would be where the president should rest in peace.
Since construction of the rotunda had not begun, for the time being Washington's own wishes would be carried out. Washington had made arrangements for his final resting place in his will (dated July 9, 1799), selecting a serene spot on Mount Vernon for a new, aboveground crypt large enough for family members who wished to join him in eternal rest. In addition, Washington's will included an astounding clause in which he arranged for the immediate freedom of his "mulatto man, William," and that the rest of his slaves were to be freed upon the death of his wife (Washington did not consider the unintended ramifications of his decision — Martha feared the slaves would kill her when she realized that her death was the only thing preventing the freedom of over 300 enslaved people). Washington's will also stipulated that his heirs would clothe and feed those unable to care for themselves. And for those young and without parents, he instructed they be taught to read and trained for work that was allowable by law.
The body was placed in a mahogany casket made in Alexandria. Inscribed on the casket at the head was SURGE AD JUDICIUM (rise to judgment) and at the middle, GLORIA DEO (Glory to God). Attached to the coffin was a silver plate that read:
George Washington Born Feb 22, 1732 Died December 14, 1799
Despite Washington's specific request in his will that his "Corpse may be Interred in a private manner, without parade, or funeral Oration," the Masonic Fraternity of Alexandria was permitted to honor their fellow Free Mason (Washington was a member of the Washington-Alexandria Lodge #22 at the time of his death). The funeral was held on Wednesday, December 18, and hundreds gathered at Mount Vernon. The pallbearers were Washington's friends and business associates. Protestant Episcopal funeral services were read by Reverend Thomas Davis from the Christ Church in Alexandria. It was scheduled to start at noon, but due to people arriving late, the procession did not start until 3:00 p.m. It was led by the clergymen and Washington's horse, who walked with an empty saddle draped with Washington's holster and pistols.
Colonel Thomas Blackburn, Washington's aide during the Revolutionary War and a relative through marriage, led the short procession to the redbrick vault. About a dozen mourners followed the Masonic pallbearers as an Alexandria band played a funeral dirge. At the tomb, Reverend Davis read the Episcopal Order of Burial, and Reverend James Muir (from the Alexandria Presbyterian Church) and Dr. Cullen Dick performed the ceremonial Masonic funeral rites. Also officiating was Reverend Walter Dulany Addison, the first deacon of the Protestant Episcopal Church. The shroud was pulled back for a final look at Washington before the coffin was sealed and placed in the tomb. A 21-gun artillery salute concluded the ceremony. Afterward, the Free Masons walked back to Washington's home to pay their respects to Martha before leaving. This first presidential funeral was now concluded. It contained military traditions that are still employed today, including the 21-gun salute and the riderless horse. The funeral cost was tallied at $99.25, which included $2.00 to rent the bier.
All throughout the nation, somber mock funeral parades were held and public eulogies were delivered. The most famous occurred on December 26, 1799, in Philadelphia, the nation's capital at the time. After a funeral procession that featured everything except the body of Washington, Virginia representative Henry Lee delivered the eulogy. Lee was a Revolutionary War officer, father of Robert E. Lee, and a close friend of Washington. His words of praise have been immortalized as possibly the greatest presidential tribute: "First in war, first in peace and first in the hearts of his countrymen." Lee continued, "He was second to none in the humble and endearing scenes of private life. Pious, just, humane, temperate and sincere — uniform, dignified and commanding — his example was as edifying to all around him as were the effects of that example lasting. ... Correct throughout, vice shuddered in his presence and virtue always felt his fostering hand. The purity of his private character gave effulgence to his public virtues. ... Such was the man for whom our nation mourns."
The family vault where George Washington was placed was located about 250 yards south of the mansion and was originally built in 1745 for George's brother, Lawrence Washington. It overlooked the Potomac River but was prone to flooding. Those in Congress considered the Mount Vernon burial place to be temporary. To formalize Thornton's suggestion, Congress passed a secret resolution on December 23, 1799, "That a marble monument be erected by the United States in the capital of the city of Washington, and that the family of General Washington be requested to permit his body to be deposited under it." President John Adams, the first president without any living predecessors, wrote Martha to ask her consent. She agreed, on the condition that she be allowed to rest beside her husband when she died. Adams agreed, and Martha gave her official permission on December 31 in a written reply to President Adams.
On May 22, 1802, Martha Washington passed away, just 11 days shy of her 71st birthday. Curiously, her coffin was engraved with a mistake in her age: Martha, consort of Washington; died May 22, 1802, aged 71 years. With construction of the rotunda and crypt still on hold — "Due to a shortage of funds and materials [and] sporadic construction phases, and the fire set by the British in 1814" — she was placed in the Mount Vernon tomb with her husband. In 1818, the rotunda was completed, and the tomb area was built two floors directly below. That same year, a young congressman, James Buchanan, led the effort to move Washington's remains to the crypt when he pleaded, "[Washington] has been sleeping with his fathers for almost a quarter of a century, and his mortal remains have yet been unhonored by that people, who, with justice, call him the father of their country." But despite overtures from national leaders, no progress was being made on moving the remains from Mount Vernon.
After Martha died, Washington's nephew Bushrod, an associate justice on the US Supreme Court, inherited Mount Vernon and was charged with building the new tomb. Bushrod died 30 years after Washington, on November 26, 1829, without starting construction. He too was placed in the crumbling, waterlogged tomb that he had been tasked with replacing. By this time, the tomb held about 20 family members and many of the wooden coffins were rotting away, exposing bones that spilled onto the damp floor. (The Washingtons were spared such desecration as their coffins were placed on a wooden table.)
After Bushrod died, Washington's nephew John Augustine Washington took over Mount Vernon. One of the first things he did was to fire one of the gardeners. However, this man did not go gently into the night. Instead, he sought revenge in a most gruesome manner. After getting liquored up, he returned to Mount Vernon, stumbled into the old family tomb, and stole what he believed was the skull of Washington! Luckily, with all of the dead bodies in the tomb, he actually made off with the skull of a member of the Blackburn family, the in-laws of one of Washington's nephews. The inebriated gardener did not get far and was captured the next day in Alexandria.
Another bizarre incident occurred years later when a rumor surfaced that the skull of Washington had been stolen. In this tale, the perpetrator was not a drunk gardener but rather French sailors from a vessel anchored near Mount Vernon. According to Henry Lamb, who lived nearby, the skull was brought to France, where it was sold to phrenologists — pseudo-scientists who specialized in determining human characteristics by measuring the skull. If this is so, then whose skull is currently in the tomb? To his dying day, Lamb swore that the skull was replaced with that of a slave that belonged to Washington's friend, Colonel William Fairfax.
The attempted theft by the disgruntled gardener did have a silver lining: it finally motivated Washington's nephew, Major Lawrence Lewis, and step-grandson, George Washington Parke Custis, to start construction on the new vault later that year. The structure, located 100 yards west of the old tomb, was made of brick and had a metal roof, 12-foot-high walls, and iron bars. Above the entrance, the words WASHINGTON FAMILY were inscribed. When Washington's body was moved there one year later, a new coffin was required. John Struthers of Philadelphia volunteered to build one for the venerated president, and Lewis accepted his "very liberal and polite offer." It was determined that the coffin would not be hidden in the vault but rather placed where it could be seen. An antechamber was subsequently built in front.
The sarcophagus, completed in 1837, was cut from a single piece of Pennsylvania marble. On top was carved an eagle above a shield covered with the stripes of the flag, with the family name inscribed below it. Struthers may have offered his services for free, but he wanted to make sure people knew about his generosity. At the base he added another inscription, "By the permission of Lawrence Lewis, Esq. This Sarcophagus of Washington was presented by John Struthers, of Philadelphia, Marble Mason." He added a second inscription on the other side: "This Sarcophagus containing the remains of George Washington, first President of the United States, was made and presented for the purpose by John Struthers of Philadelphia this day of A.D. 1837." He also created a coffin for Martha, correcting her age in the process.
On October 7, 1837, the door to the vault was opened for the first time since 1831. After moving several other coffins to get to Washington's, it was found that the wooden case that enclosed the lead coffin had rotted, causing it to sink. The coffin was opened and the body, nearly 38 years dead, was gently removed and placed in a new coffin along with the plate from the rotted coffin. It was then cemented shut and placed outside of the vault in the antechamber, where to this day it can be seen behind the locked gate.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "The President Is Dead!"
Copyright © 2016 Louis L. Picone.
Excerpted by permission of Skyhorse Publishing.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Table of Contents
Bloodletting and Blistering,
1. George Washington December 14, 1799,
2. Thomas Jefferson July 4, 1826,
3. John Adams July 4, 1826,
4. James Monroe July 4, 1831,
5. James Madison June 28, 1836,
6. William Henry Harrison April 4, 1841,
7. Andrew Jackson June 8, 1845,
8. John Quincy Adams February 23, 1848,
9. James Knox Polk June 15, 1849,
10. Zachary Taylor July 9, 1850,
The Deadliest Decade,
11. John Tyler January 18, 1862,
12. Martin Van Buren July 24, 1862,
13. Abraham Lincoln April 15, 1865,
14. James Buchanan June 1, 1868,
15. Franklin Pierce October 8, 1869,
Through the End of the Victorian Era,
16. Millard Fillmore March 8, 1874,
17. Andrew Johnson July 31, 1875,
18. James Abram Garfield September 19, 1881,
19. Ulysses Simpson Grant July 23, 1885,
20. Chester Alan Arthur November 18, 1886,
21. Rutherford Birchard Hayes January 17, 1893,
22. Benjamin Harrison March 13, 1901,
Evolution of the Mega Funeral,
23. William McKinley September 14, 1901,
24. Grover Cleveland June 24, 1908,
25. Theodore Roosevelt January 6, 1919,
26. Warren Gamaliel Harding August 2, 1923,
27. Woodrow Wilson February 3, 1924,
28. William Howard Taft March 8, 1930,
29. Calvin Coolidge January 5, 1933,
30. Franklin Delano Roosevelt April 12, 1945,
31. John Fitzgerald Kennedy November 22, 1963,
Pomp, Circumstance, and Predictability,
32. Herbert Clark Hoover October 20, 1964,
33. Dwight David Eisenhower March 28, 1969,
34. Harry S Truman December 26, 1972,
35. Lyndon Baines Johnson January 22, 1973,
36. Richard Milhous Nixon April 22, 1994,
37. Ronald Wilson Reagan June 5, 2004,
38. Gerald Rudolph Ford December 26, 2006,
39. Presidents Still With Us,
40. John Hanson First President under the Articles of Confederation November 22, 1783,
41. Sam Houston Twice President of the Republic of Texas July 26, 1863,
42. David Rice Atchison President for a Day January 26, 1886,
43. Jefferson Finis Davis Only President of the Confederate States of America December 6, 1889,