The Mortal Presidency Exhibition

January 15, 2018
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May 2010 - February 2011


The most dangerous job in America is not, as the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics recently announced, fishing. Nor is it logging, flying, or steel manufacturing. The job with the worst mortality rate is the hardest one to get: President of the United States.

Two-thirds of the presidents – despite wealth, education and medical care – have died before reaching their life expectancy. 10% of have been assassinated; 20%, the objects of assassination attempts; 50%, assaulted. 20% have died in office and another 10%, upon leaving the presidency, have died within four years; one didn’t even last four months. This virtual exhibit includes some select items that were displayed at the original exhibition.

Gallery 1/4

Early 1800s

Chronically infected, prone to migraines, with badly decayed teeth, and suffering, acutely, from dysentery; poisoned by way of “cure” with mercury and lead; and carrying in a lung and a shoulder old bullets which caused fevers, chest pains, and made him cough up blood and pus, Jackson’s health, he says here, “is not good.” But if Andrew Jackson was troubled, he lived and worked, it was noted, “in utter defiance of physical anguish.” It was typical of him, then, that when an assassin attempted to fire, twice, point-blank into his heart, he raised his cane to thrash him – and had to be restrained from clubbing him to death.

The attempt on Jackson’s life was the first in presidential history, and his would-be assassin, the first in a line of lunatics. Richard Lawrence believed that Jackson had cost him work as a house-painter, killed his father, and impeded his accession as the rightful heir to the British throne.

William Henry Harrison caught cold at his inauguration and died a month later. More truthful is that Harrison lasted only weeks in office because he was frail, ulcerous, immediately beset by the pressures of office, and when he did fall ill, as good as murdered by his physicians. Bled, purged, and dosed with ipecac, calomel, castor oil, snakeroot, and crude petroleum; treated with camphor, brandy, and opium; politicians and officials in and out of his bedroom at all hours – Harrison might well have survived his “cold” and served out his presidency had he been but left alone.

This autograph letter was written six days after his Inauguration and is of the rarest of any president. He complains that he is so besieged with office-seekers and well-wishers that he cannot attend his personal financial affairs.

At the age of sixty-eight, William Henry Harrison had lived twice as long as the average American; been elected the oldest president yet; and in a stunning display of vigor and health, dared deliver bareheaded, sans overcoat or gloves, an hour and forty-five minute Inaugural Address on a freezing cold day. Four weeks later, he lay dying, mostly of pneumonia.

Here, his secretary and grand-nephew writes his father that the President is drawing his last breath. This news, he adds, is to be carried by the same express which will take a letter to Vice President Tyler in Virginia; a vivid reminder that Vice-Presidents in the first half of the 19th century were rarely anywhere near the President. Tyler, having been duly Inaugurated – prudently taking the Oath inside – chaired a session of the Senate which approved President Harrison’s choice of cabinet officers, and went home to Virginia, he expected, to spend the next four years in peace and obscurity.

" is exceptionally true that the presidency is no bed of roses." - James K. Polk

When William Henry Harrison became the first president to die in office, it was unclear whether the Constitution meant for the Vice President to assume the full powers and duties of the office, or merely to act as a caretaker, regent, or interim chief executive. Harrison’s Vice-President, however, interpreted the text to mean that the full rights and privileges of the presidency were now his: John Tyler was, constitutional coup or no, the President. It  didn’t matter  that Harrison’s cabinet addressed him as Vice-President, or a quarter of the Senate voted to do the same, or that ex-President John Quincy Adams railed that no one ever thought of Tyler being in the executive chair. Dubbed by his detractors “His Accidency”, Tyler boldly set a precedent which would govern presidential succession until the Twenty-Fifth Amendment formalized the practice in 1967. He did this, this note shows, with so much confidence, he could even joke about it.

July 4th, 1850, was a sweltering day in Washington. Taylor spent two hours of it sitting in the sun listening to patriotic orations; he then went for a long walk along the Potomac.  Returning to the White House famished, he ate copious amounts of cherries and drank vast quantities of milk. This, according to those who were there, killed him. The cramps, nausea and diarrhea which attended his death suggest dysentery, or even cholera – both diseases carried by fruit and dairy. His death throes lasted five days, which was enough time for rumors of poisoning to germinate. There had been talk of secession and Taylor, though a Southerner, opposed the expansion of slavery.

Displayed here is a scarce relic of Taylor’s brief presidency. In office just sixteen days, he invites his cousin and Mexican War comrade, Col. Thomas Crittenden, to stay at the White House.

Gallery 2/4

The Lincoln Family

The Lincoln Family

Four days after the death of his son from typhoid fever – and as his youngest lay seriously ill with the same disease – a grieving Lincoln writes to ask  Mary Lincoln’s friend to call on his inconsolable wife. “Mrs. L needs your help, Can you come?”

What killed Willie Lincoln was, essentially, the White House; for most of the 19th century, few places in America were as polluted. It was built on muggy Potomac bottomland. The stream behind the South Lawn served, effectively, as Washington’s public sewer. A nearby marsh was used to dump animal carcasses and human waste. The walls were damp; the basement stank. In 1833, when running water was piped into the mansion, it came untreated – so in fact, typhoid was on tap.

Many presidents and their families suffered in the White House from waterborne diseases. So unhealthy were the conditions, it’s remarkable anyone survived living there at all.

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Famous people, as a general rule, do not become assassins. John Wilkes Booth, however, was the most popular actor in America when he shot Abraham Lincoln.

For most of the Civil War he was a spy. In distinguished Northern social circles, he gathered intelligence; by dead of night, he ran blockades. He plotted to kidnap Lincoln and when that scheme collapsed, he had another idea. On April 9th, President Lincoln, an avid theater-goer, saw Booth star in The Marble Heart. Lincoln watched from the same box he would occupy on April 14th, 1865.  While picking up his mail at Ford’s Theatre that same morning, Booth determined he would sneak up behind the President and kill him.

This letter is to John Ford, the owner and namesake of that theater, written while Booth was still a spy.

If Lincoln were given to saying that without Stanton he would be destroyed, it was more than rhetorical excess. Stanton, more than anyone else in Lincoln’s life, worried for his safety. He made sure that Lincoln was constantly guarded by calvary, police, and army troops. He begged Lincoln to take care of himself, and became upset when Lincoln did not.

When Lincoln telegraphed Stanton from Petersburg that the city had fallen and he was hurrying into its smoldering streets to stroll with Grant, it was Stanton who was horrified at the risk;

“Allow me…to ask whether you ought to expose the nation to the consequence of any disaster to yourself …”

Here Lincoln brushes off the warning and promises, “I will take care of myself.” Eleven days later he was assassinated.

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Writing a pass to the South for the wife of the man who will, within twenty-four hours, attend his death-bed, Lincoln does a favor for his family physician, Dr. Robert King Stone.

Stone, despite Southern connections and pro-slavery views, greatly esteemed the President, who, in return, thought him a “skillful physician.” The doctor was a frequent caller on the President and his family – treating Mrs. Lincoln’s migraines, Lincoln’s headaches, the boys’ aches and pains – and attended, too, at Willie’s death and Tad’s recovery from typhoid fever. From time to time Stone would ask, and Lincoln would grant, a favor in connection with Mrs. Stone’s Richmond relations. This pass is one such kindness; indeed, it is the very last of this nature that Lincoln would ever write.

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On the evening of April 14, 1865, President Lincoln attended a comedy at Ford’s Theatre in Washington, D.C. Half way into the 3rd act as the audience laughed at the title character, John Wilkes Booth slipped into the Presidential box and, standing four feet away from the President, discharged a bullet from a derringer into the back of Lincoln’s head. The pistol shot a round lead ball at a very low muzzle velocity – about that of today’s air guns.

As Booth escaped, a young Army surgeon, Charles Leale, made his way to Lincoln’s side. He determined that the wound was mortal and ordered the President carried across the street to a boarding house. There, because he was too tall to fit lengthwise, Lincoln was laid diagonally across a small bed which on previous occasions had been slept in by his assassin, Booth.

When Lincoln died the next morning, he became the first president to be assassinated.

Every so often nowadays, someone will posit that Lincoln, shot point-blank and with a bullet in his brain, could have survived if only he had been treated differently. What killed him, such theorists say, was all that probing for the bullet.

Giving the lie to that argument is this minute-by-minute account of Lincoln’s demise, written by his family physician, Robert King Stone, who, having been summoned immediately to the tiny boardinghouse bedroom where Lincoln lay, found there, a brain-dead gunshot victim.

The last page, notably, is stained with human blood; it is very likely Lincoln’s.

If in the annals of American history there was ever an expert witness on Presidential assassinations, that person would have to Robert Todd Lincoln – he who was so unique, and unlucky, as to have been on the scene at three assassinations. He was at bedside of his father, Abraham Lincoln, when he died; at the Washington railroad station when Garfield was shot; and at the Pan-American Exposition as McKinley, too, was mortally wounded. What he had to say about presidential assassination, he said from experience: this letter, written just nine days after the death of Garfield, is about the awful specter of assassination.

After the assassination of McKinley, legend has it that Robert Lincoln stopped attending Presidential functions: he brought, he believed, bad luck to them.

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Garfield and McKinley Assassinations

As the leader of a free republic, James Garfield felt he ought to be able to walk freely, without bodyguards. “Assassination can no more be guarded against than death by lightening,” he says here, “and it is not best to worry about either.”

Garfield also wasn’t worried as he walked through the railway depot on the morning of July 2nd, 1881, on his way to leave Washington for his summer vacation. What he was, was surprised, when from a yard away, the assassin Charles Guiteau fired, twice, into his back. “My God!” the President cried, “What is this?”

When Garfield died of his wounds – and medical malpractice – he became the second President to be assassinated. It would take a third death, McKinley’s, before presidents were systemically and continuously protected – and even then, there have been five attempts, and one assassination, since.

Charles Guiteau, having failed at law, theology, free love and politics,  yet managed to succeed at murder; this, chiefly because his victim’s doctors so botched the case, that a treatable wound turned septic. Here the disagreeable, disputatious, and insane assassin of President Garfield declares he is not a lunatic, and that the woman, his sister, who raised him, and the brother-in-law who acted as his lawyer at his trial, are nuisances, with whom he, a convicted assassin awaiting execution in jail, wants nothing to do.

But even as a stopped clock has the correct time twice a day, Guiteau was right to want to avoid his sister: she was institutionalized for insanity, by her husband, within the year.

Visiting the Pan-American Exposition, President McKinley stood at the head of a receiving line, shaking hands. He had been cautioned by aides not to expose himself, but McKinley had no worries; “I haven’t an enemy in the world.” Yet at 4:07pm, the man next in line to meet his grasp stepped forward and shot him twice, in the chest and stomach. McKinley, astonished, stared in disbelief at the blood, asked anxiously that his wife be told gently, and when he saw the shooter being pinned and pummeled, cried out, “Boys! Don’t let them hurt him.”  Eight days later he died of his wounds, becoming the third president in United States history to be assassinated.

This booklet, autographed during McKinley’s ill-fated visit, may well have been one of the very last things he signed. It is a poignant reminder of an act that stunned the nation and the world.

Socially distinguished, a confidant of presidents, the veteran Washington reporter De Benneville Randolph Keim was, literally and figuratively, perfectly positioned to record the assassination of William McKinley.

Standing near the President, he heard the shots, saw the smoke from the pistol, and watched the President fall into George Cortelyou’s arms. He helped the President into a chair and heard distinctly what McKinley said about informing Mrs. McKinley. He helped carry the president into the ambulance; rode on the back of the ambulance and flung open its doors at the hospital. Standing guard at the operating room, he was privy to the doctors’ conversations and the President’s praying.  After the operation, he was the last to leave McKinley prior to the advent of the nurses. Every word McKinley spoke, everything that was done or said from the moment of the first shot to the end of the President’s day, Keim heard and recorded here.

Dying as he had lived, William McKinley’s last words were those of the beau ideal of a Christian gentleman. “Goodbye, good-bye to all,” he said weakly, “It is God’s way. His will be done – not ours.” Dr. Mann, who attended at his bedside, here quotes the President, adding, “Truly an ideally beautiful expression with which to end one’s life.”

Dr. Mann was the surgeon who operated on McKinley immediately after the shooting. An obstetrician and gynecologist, he had no experience treating gunshot wounds. McKinley ultimately died, in fact, from an infection – suggestive, to some, of surgical negligence.

The assassination of McKinley was, in one way at least, exemplary: everything about it was fast. The shooting took a second. The assassin – twenty-eight year-old Leon Czolgosz – was taken captive on the spot and confessed hours later. Within two weeks of the shooting, he was tried. The trial lasted eight-and-a-half hours. His execution, a month later, took a minute.

Written in the first person, and signed by Czolgosz twice, he explains here why he did what he did, how he planned the doing of it, what he thought, when he first thought it – and what he now expected. It is his confession.

This dramatic letter was written so soon after Theodore Roosevelt’s sudden accession to the presidency that it is on stationery from President McKinley’s traveling cache. It expresses his realization that a terrible burden has fallen upon him.

Sometimes the biggest changes may first be seen in the smallest details. McKinley, a 19th century man, lived in the Executive Mansion; Roosevelt, a 20th century type, moved into the “Executive Mansion” and had the stationery changed to the “White House” as soon as possible.  This letter signed by the new President on the old letterhead, is scarce, and emblematic of the huge change that Roosevelt brought to the presidency, the country, and the world. He liked, he said, to have his hand on the lever.

Gallery 4/4

20th Century

When President Harding died, neither his wife nor his doctors doubted that his death was due to cardiovascular disease. He had been ill for years, and his was a fat-filled life, infused with tobacco and alcohol. Yet the public saw his death in a sinister light; handsome, vigorous, and easy-going, it didn’t make sense that he was dead at 57.

The scandals which would make his presidency synonymous with corruption were starting to bubble up, and there was talk of an illegitimate daughter – and a furious wife. It was rumored he was poisoned; that he killed himself; his wife killed him; he ate bad crabmeat; suffered a fatal stroke. All good reasons to have an autopsy – which Mrs. Harding would not allow. It looked strange.

Harding’s demise was simple. Hypertensive, he did his best to ignore it. He writes here of his decision to make a two-month trip around the country. The trip wore down him down, and when he left Washington in June, it was forever.

The most popular President of the 20th century swept into office with a history of fevers, respiratory infections, influenza, pneumonia, hives, and lumbago. Franklin Roosevelt was also a paraplegic polio survivor. This was kept secret with the connivance of his doctors and the press; the public believed he walked with a cane.

But in the midst of WWII, FDR began painfully and obviously to die. That he did so without his family, staff, allies, or country knowing, suggests a cover-up of staggering proportions. But even then, he had something for which he desperately wanted to live, the subject of this letter, written only a few weeks before his death. Roosevelt wanted to start an international organization for peace. He wouldn’t live to see the establishment of the UN, but it was remarkable that he even lived to be President; two weeks before he was sworn in, five shots, all of which missed, were fired at him.

He had moved out of the White House while it was being re-modeled, so that in November, with the weather unseasonably hot, Harry Truman was upstairs at Blair House, napping in his underwear, when two Puerto Rican nationalists began firing at the guards outside, on their way, ostensibly, to murder him. Truman writes here that their attempt was, “as stupid as…could be.”

He dressed quickly, came downstairs, saw policemen bending over a wounded assassin, and  calmly proceeded to a monument dedication. “A president,” he said, “has to expect these things.”

As calm as Truman was about his own safety is how upset he was that a White House policeman was killed in the attack. A week after the event, accepting a check to start a fund for the fallen guard’s family, he choked with emotion. “You can’t understand just how a man feels,” he said, “when someone else dies for him.”

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On the afternoon of November 22nd, as President Kennedy rode in an open limousine in Dallas, three shots rang out from nearby. One bullet struck the president in the upper back; another entered the rear of his head, exiting the right side of his skull. He was, effectively, dead at that moment, although death was not pronounced until an hour later, by which time 68% of all Americans had heard the news: the President had been assassinated.

This ticket to the “Texas Welcome Dinner in Honor of President John F. Kennedy and Vice President Lyndon B. Johnson,” to be held at 7:30 would, of course, never be used. That night, just as the gala should have been starting, Bethesda Naval Hospital pathologists were probing President Kennedy’s brain for bullet fragments, and in Dallas a young man, suspected of murder, was paraded past a crowd of newsmen in City Hall. “Did you shoot the President?” a reporter asked Lee Harvey Oswald. “I didn’t shoot anybody,” he lied. “No, sir.”

“I’m a Ford, not a Lincoln” President Ford famously said of himself – though in one way, they were similar: while President, both were twice the objects of assassination attempts. Lincoln was nearly assassinated in 1864, riding alone at night. A shot rang out, his horse bolted, and the president’s famous hat flew off. When his hat was recovered, there was a bullet hole through the crown. The second time was in 1865: shot in the head, he died the next day. On September 5th, 1975, Lynette “Squeaky” Fromme, a disciple of the notorious murderer Charles Manson, tried to shoot President Ford. The gun, although loaded, did not fire. On September 22nd, Sarah Jane Moore’s bullet missed the President’s head by six inches.

Here Ford writes about Lincoln – praising virtues, most agree, that he too shared: “…honesty, integrity and utmost dedication to the American people.” Ford never would have thought of himself like that, though. “I was just lucky,” he said.