How The Deaths Of These 3 Presidents Are Surprisingly Connected

In the course of America’s 46 presidencies, most have ended fairly normally, with the commander-in-chief either being reelected or stepping down for his successor. Only eight have died while holding office — four to assassination and the other four to natural causes. While the former had their stories told to varying degrees (Garfield and McKinley’s assassinations being overshadowed by JFK and Lincoln’s), those who died of natural causes rarely receive the same amount of attention. 

William Henry Harrison, the 9th president of the United States, died just one month into his presidency (via The White House). Medical examiners at the time attributed his abrupt passing to pneumonia, a deadly condition even now in the 21st century. Yet not only is it possible that there was another cause, but the same fate may have also claimed 11th president James Polk, who died just a few months after he left office, and 12th president Zachary Taylor, who died 16 months into his first term. According to The Washington Post, typhoid fever likely paved the way for the diseases that caused their deaths.

Lack of a sewage system may have killed 3 presidents

The belief that pneumonia killed president William Henry Harrison was reached more out of hindsight than analysis of his symptoms. According to Oxford Academic, it was rationalized that since his inauguration was spent outdoors in cold and rainy weather without protective clothing, Harrison must have contracted it. Per descriptions of his final days, however, the president had great abdominal pain and severe intestinal issues in addition to pneumonia-like symptoms. Given that the cholera-related deaths of Zachary Taylor and James Polk only came about a few years after Harrison’s, it is possible they were all killed by the same thing (via JamesPolk.com).

These three presidencies occurred at a time before Washington D.C. had a modern sewer system. Construction on one began in 1810, but it took much of the 19th century to complete (via the District of Columbia Water and Sewer Authority). Without a more effective means of waste removal than dumping it in nearby rivers and lakes, it is believed that waste material became mixed with the White House’s potable water supply (via History Is Now Magazine). Since this is the ideal environment for a variety of bacteria to grow in, the three presidents may have died in part or solely due to drinking them, inducing gastroenteritis and later cholera.

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