The Nine Lives of Andrew Jackson
It's a wonder Andrew Jackson was able to defeat the British during the War of 1812. And found the modern Democratic Party. And become President of the United States. After all, Jackson should've died many, many times before he had the opportunity to do any of those things.
Little Orphan Andrew
The sun rarely shined on Andrew Jackson's childhood. At 14, Andrew and his brother, Robert, were captured, starved, and abused by the British during the Revolutionary War. After finally being released, they were forced to trek 45 miles to a POW camp in the rain. Robert was so sick that he was slung over the back of a horse. Andrew, meanwhile, was left to trudge through the mud—barefoot, without a jacket, and delirious with smallpox. Their mother eventually negotiated for the boys' release, but Robert died only two days after reaching the family home. Bedridden for months, Andrew pulled through miraculously.
Once Andrew had been nursed back to health, his mother left to tend sick prisoners of war in Charleston Harbor, 160 miles away. There, she succumbed to cholera and died. Since his father had passed away before he was born, Andrew suddenly found himself a penniless orphan. He moved to the town of Salisbury, N.C., where he scrubbed the floors of a law office by day and roamed the streets by night, stealing signposts and moving outhouses where no one could find them.
The Hot-headed Gunslinger
The next 100 times Andrew Jackson should have died were in duels of honor—the old-fashioned variety, where sometimes men fired their pistols into the air and sometimes they didn't. Often, these run-ins were instigated by talk of Jackson's wife, Rachel, who'd previously been with an abusive husband. Jackson valiantly rescued her from the nasty situation, yet the finality of her divorce at the time of their wedding was questionable at best. Needless to say, this was a sore spot for Jackson, and he wasn't afraid to draw his pistol at any mention of it. In fact, things only got worse when he decided to run for president, as it became the topic of a massive smear campaign. Rachel was called a bigamist more times than she could handle, and she died of a heart attack before she could even make it to the White House.
Although not all of Jackson's duels were near-death experiences, at least two of them were. Once, for instance, he was shot squarely in the chest. Normally, that sort of thing would signal the end of a duel, but Jackson simply staunched the wound with a handkerchief, and then shot and killed his opponent. The bullet, however, was lodged so close to Jackson's heart that it couldn't be removed, and he suffered from chest pains and excessive phlegm for the rest of his life. In another fight, two bullets shattered Jackson's arm and left shoulder. Doctors wanted to amputate, but Jackson refused for fear it would ruin his military career.
The War Hero
Jackson also should've died at some point during his glory days on the battlefield. He became a national hero for "clearing out" the American Indians from the South and for defeating the British at the Battle of New Orleans in early 1815, but General Jackson also fought less glorious battles against malaria, diarrhea, and starvation. In one campaign against the Creek Indians in 1813, he survived on nothing but acorns.
The Enormously Popular President
The combination of Jackson's humble roots and military success made him wildly popular in the rough-and-tumble early days of the United States. Winning the Oval Office by a landslide in 1828, he was proclaimed "The People's President" in much the same way the British proclaimed Diana "The People's Princess." America's six previous presidents were born rich and had been well-educated, whereas Jackson had once cleaned floors for a living. But the citizens who loved Jackson nearly killed him, too. On Jackson's inauguration day, a mob of well-wishers rushed the White House lawn to shake hands with him. The crowd became so thick that the president would have been crushed to death if his friends hadn't formed a protective ring around him to shield him from the mob.
Of course, no matter how popular a president is, there are always those eager to take him down. In 1835, Jackson was leaving the Capitol building when a demented misanthrope named Richard Lawrence approached him with a raised pistol. Too shocked to move, the president watched as Lawrence fired a shot. Nothing happened. Then the assailant produced a second gun and fired. Again, nothing happened. Horrified, onlookers wrestled Lawrence to the ground and held him until he could be taken into custody. Only later would the strange truth become known that both pistols had been properly loaded. Odds of two misfires in a row: 1 in 125,000. The expression on Lawrence's face: Priceless.
Jenny Drapkin is the Senior Editor of mental_floss magazine. We've been serializing "All The Presidents' Secrets," her fantastic feature from the September-October 2007 issue. (Would you care to subscribe?)