Science Rewrites the Death of America’s Shortest-Serving President

William Henry Harrison may have died of typhoid fever

"An illustration showing various ways that a water well (center) may become infected by typhoid fever bacteria." Wikimedia Commons

We are the mediocre Presidents.
You won't find our faces on dollars or on cents.
There's Taylor, there's Tyler, there's Fillmore and there's Hayes,
There's William Henry Harrison.

I died in thirty days!

- President's Song, The Simpsons

Aristrocrat turned infantryman turned President William Henry Harrison accomplished much in his life: he was the first Congressional delegate from the U.S. Northwest Territory, the governor of the Indian Territory, and a decorated brigadier general in the War of 1812. But what Harrison is probably best known for is his short stint in office: less than a month after taking the Presidency, Harrison died. He was, says the White House, “the first President to die in office.”

It was not a bullet nor poison nor anything nefarious that laid Harrison to rest. He caught a bad cold, which turned to pneumonia. Or so the story goes. In the New York Times, however, Jane McHugh and Philip Mackowiak argue that another sickness—one even less palatable—may have brought down the President:

In those days the nation’s capital had no sewer system. Until 1850, some sewage simply flowed onto public grounds a short distance from the White House, where it stagnated and formed a marsh; the White House water supply was just seven blocks downstream of a depository for “night soil,” hauled there each day at government expense.

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.

From this marsh of human wastes, McHugh and Mackowiak write, Harrison likely developed enteric fever, and that it was this, not pneumonia, that killed him.

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