As the election season finally gets its boots on, office-seeking motor-mouths of every creed and colour would do well to remember the tale of William Henry Harrison, ninth president of the United States of America, who died on this day in 1841, exactly one month after taking office.
The ‘pneumonia of the lower lobe of the right lung’ (plus complications) was said to be brought on by a cold, contracted on the day of his inauguration when Harrison gave a two-hour speech – at 8,500 words, the longest in American history – on a freezing wet day, rode to and from the ceremony on horseback (rather than in a carriage), and refused at any point to wear a hat, gloves, or even an overcoat.
Both the clothing business and the length of the address were, it seems, fatally misguided attempts to demonstrate that Harrison was neither an intellectual backwoodsman nor – coming out of rural semi-retirement at the age of 68 (another record, till Ronald Reagan) – past it as a warrior hero. Stung by his characterisation during the campaign – by both his own Whig party and the Democratic opposition – as a rough and ready frontiersman who lived in a log cabin and brewed his own cider, the former senator, governor and diplomat, destroyer of Tecumseh and the British, and subject, even before he got elected, of a dozen or more biographies, was out to make a point. Sent to Washington in an electoral college landslide (though not, ironically, by a huge popular margin), this rather unnecessary chip on his shoulder appeared to have been his undoing.
But Harrison achieved a lot in his 30-odd days in the Oval. He became, at a stroke (non sic) both the shortest-serving president of the rapidly-developing nation and the first to die in office. The first to have his photo taken while incumbent. The first not to appoint a single federal judge. The first (and thus far only) to have a grandchild who also became the President. His death also brought about the first of two unfoldings in which three Presidents have held the keys to the White House in the same year. And he was very possibly the first man in history whose final words (to his doctor) were: ‘Sir, I wish you to understand the true principles of the government…’
More recent research ruins this speechifying/pneumonia story. The no-less-instructive truth, according to the New York Times, was that Harrison died of enteric fever, brought on by living too close to the municipal shit pit – and exacerbated by his doctor’s over-fondness for the enema. Take your pick.