April 4, 1841: William Henry Harrison became first President to die in office

April 4, 2019

William Henry Harrison died on April 4, 1841, 31 days after his inauguration as president of the United States.

Perhaps during the cold and rainy inauguration in which Harrison delivered the longest speech in inauguration history, perhaps from a well-wisher, Harrison caught a cold. The cold developed into pneumonia. Perhaps the pneumonia killed him.

Or, perhaps he caught typhoid fever from the notoriously bad water at the White House in 1841. Modern historians and medical specialists suspect Harrison had some form of typhoid, and not pneumonia from a cold. It’s likely his physicians at the time did everything just wrong to treat typhoid, much as George Washington’s physicians probably killed him 42 years earlier.

Harrison may have been the first president photographed, with a portrait taken in 1841, about four years after photography was invented. But the photo didn’t survive, and Harrison didn’t live for another sitting. Oil paintings and engravings are what we have of Harrison. Caption from Smithsonian: William Henry Harrison / Albert Gallatin Hoit / Oil on canvas, 1840 / National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution

Any way it went down, Vice President John Tyler succeeded to fill 47 months of Harrison’s 48-month term.

Harrison, a Whig, was the first president to die in office. His vice president, John Tyler, was a converted Democrat who quickly abandoned the Whig platform as president.

Harrison won fame pushing Indians off of lands coveted by white settlers in the Northwest Territories. Harrison defeated Tecumseh’s Shawnee tribe (without Tecumseh) at the Battle of Tippecanoe, then beat Tecumseh in a battle with the English in which Tecumseh died, in the War of 1812.

Schoolchildren of my era learned Harrison’s election slogan: “Tippecanoe, and Tyler, too!” Schoolchildren should learn that slogan today, too, as a touchstone to 19th century history and presidential politics. Some say it was the first slogan used by a candidate for president. See Mo Rocca’s piece for CBS Sunday Morning.

On Harrison’s death, Tyler found himself in uncharted territories. While the Constitution and the title suggested a vice president would fill in for a president when the president was absent, the Constitution did not explicitly say the vice president would succeed to the presidency if the president should die. There was some controversy at the time, about whether Tyler should act as caretaker until a new, special election was called.

Tyler took the oath of office as president, effectively putting the controversy to bed. No one sued to stop him. Tyler established the precedent of peaceful and quick transition of power to the vice president, upon the death of a president

Congress voted Harrison’s widow a one-time payment of $25,000, since he had died nearly penniless. This may be the first example of a president or his survivors getting a payment from the government after leaving office. It’s a precedent Congress didn’t quite follow through on, and presidents left office without pensions for many more years, a story told with pain about the later years and death of President U. S. Grant.

In the annals of brief presidencies, there is likely to be none shorter than Harrison’s for a long time. As you toast him today, you can honestly say he did not overstay his White House tenure. Others could have learned from his example.

No president had died in office before; all the pomp and ceremony for a president’s funeral had to be invented when William Henry Harrison died, just 31 days into his administration. Proper music included a funeral dirge composed by Henry Dielman, cover shown here from the collection of the White House Historical Association.

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April 2019: When do we fly our flags?

March 30, 2019

Schooner on Chesapeake Bay flies the 15-stripe/15-star flag that flew over Fort McHenry. Image from the Maryland Secretary of State's Office

Schooner on Chesapeake Bay flies the 15-stripe/15-star flag that flew over Fort McHenry. Image from the Maryland Secretary of State’s Office

Is April the cruelest month?

It’s cruel to people who want to fly U.S. flags often, but only on designated flag-flying dates. (April is also National Poetry Month, so it’s a good time to look up poetry references we should have committed to heart).

For 2019, these are the three dates for flying the U.S. flag; Easter is a national date, the other two are dates suggested for residents of the states involved.

One date, nationally, to fly the flag. That beats March, which has none (in a year with Easter in April and not March). But March has five statehood days, to April’s two.

Take heart! You may fly your U.S. flag any day you choose, or everyday as many people do in Texas (though, too many do not retire their flags every evening . . .).

Three dates to fly Old Glory in April, by the Flag Code and other laws on memorials and commemorations.

  • Easter, April 21 in 2019
  • Maryland, April 28, 1788, 7th state
  • Louisiana, April 30, 1812, 18th state
April usually sees the opening of Major League Baseball's season -- some teams jumped into March in 2018. In this photo, U.S. Navy sailors assigned to the USS Bonhomme Richard practice for the San Diego Padres' opening day flag ceremony in San Diego on April 5, 2011. The ship sent nearly 300 volunteers to unfurl an 800-pound U.S. flag that covered the entire field. The Bonhomme Richard is in dry-dock for maintenance and upgrades. Defense Department photo via Wikimedia.

April usually sees the opening of Major League Baseball’s season — some teams jumped into March in 2018. In this photo, U.S. Navy sailors assigned to the USS Bonhomme Richard practice for the San Diego Padres’ opening day flag ceremony in San Diego on April 5, 2011. The ship sent nearly 300 volunteers to unfurl an 800-pound U.S. flag that covered the entire field. The Bonhomme Richard was in dry-dock for maintenance and upgrades. Defense Department photo via Wikimedia.

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Happy birthday John Tyler (b. March 29, 1790)

March 28, 2019

In recitations of the presidents, some people forget Millard Fillmore, some forget Chet Arthur, and some forget John Tyler — which should be amusing, because Tyler served much longer than the man on whose ticket he was elected Vice President, and who died making Tyler the President.

In any case, our 10th President, John Tyler, was born on March 29, 1790, 229 years ago.


A restored daguerreotype of John Tyler in his later years, between 1855 and his death in 1862. Tyler assumed the presidency in 1841, just four years after photography was popularly invented. Very few photos of him are known to exist, all in formal poses. Wikimedia image from the Library of Congress collection of photographs.

Tyler was elected Vice President on the ticket with the hero of the Battle of Tippecanoe, William Henry Harrison. Harrison caught cold perhaps during the inauguration on a cold March morning. The cold turned to pneumonia and Harrison died with just 31 days of service, on April 4, 1841.

No president had died in office before. There was some confusion about whether Tyler would simply hold the office until a new election, or take the presidency and fill out the term. Tyler’s political genius may have been in having himself sworn in as president quickly, quashing much of the debate before opposition could muster.

But Tyler, a Whig, fell out of favor with his own party. He served one term. Tyler opposed key Whig Party policies, it turned out, and he lost favor with Whig giant Henry Clay.

A Virginian, Tyler tried to get a compromise on secession before the Civil War, but failed. He died in 1862, a member of the Confederate States’ House of Representatives. (Was he the only past President or Vice President to join the Confederacy? We need some research.)

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Disasters in U.S. schools: March 18, 1937, New London, Texas, gas explosion

March 18, 2019

Most high school history students don’t know about it.  Most high school history students in Texas don’t know about it.

New London School, New London, Texas, before the 1937 disaster. Photo from the New London Museum

New London School, New London, Texas, before the 1937 disaster. Photo from the New London Museum

I wonder, sometimes, how many Texans remember at all.

I wonder, too, if there are lessons to be learned from the New London tragedy, while the nation debates what to do to prevent recurrences of school shootings.

No one in New London, Texas, bore ill-will towards children, or schools, or other New Londoners. Some good came of the disaster, but as we’ve seen, with animosity towards schools and school safety in Texas today, and a lackadaisical approach to dangerous substance control and accident prevention in West, Texas, and other places, lessons learned were not learned well.

The deadliest disaster ever to hit a public school in the U.S. struck on March 18, 1937, when a natural gas explosion destroyed the new school building at New London, Texas, killing about 300 people — 79 years ago today.

The remains of the London School after the exp...

The remains of the London School after the explosion of March 18, 1937. Mother Frances Hospital archives

Noise from the blast alerted the town, and many people in the oilfields for many miles.  Telephone and telegraph communication got word out.  Oil companies dismissed their employees, with their tools, to assist rescue and recovery efforts.  Notably, 20-year-old Walter Cronkite came to town to report the news for a wire service.

Investigation determined that a leak in a newly-installed tap into the waste gas pipe coming from nearby oil fields probably allowed natural gas to accumulate under the building.  A spark from a sander started a fire in gas-filled air, and that in turn exploded the cavern under the school.  School officials approved the tap to the waste gas line to save money.  (Hello, Flint, Michigan!) Natural gas is odorless.  One result of the disaster was a Texas law requiring all utility natural gas to be odorized with ethyl mercaptan.

Though the Great Depression still gripped the nation, wealth flowed in New London from oil extraction from nearby oil fields.  The  school district completed construction on a new building in 1939, just two years later — with a pink granite memorial cenotaph in front.

Today, disasters produce a wealth of litigation, tort suits trying to get money to make the injured whole, and to sting those at fault to change to prevent later disasters.  In 1937 official work cut off such lawsuits.

Three days after the explosion, inquiries were held to determine the cause of the disaster. The state of Texas and the Bureau of Mines sent experts to the scene. Hearings were conducted. From these investigations, researchers learned that until January 18, 1937, the school had received its gas from the United Gas Company. To save gas expenses of $300 a month, plumbers, with the knowledge and approval of the school board and superintendent, had tapped a residue gas line of Parade Gasoline Company. School officials saw nothing wrong because the use of “green” or “wet” gas was a frequent money-saving practice for homes, schools, and churches in the oilfield. The researchers concluded that gas had escaped from a faulty connection and accumulated beneath the building. Green gas has no smell; no one knew it was accumulating beneath the building, although on other days there had been evidence of leaking gas. No school officials were found liable.

These findings brought a hostile reaction from many parents. More than seventy lawsuits were filed for damages. Few cases came to trial, however, and those that did were dismissed by district judge Robert T. Brown for lack of evidence. Public pressure forced the resignation of the superintendent, who had lost a son in the explosion. The most important result of the disaster was the passage of a state odorization law, which required that distinctive malodorants be mixed in all gas for commercial and industrial use so that people could be warned by the smell. The thirty surviving seniors at New London finished their year in temporary buildings while a new school was built on nearly the same site. The builders focused primarily on safety and secondarily on their desire to inspire students to a higher education. A cenotaph of Texas pink granite, designed by Donald S. Nelson, architect, and Herring Coe, sculptor, was erected in front of the new school in 1939.  (Texas Handbook of History, Online, from the Texas State Historical Association)

Of about 500 students, more than 50% of them died.  Once the new school and memorial were built, and the law passed requiring utilities to odorize natural gas so leaks could be detected earlier, survivors and rescuers rather shut down telling the history.  A 1977 reunion of survivors was the first in 40 years.

New London School shortly after the March 18, 1937, explosion. Photo from the New London Museum.

New London School shortly after the March 18, 1937, explosion. Photo from the New London Museum.

Because of that scarring silence, the story slipped from the pages of most history books.

Trinity Mother Frances Hospital treated the victims; a 2012 film from the hospital offers one of the best short histories of the events available today.

New London, and the New London Museum, work to remember the dead and honor them.  Work continues on a film about the disaster, perhaps for release in 2013:

Now, more than 75 years later, the London Museum, across the highway from where the original school was destroyed, keeps alive the memory of much of a generation who died on that terrible day.

This video was produced by Michael Brown Productions of Arlington, TX as a prelude to a feature documentary on the explosion and its aftermath which is planned for
the spring of 2013.  . . .

www.newlondonschool.org/museum

What are the lessons of the New London Disaster?  We learned to remember safety, when dealing with natural gas.  A solution was found to alert people to the presence of otherwise-odorless, explosive gases, a solution now required by law throughout the U.S.  Natural gas explosions decreased in number, and in damages and deaths.  Wealthy schools districts, cutting corners, can create unintended, even disastrous and deadly consequences.  Quick rebuilding covers the wounds, but does not heal them.

Remembering history takes work; history not remembered through the work of witnesses, victims and survivors, is quickly forgotten — to the detriment of history, and to the pain of the witnesses, victims and survivors.

New, New London School and granite cenotaph memorial to the victims of the 1937 explosion

New, New London School and granite cenotaph memorial to the victims of the 1937 explosion. Photo from Texas Bob Travels.

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Houston’s KHOU-TV produced a short feature on the explosion in 2007:

This is an encore post.
Yes, this is an encore post. Defeating ignorance takes patience and perseverance.

March 16, 1751, James Madison born

March 16, 2019

James Madison, by Walker Hancock, 1976. Statue from the James Madison Building of the Library of Congress. Architect of the Capitol photo.

James Madison’s birth on March 16, 1751, gets no attention as a federal or state holiday. Journalists usually mark the date with a week of festivities around the date, honoring Madison’s deep dedication to the principles of free press and open government, including his authoring and passing the First Amendment.

Madison’s chief notoriety comes from his work organizing the Philadelphia convention and working to ratify the U.S. Constitution — sometimes he’s called the Father of the Constitution. He also served as Secretary of State in Thomas Jefferson’s administration, and served two terms as President, including the War of 1812.

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Happy birthday Andrew Jackson, b. March 15, 1767

March 16, 2019

Andrew Jackson was our 7th President, following John Quincy Adams. He was born before the American Revolution, on March 15, 1767.

From the National Archives, a photo of Andrew Jackson in his later years, by Matthew Brady.

Ides of March humor

March 16, 2019

Yeah, I’m a day late. So sue me.

This Tweet made me laugh.

Evan Siegfried @evansiegfried said: “Beware the ides of March.”

Classic Caesar knifing, for the Ides of March. Evan Siegfried on Twitter.
Beware the Ides of March. Evan Siegfried on Twitter.

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