The Dumb Reasons Behind Two Presidential Deaths

By Adam Winer, author of How Dumb Are You?

HDAY.pngMy book is full of questions every mildly-educated American SHOULD be able to answer—but often can't. Prior to publication, we ran all the questions past a test audience to see how many people answered each one correctly. Those stats are included in the book, so you can see, on a question-by-question basis, exactly how poorly you stack up against your fellow countrymen. Plus each answer comes with a rip-roaring Fun Fact. For Mental Floss, I'll be taking the best facts from the book and exploring them here in greater depth.

Today's question: John F. Kennedy and Abraham Lincoln were assassinated while in office. But so were two other U.S. Presidents. Can you name either one?

Answers and the stupid reasons they passed away revealed after the jump.

Answer: James A. Garfield and William McKinley. (If you got this wrong, you are dumber than 48% of America.)

The Scoop: After only four months in office, President Garfield was shot in the back while waiting for a train. Modern day experts pretty much agree Garfield's gunshot wounds shouldn't have killed him. If only his doctors had gotten that memo. This was in 1881, back before anyone understood the correlation between germs and disease, so Garfield's doctors stuck unsterilized instruments and even their dirty fingers into the president's body, poking around vainly to find the bullet. What began as a three-inch-deep wound grew into a 20-inch long gash that stretched from Garfield's ribs to his groin. At one point, Alexander Graham Bell even showed up with an early metal detector to try to find the bullet. To his puzzlement, the machine malfunctioned. That probably had something to do with the fact that Garfield was laying on a metal bed—yet another new innovation at that time—and no one thought of mentioning this fact to Graham Bell. Oops. The president went on to die of blood poisoning after 80 days of agony.

Fast forward 20 years to 1901 when McKinley got plugged at the Pan-American Exposition. As the president lay in the hospital on the exposition grounds, doctors were once again unable to find and remove the bullet. This time there was even an experimental X-ray machine on site for the expo—but for some reason no one thought to use it on McKinley.
Thus America lost its third commander in chief in less than 40 years to an assassin's bullet (Lincoln had died back in 1865). Taking the hint, Congress decided that the president should have full time bodyguards. That's when the Secret Service took on the task.
Missed yesterday's column? Check out Adam's terrific post on the strange beginnings to the Civil War here.

Pick up a copy of How Dumb Are You? at your local bookstore or at For more information, visit

Maynard L. Parker/Courtesy of The Huntington Library in San Marino, California
The Concept of the American 'Backyard' is Newer Than You Think
A home in Long Beach, California, in the 1950s.
A home in Long Beach, California, in the 1950s.
Maynard L. Parker/Courtesy of The Huntington Library in San Marino, California

Backyards are as American as apple pie and baseball. If you live in a suburban or rural area, chances are good that you have a lawn, and maybe a pool, some patio furniture, and a grill to boot.

This wasn’t always the case, though. As Smithsonian Insider reports, it wasn’t until the 1950s that Americans began to consider the backyard an extension of the home, as well as a space for recreation and relaxation. After World War II, Americans started leaving the big cities and moving to suburban homes that came equipped with private backyards. Then, after the 40-hour work week was implemented and wages started to increase, families started spending more money on patios, pools, and well-kept lawns, which became a “symbol of prosperity” in the 1950s, according to a new Smithsonian Institution exhibit.

A man mows his lawn in the 1950s
In this photo from the Smithsonian Institution's exhibit, a man mows his lawn in Long Beach, California, in the 1950s.
Maynard L. Parker/Courtesy of The Huntington
Library in San Marino, California

Entitled "Patios, Pools, & the Invention of the American Back Yard," the exhibition includes photographs, advertisements, and articles about backyards from the 1950s and 1960s. The traveling display is currently on view at the Temple Railroad & Heritage Museum in Temple, Texas, and from there it will head to Hartford, Connecticut, in December.

Prior to the 1950s, outdoor yards were primarily workspaces, reports. Some families may have had a vegetable garden, but most yards were used to store tools, livestock, and other basic necessities.

The rise of the backyard was largely fueled by materials that were already on hand, but hadn’t been accessible to the average American during World War II. As Smithsonian Insider notes, companies that had manufactured aluminum and concrete for wartime efforts later switched to swimming pools, patio furniture, and even grilling utensils.

A family eats at a picnic table in the 1960s
A family in Mendham, New Jersey, in the 1960s
Molly Adams/Courtesy of the Smithsonian Institution, Archives of American Gardens, Maida Babson Adams American Garden Collection

At the same time, DIY projects started to come into fashion. According to an exhibit caption of a Popular Mechanics article from the 1950s, “‘Doing-it-yourself’ was advertised as an enjoyable and affordable way for families to individualize their suburban homes.” The magazine wrote at the time that “patios, eating areas, places for play and relaxation are transforming back yards throughout the nation.”

The American backyard continues to grow to this day. As Bloomberg notes, data shows that the average backyard grew three years in a row, from 2015 to 2017. The average home last year had 7048 square feet of outdoor space—plenty of room for a sizable Memorial Day cookout.

[h/t Smithsonian Insider]

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