On this day in 1841, President William Henry Harrison became the first president to die in office, setting the shortest term of any president following his March 4th inauguration speech which was the longest of any president in history. The ensuing constitutional crisis was not fully settled until over 100 years later with the twenty-fifth amendment, by which a number of other Presidents – including Abraham Lincoln and John F Kennedy had been assassinated in office.
Despite the common misconception, the appalling weather of Harrison’s March 4th inauguration, combined with his determination to ride on horseback to the event not in a covered carriage despite being almost 70 years old, in tandem with his almost 8,500 word speech which lasted over 2 hours were not responsible for his pneumonia and subsequent death. Harrison may have been President for just 31 days, but it was only after three weeks that he became ill. However, the President’s busy social schedule alongside the constant stream of office seekers made his ability to rest limited. His physician tried numerous medicines to cure Harrison of his ailments including opium, leeches and Virginia snakeweed.
9 days after falling ill, this day 176 years ago, President Harrison died, setting the shortest Presidency at 30 days, 12 hours and 30 minutes. The attending physician Thomas Miller concluded Harrison’s death was as a result of “pneumonia of the lower lobe of the right lung”. However, in 2014 a medical analysis based on Dr. Miller’s notes and records of the White House which noted the water supply being downstream of night soil (fecal cesspools), concluded that he likely died of septic shock due to enteric fever.
His final words, presumed to be for his Vice-President John Tyler were “Sir, I wish you to understand the true principles of the government. I wish them carried out. I ask nothing more”, presumably concluding that Tyler would replace him, which he did setting the precedent that would later be codified in 1967 by the twenty-fifth Amendment.
Despite the embarrassing nature of Harrison’s presidency, it was an extremely important one which set the conventions for the death, resignation or otherwise incapacitation of future presidents including the immediate swearing in of the Vice. Moreover, the perceived lack of mandate led to the incoming Tyler being considered an ‘imperilled President’.