Experts Finally Revealed How William Henry Harrison Died After Less Than A Month In Office

Image: VCG Wilson/Corbis via Getty Images

The ninth president of the United States, William Henry Harrison, takes office on March 4, 1841. On April 4, he’s lying in what that very day will become his deathbed. Imprudently, Harrison had given his lengthy inaugural address in freezing rain hatless and without a coat. Now he’s paying the price with a fatal bout of what his doctors diagnose as pneumonia. But modern science has made a shocking discovery: it wasn’t pneumonia that killed the President.

Image: Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Harrison was already 68 years old when he assumed the presidency in 1841. He would remain the oldest man to enter the White House for nearly 140 years, until the 69-year-old Ronald Reagan became president in 1980. Donald Trump then broke Reagan’s record in 2017 when he assumed the presidency at the age of 70.

Image: Bettmann/Getty Images

Although his record of being the oldest U.S. president has been twice beaten, Harrison has two other distinctions to his name. He certainly wouldn’t have welcomed either, however. Firstly, he was the only U.S. president to have passed away while actually in office. And his presidential term remains the shortest out of all the 44 men – yes, it’s only men – who’ve held the office.

ADVERTISEMENT
Image: MPI/Getty Images

The poor man was ill for eight of the 31 days that he was president. Harrison first came down with what seemed to be a heavy cold on March 26, 1841. But it was an illness with a worsening prognosis. Doctors flocked to his side to try to ameliorate his symptoms that, as they progressed, seemed to be consistent with a severe bout of pneumonia.

Image: Universal History Archive/Universal Images Group via Getty Images

Modern medical science was then in its infancy, of course, and Harrison was treated with a variety of procedures and preparations that are frankly bizarre to our eyes. He was given castor oil, a vomit-inducing root called ipecac and a vile-sounding concoction of Virginia snakeroot and petroleum. They bled him and stuck heated suction jars to his body.

ADVERTISEMENT
Image: Universal History Archive/Getty Images

It’s little surprise that this series of treatments, at best useless and at worst actively harmful, did nothing to delay Harrison’s death. Indeed, if anything they may have hastened his ending. What’s more, these grotesque 19th-century medical procedures were in any case based on what modern scientists believe was an entirely wrong diagnosis.

ADVERTISEMENT
Image: Lowe, Jet

We’ll come to the contemporary scientific view of what killed Harrison in a moment. First, though, let’s get to know the man and his works. Harrison was born the youngest of seven siblings in 1773 at the family spread in Virginia, Berkeley Plantation. He came into the world with something of a silver spoon in his mouth, since his father Benjamin was a wealthy plantation owner and merchant.

ADVERTISEMENT
Image: Kean Collection/Getty Images

Benjamin Harrison was also a Founding Father, a prominent politician and one of the signatories of the declaration of independence. And two of Benjamin’s descendants went on to become U.S. presidents. There was his son William, of course, and there was also his great-grandson, another Benjamin who served one term as president from 1889.

ADVERTISEMENT
Image: via Wikimedia Commons

Our William Harrison was educated at home right up to his early teens, at which point he went off to a Presbyterian institution named the Hampden-Sydney College in Virginia. During his three-year spell there he learned the basics of French, Greek and Latin as well as logic and debating, as befitted a youth of his social standing.

ADVERTISEMENT
Image: Smith Collection/Gado/Getty Images

After a couple of changes of school for reasons that remain obscure, Harrison started studying medicine at the University of Pennsylvania in 1791. But his time there ended abruptly with the death of his father. It subsequently emerged that the family finances were in a dire state and there was no money to pay for Harrison’s studies.

ADVERTISEMENT
Image: William Edward West

A family friend, Virginia’s governor Henry Lee III, encouraged Harrison, now aged 18, to enlist in the army. He became an ensign with the 1st Infantry Regiment and was posted to Fort Washington in the city of Cincinnati, which was then in the Northwest Territory and today is in Ohio. At the time, this region was the scene of the Northwest Indian War, a conflict between Native Americans – helped by the British – and the U.S.

ADVERTISEMENT
Image: Stock Montage/Stock Montage/Getty Images

Harrison’s military career prospered, and he was made aide-de-camp to Major General “Mad Anthony” Wayne, the commander of the western army. It’s said that Wayne’s explosive temper earned him his nickname. His troops triumphed at the Battle of Fallen Timbers in 1794, bringing the Northwest Indian War to a conclusion.

ADVERTISEMENT
Image: via Wikimedia Commons

After reaching the rank of captain, Harrison resigned his commission in 1798. Earlier, in 1795, he’d met Ann Symmes and proposed marriage. But Ann’s father, a judge, refused to give his approval, so the couple eloped. Harrison and an initially irate Judge Symmes eventually reconciled.

ADVERTISEMENT
Image: ilbusca/Getty Images

The Harrisons went on to have ten children, including John Scott in 1804. Later, John Scott Harrison himself had ten kids by his wife Elizabeth. And one of those – Benjamin, born in 1833 – went on to become the 23rd U.S, president in 1889. That gave John Harrison the unique distinction of having been both the father and the child of an American president.

ADVERTISEMENT
Image: Charles Willson Peale

Once out of uniform in 1798, Harrison wasted no time in entering politics. He lobbied and friends and family – his elder brother Carter was already a congressman – for a post with the Northwest Territorial administration. His pleas were successful and he landed the job of territorial secretary. This position meant he was also acting governor when serving Governor Arthur St. Clair was out of state.

ADVERTISEMENT
Image: Hulton Archive/Getty Images

By October 1799 the Northwest Territory’s population had grown to the extent that it now qualified for a delegate in Congress, albeit without the full powers of a representative. Harrison won the subsequent election. Although his powers and participation in Congress were limited, he was involved in promoting legislation that lowered land prices in the Northwest Territory. This in turn contributed to further settlement of the lands.

ADVERTISEMENT
Image: Kean Collection/Getty Images

Harrison was also closely involved in redrawing the map of the Northwest Territory. Its eastern portion retained the Northwest name, while the west was now split off and called the Indiana Territory. Between them, these two parcels of land covered what are now the states of Ohio, Indiana, Illinois and Wisconsin as well as parts of Minnesota and Michigan.

ADVERTISEMENT
Image: Gilbert Stuart

The president of the day, John Adams, gave the position of governor of the Indiana Territory to Harrison in 1800. He resigned his congress position and took office as governor in 1801, a post he would hold until 1812. In 1805, Harrison built a large mansion near the Indiana Territories capital, Vincennes, and dubbed it Grouseland. He also established Jefferson University, which was later renamed Vincennes University.

ADVERTISEMENT
Image: Kean Collection/Getty Images

Much of Harrison’s time as Indiana Territory governor was spent dealing with the American Indians who lived there. He signed no fewer than 11 accords with various tribes, securing some 60 million acres of land for the U.S. government in the process. Not unnaturally, some of those dispossessed of their territories harbored bitter resentments. And these would come to a head in later years.

ADVERTISEMENT
Image: Smith Collection/Gado/Getty Images

Harrison was also strongly pro-slavery and wanted to introduce the barbaric institution to the Indiana Territory. But sentiment among the people there was strongly opposed to slavery, and he was never able to achieve his goal. Nonetheless, Harrison did succeed in introducing indentured labor, which saw employers given the power to specify the length of contracts.

ADVERTISEMENT
Image: Bettmann/Getty Images

Some of the Native Americans who’d lost their lands to Harrison’s treaties rebelled in 1810. Two Shawnee brothers, Tecumseh and Tenskwatawa, led the uprising, which came to be called Tecumseh’s War. In 1811 Harrison mustered a force of 1,000 to march against the Shawnee. The Native Americans ambushed the U.S. troops, but in the ensuing Battle of Tippecanoe Harrison’s men emerged the victors.

ADVERTISEMENT
Image: Charles Phelps Cushing/ClassicStock/Getty Images

This victory propelled Harrison to national fame and adulation and many Americans were outraged by the Shawnee’s resistance. British influence on the Native Americans was blamed and in 1812 the U.S. began waged war against Britain. Harrison decided to re-join the army, determined to play his part in the forthcoming hostilities of the War of 1812, as it is now known. The government appointed him commander of the Army of the Northwest.

ADVERTISEMENT
Image: Rembrandt Peale

Harrison won a number of battles against the British and their American Indian allies, culminating in victory at the Battle of the Thames where Tecumseh was killed. At the conclusion of the War of 1812, Congress recognized Harrison’s contribution with a gold medal. After the conflict, Harrison negotiated peace treaties with various First Nation tribes, gaining more territory for settlement.

ADVERTISEMENT
Image: New York Fish and Game Commission

Harrison subsequently returned to politics, first serving a spell in Congress as representative of Ohio and then sitting in the Ohio Senate. He won a seat in the U.S. Senate in 1824 and remained there until 1828. After a short period as a U.S. representative in Bogota, Colombia, Harrison took his leave from politics for the time being. He settled into his farm in North Bend, Ohio, now apparently retired from public life and spending some of his time extending the log cabin farmhouse.

ADVERTISEMENT
Image: Universal History Archive/Getty Images

But in 1836 Harrison returned to the political fray, running as U.S. president on the Whig ticket. In an unusual political strategy, the Whigs fielded four presidential candidates in all, hoping to split the vote of the popular Democrat candidate Martin van Buren. The plan depended on creating a Whig majority in the House of Representatives which they believed would have to decide who was president after a hopelessly fractured election.

ADVERTISEMENT
Image: Mathew Brady

However, the cunning Whig ploy failed, and Van Buren won a majority of the electoral vote. At the next U.S. election in 1840, Harrison stood in more orthodox style as the sole Whig candidate. One of his main campaign themes was the economy, since Van Buren had presided over a rocky period for American finances including what was known as the “great Panic of 1837.”

ADVERTISEMENT
Image: PhotoQuest/Getty Images

Harrison and his supporters dubbed Van Buren “Van Ruin.” Hardly the height of wit, of course, but apparently it was politically effective. In turn, Van Buren and his supporters taunted their opponent with the sobriquet “Granny Harrison, the petticoat general.” This referred to the fact that Harrison had left the army before the War of 1812 had concluded.

ADVERTISEMENT
Image: Universal History Archive/Getty Images

Van Buren’s supporters also characterized Harrison as an old man fit for nothing but hunkering down in his North Bend log cabin swigging cider. With an adept bit of campaigning, though, Harrison turned this last jibe to his advantage, adopting the log cabin and cider motif as a positive showing that he was a man of the people. In contrast, Van Buren, according to Harrison, was an effete aristocrat.

ADVERTISEMENT
Image: Smith Collection/Gado/Getty Images

In fact, this casting of Harrison as the man of the people and Van Buren as the upper-class candidate was the opposite of the truth. Van Buren was an inn-keeper’s son while, as we’ve seen, Harrison was born into a plantation- and slave-owning family. But then as now, image was of crucial importance in electoral politics. Harrison duly won the presidential race.

ADVERTISEMENT
Image: Smith Collection/Gado/Getty Images

Indeed, Harrison took the presidency in a landslide victory, securing 234 votes to Van Buren’s 60 in the electoral college poll. Harrison started his presidency in 1841 with a desire to put the campaign rhetoric and exaggerations behind him. He didn’t actually want to be thought of as just a hard-drinking character from the boondocks. Rather, he wished to portray an image of an educated man of sound judgment.

ADVERTISEMENT
Image: Bettmann/Getty Images

However, as we know, he had little time in which to change his public image. In any case, his first duty was to attend to the formalities of assuming the presidency. The first of those was his inauguration in Washington. The big day, March 4, 1841, was miserably rainy and cold. For some reason, though, Harrison decided to play his part in the ceremony without the benefit of a coat or hat despite the weather. He also arrived at the event on horseback, spurning the covered carriage that was available.

ADVERTISEMENT
Image: Hulton Archive/Getty Images

What’s more, he also chose to give what remains the longest address ever delivered by a new president, all 8,445 words of it. That took him the best part of two hours to deliver. The inauguration was also distinguished by the fact that Harrison became the first president to have his photograph taken. And he rounded off the day by choosing to attend no less than three balls.

ADVERTISEMENT
Image: N. Currier (Firm),

It seemed that Harrison paid the price for that long speech in the cold rain when he contracted a cold some three weeks after the inauguration. As we’ve already seen, his condition worsened rapidly and doctors gave him what treatments were available back in the mid-19th century. None of those improved the president’s health.

ADVERTISEMENT
Image: Universal History Archive/ Universal Images Group via Getty Images

Harrison continued to weaken and on April 4, 1841, he passed away. His doctors said that pneumonia had done for him, and that was the generally accepted diagnosis until 2014. Writing in The New York Times that year, though, Jane McHugh and Philip A. Mackowiak came up with a quite different theory as to what had killed the man who served the shortest ever presidential term.

ADVERTISEMENT
Image: The Print Collector/Print Collector/Getty Images

McHugh and Mackowiak wrote that, “In those days the nation’s capital had no sewer system. Until 1850, some sewage simply flowed onto public grounds a short distance from the White House, where it stagnated and formed a marsh; the White House water supply was just seven blocks downstream of a depository for ‘night soil,’ hauled there each day at government expense.” Night soil was a euphemism for human excrement.

ADVERTISEMENT
Image: BSIP/UIG Via Getty Images

The two writers went on to describe how what was effectively an open cesspit near the White House would have been a fertile ground for lethal bacteria. In particular, conditions would have been ideal for the proliferation of Salmonella typhi and Salmonella paratyphi. Those two are the cause of the deadly illness typhoid, sometimes called enteric fever.

ADVERTISEMENT
Image: Universal History Archive/Getty Images

And according to McHugh and Mackowiak, two other presidents suffered from severe gastrointestinal illness with symptoms that match those of illnesses caused by tainted water. They were James K. Polk and Zachary Taylor. Indeed, the illness killed Taylor in 1850 during his second year in office. Polk died a few months after his presidency ended in 1849, probably from cholera.

ADVERTISEMENT
Image: American Stock Archive/Archive Photos/Getty Images

McHugh and Mackowiak theorized that bacteria from the open sewer near the White House may have tainted the water supply there, creating a high chance of serious illness among its occupants. And if Harrison was in the grip of typhoid, some of the treatment he was given would likely have worsened his condition.

ADVERTISEMENT
Image: Universal History Archive/Universal Images Group via Getty Images

One of the medicines Harrison’s physician, Dr. Thomas Miller, gave to his patient was opium, commonly prescribed for a variety of conditions in the mid-19th century. But in a case of typhoid, opium could actual compromise the patient by inhibiting the gut’s ability to flush out toxic microbes. This would make it more likely that the bacteria could enter the blood stream, making the patient even more ill.

ADVERTISEMENT
Image: Hulton Archive/Getty Images

So Dr. Thomas’ diagnosis of “pneumonia of the lower lobe of the right lung, complicated by congestion of the liver” seems to have been debunked. President Harrison, it appears, was the victim of the rudimentary – perhaps better described as non-existent – sanitation system in 1840s Washington. This had likely meant that The White House water supply was polluted by raw sewage. “Given the character and course of [Harrison’s] fatal illness,” McHugh and Mackowiak wrote, “his untimely death is best explained by enteric fever.”

ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT