The White House didn’t issue public statements about Harrison’s condition. The varying reports came from leaks to newspapers from people who had contacts in the White House.
A common myth is that Harrison died because he caught a cold after giving the longest inauguration speech in history on a freezing and rainy day without wearing a coat and hat. He did give the longest inaugural speech ever — one hour and 45 minutes. But it wasn’t raining. And he didn’t come down sick until three weeks later.
At age 68, Harrison, a general in the War of 1812, was America’s oldest president to that point. (Trump is 74.) Harrison had just completed an exhausting presidential campaign and a long trip to Washington from his farm in Ohio. As president, he had to deal with the constant demands of job seekers, who in those days could barge right into the White House.
But Harrison seemed fine until Wednesday, March 24, when he went on his daily sunrise walk to the local food markets without wearing a coat or hat. He got caught in a sudden rainstorm, but didn’t change his wet clothes when he got back to the White House.
Harrison’s immune system already was weakened, making him vulnerable to germs. On Friday, he called a doctor. Harrison, who had once studied medicine, said he hadn’t felt well for several days. But he told the physician he was feeling better after taking medicine for “fatigue and mental anxiety.”
The next day the doctor was called again and arrived to find Harrison in bed with a “severe chill” after another early morning walk. The doctor applied mustard plaster to the president’s stomach and gave him a mild laxative. That afternoon Harrison was feeling better.
Then at 4 a.m. on Sunday, the doctor was summoned again. Harrison had severe pain in his side. The physician started a typical remedy of the day, bleeding a patient. But he stopped when Harrison’s pulse dropped. He applied heated “cups” to the president’s skin to induce blisters and improve the blood flow.
He gave the president castor oil and medicines to induce vomiting. He diagnosed Harrison as having pneumonia in the right lung.
On Monday, a team of doctors was called in. Harrison was still in pain. The treatment this time expanded to include opium, a brandy toddy and an Indian remedy containing snakeweed.
The public wasn’t told anything about the president’s illness, but word was starting to leak out. Finally, on Wednesday, March 31, the National Intelligencer newspaper in Washington reported, “Rumor having already spread the news of the indisposition of the President, it is deemed proper to say here” that his ailment was a severe pneumonia, “which we are gratified to learn, had, at a late hour last evening, been in a great measure subdued.”
The newspaper was wrong. By the next afternoon, Harrison was so weak that members of his Cabinet and family were summoned to be with him. The president’s wife, Anna, was still in Ohio dealing with her own illness.
On April 2, Harrison rallied, generating a new round of upbeat reports. The Baltimore Sun, however, reported that the president’s illness “had assumed a much more dangerous character than the ‘bulletins’ and the Washington papers would have the public to understand.”
The Sun quoted a man who said, “I had a conversation a few minutes since with a gentleman direct from the president's house, and his information is anything but encouraging.” The main worries were the president’s age and fatigue.
By this time, public concern was rising in Washington. “At the president’s house the hall is crowded with citizens anxiously expecting intelligence of the president’s condition,” a reporter for the New York Commercial wrote.
“I happened to be in the Central Market at an early hour this morning and noticed that the country people … were deeply distressed and many of them in tears,” he wrote. “It was only one week ago last Saturday morning that General Harrison taking his morning walk passed through the market at sunrise with the elastic step of bright eyed manhood.”
On the evening of April 3, Harrison developed severe diarrhea and became delirious. About 8:30 p.m. he uttered his final words, which apparently were meant for Vice President John Tyler, who was at his home in Williamsburg, Va.:
“Sir, I wish you to understand the true principles of government. I wish them carried out. I ask no more.”
Harrison died at 12:30 a.m., on April 4, 1841, after 31 days in office. It was Palm Sunday. He was the first president to die in office, setting off constitutional confusion about succession.
The country was in shock. “A nation mourns its chief!” said the Baltimore Republican. “We have never seen such a universal gloom thrown over the people.”
Harrison’s doctors reported the official cause of death as pneumonia. “The age and debility of the patient” made recovery impossible, they said.
Debate soon arose about the medical treatment. In August, the Boston Medical and Surgical Journal — the forerunner to the New England Journal of Medicine — issued a report critical of Harrison’s care.
The report concluded that the doctors actually had only treated Harrison for a common winter cold instead of “insidious pneumonia.” The report suggested that the president might had survived “had timely and active measures been used, instead of cups, mustard plasters” and powders.
One newspaper put it more bluntly: Harrison’s doctors had “quacked him out of existence.”
In 2014, Philip A. Mackowiak, in a book on medical mysteries, argued that Harrison died of a “deadly bacteria” contracted through the White House water supply, which may have been contaminated by raw sewage that flowed into the ground nearby.
Whatever the cause, Harrison was dead, and Vice President John Tyler suddenly was the president. He was called “His Accidency.”
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