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Commentary: Poison suspected in three presidential deaths

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Nov. 19, 2012 - This week marks the 49th anniversary of the death of John F. Kennedy. Americans know much about the assassination of President Kennedy as well as the killing of Abraham Lincoln. These two great Americans led extraordinary lives and met with tragic deaths.

But all of our presidents led remarkable lives and many had interesting, and in some cases bizarre, deaths. We just don't hear very much about the demise of the other U.S. presidents. Now seems like a good time to remember our former leaders and to delve into some of their more interesting departures. Let's take a look.

On Dec. 12, 1799, George Washington took a tour of his plantation. The weather was very cold, rainy and windy. The next day he complained of a sore throat and his symptoms quickly worsened. By nightfall he was having trouble breathing and swallowing.

The next day the doctors were summoned; and in the meantime, he asked his overseer to bleed him. Taking an ill person’s blood was a common practice back then, as it was thought to reduce inflammation. When his doctors arrived they bled Washington again and again taking a staggering amount of blood. They contemplated performing an emergency tracheostomy, which might have saved Washington but they decided that this was too risky … so they bled him again. By that night he was dead.

Many thought the excessive bloodletting killed Washington. Even one of his doctors admitted that if they had taken less blood the president might have lived. We will never know.


Our ninth president, William Henry Harrison, was elected in 1840. Because he was 68 years old, Harrison was called “granny” by opponents. To show that he was not a frail old man he delivered his nearly two-hour inauguration speech without a hat or coat -- despite the fact that the weather was very cold and rainy that day. History books say that he caught pneumonia as a result of his inaugural day machoism and died 30 days later. But that is not what happened.

Harrison kept up a busy work schedule for several weeks after he became president and didn't get sick until 23 days later. His death, like Washington's, may have been hastened by the medical treatment he received. They bled him, too. But some thought he might have been the victim of foul play. The rumor was that Harrison was poisoned because of his pro-North agenda. Upon his death, pro-South Vice President John Tyler took the helm and reversed many of “granny's” policies.


Zachary Taylor, our 12th president, died from eating cherries and drinking iced milk on a hot day in 1850. I'm serious that's what the history books say. But many people didn't swallow that, and rumors quickly spread that he had been poisoned. Taylor was a Southern plantation owner. Conspiracy theorists believe that Taylor was killed by Southerners who considered him a traitor for opposing the expansion of slavery into the territories.

In 1991, in an effort to put the controversy to rest, Taylor's body was exhumed and tested for arsenic. The conclusion was that he had not been poisoned but that didn't satisfy some who argued that the tests were flawed. Good conspiracy theories die hard.


One of the most tragic figures in American history was our 14th president, Franklin Pierce. Pierce won the election of 1852 despite his reputation as a booze hound. Duringhis administration he continued to get sloshed, while he watched helplessly as the country drifted toward civil war. He is the only elected president whose party refused to renominate him. Upon hearing this Pierce said, “There is nothing left to do but get drunk,” which is exactly what he did. He spent the rest of his life getting shnockered until he died in 1869 of cirrhosis of the liver.


Maybe the doctors didn't kill Washington or Harrison but they sure killed James Garfield. Our 20th president took office in March 1881. In July he was shot by a disenchanted office seeker. The bullet did not strike any vital organs; and if his doctors had just carried him back to his warm White House bed and left him alone he would have survived. Instead they stuck unclean probes and fingers into the wound while searching for the bullet. Not surprisingly the wound became infected and Garfield died the following September.

Should they have known better? Well in Europe Dr. Joseph Lister, the father of modern antisepsis (Listerine was named after him) was busy spreading the germ theory of disease, which was leading to cleaner surgical procedures on the continent. Unfortunately for Garfield, in 1881 most doctors in America, including his own, refused to believe there were such things as germs.


Warren G. Harding was elected as our 29th president in 1920. That was the first presidential election in which women could vote. This may have helped Harding, as he had slept with so many of these new voters. Bill Clinton was an altar boy compared to this guy. Harding presided over the most corrupt administration in U.S. history until he upped and died in 1923.

His doctors couldn't agree on the cause of death and rumors quickly spread. Some believed that the president, who was despondent over what he considered betrayals by his crooked friends, had committed suicide. But the most tantalizing rumor was that he was poisoned by none other than his wife. Suspiciously she had not allowed an autopsy to be performed and she subsequently burned many of his private papers. And she had motives. She could have killed him because she was jealous over his many love trysts or maybe she murdered him to protect his reputation from the looming scandals. But Harding probably died from a heart attack, as he was not a poster child for healthy living.

So this month, as we remember the life and heartbreaking death of President Kennedy, let us also remember our other fallen leaders and pray that the U.S. presidents who are still alive remain with us for many more years.

John C. Wade, Wildwood, is a chief financial officer, amateur historian and self-proclaimed expert on the U.S. presidents. Wade is on a number of not-for-profit boards in St Louis including the World Affairs Council and Meds & Foods for Kids. He is a Churchill Fellow and on the board of governors of the National Churchill Museum.

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