Assuming, of course, that this isn’t the Gray Lady’s idea of an April Fools’ joke, the Times published a fascinating revisionist history of one of the antebellum period’s great traumas: the death of the Ninth President, William Henry Harrison, just a month after his inauguration, supposedly due to pneumonia he contracted after delivering a very lengthy inaugural address in wet and freezing weather with insufficiently warm clothes.
But Jane McHugh and Philip Machowiak argue convincingly that the more likely cause of Old Tippiecanoe’s demise was an open public sewer near the White House.
That field of human excrement would have been a breeding ground for two deadly bacteria, Salmonella typhi and S. paratyphi, the causes of typhoid and paratyphoid fever — also known as enteric fever, for their devastating effect on the gastrointestinal system.
Two other antebellum presidents, James K. Polk and Zachary Taylor, developed severe gastroenteritis while living in the White House. Taylor died, while Polk recovered, only to be killed by what is thought to have been cholera a mere three months after leaving office.
Harrison had a history of dyspepsia, or indigestion, which potentially heightened his risk of infection by gastrointestinal pathogens that might have found their way into the White House water supply.
Although we have no record of how he managed his dyspepsia, the standard treatment in the 1840s was carbonated alkali, which would have neutralized the gastric acid that otherwise kills harmful bacteria. In the absence of the gastric acid barrier, gastroenteritis can be caused by as few as one ten-thousandth the number of bacteria usually needed….
In 1841 there was no effective treatment for enteric fever. The most a doctor could do was adhere steadfastly to medicine’s most sacred tenet, primum non nocere — first do no harm….
As he lay dying, Harrison had a sinking pulse and cold, blue extremities, two classic manifestations of septic shock. Given the character and course of his fatal illness, his untimely death is best explained by enteric fever.
If Old Tip’s death could have been theoretically avoided by better sanitation practices in Washington, a lot of the turmoil caused by the accession to the White House of John Tyler—the first unelected president—might have been avoided. Breaking decisively with Harrison’s cabinet and then with the entire Whig Party, the states rights ultra eventually devoted most of his presidency to the divisive cause of annexing Texas, and ended his career (and life) en route to service in the Confederate Congress.
Had the exultant Whigs of 1840 understood that they really were going to get “Tippiecanoe and Tyler, Too,” they might have been tempted to throw the contest to Martin Van Buren. Or perhaps they would have simply paid more attention to the dung heap near the White House.
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