7 Presidential Facts About William Henry Harrison

Hulton Archive, Getty Images
Hulton Archive, Getty Images

Some American presidents have their faces on currency, some get memorialized in films and epic monuments. Then there are the others, whose all-but-forgotten names are unceremoniously attached to middle schools and parks across the country. Our ninth president, William Henry Harrison, is firmly in the latter category, but it’s still worth knowing a little more about him.

1. He turned a Native American "prophet" into an actual prophet.

Harrison served as governor of the Indiana Territory, which consisted of the future states of Indiana, Illinois, Michigan, Wisconsin, and eastern Minnesota, from 1801 to 1812. As governor, Harrison spearheaded the acquisition of land that belonged to Native American tribes. This duty ratcheted up the already high tensions between tribes and the American government’s expansion plans, which drove Harrison into a quarrel with the legendary Shawnee leaders Tecumseh and his brother, the self-proclaimed prophet Tenskwatawa.

Harrison wrote a letter denouncing Tenskwatawa and dared him to “cause the sun to stand still-the moon to alter its course-the rivers to cease to flow-or the dead to rise from their graves” to prove his prophetic abilities. The letter reached Tenskwatawa, who said he would demonstrate his powers by darkening the sun in the summer of 1806. A few weeks later, a solar eclipse occurred, and the prophet claimed his knowledge of the event provided the requisite proof of his powers.

2. He became famous for winning the Battle of Tippecanoe.

Harrison would have the last word against these tribes, though. In November 1811, Harrison attempted to use force to negotiate a peace treaty with a confederation of Native American tribes. He marched U.S. forces to the village of Prophetstown, near the Tippecanoe and Wabash rivers in Indiana, where he met his old foe. Tenskwatawa, in charge of the tribal forces while Tecumseh was away, led an early-morning attack that startled Harrison and his men, but the tribal warriors were badly outnumbered. Though the two sides suffered almost equal losses, the settlers claimed victory, and Harrison’s reputation as a military hero grew. Later, during the War of 1812, Harrison defeated a coalition of British and Native allies in Indiana and Ohio, re-took the previously captured Detroit, and won the Battle of the Thames, where Tecumseh was ultimately killed.

3. He came from, and produced, a prominent political family.

Harrison’s father, Benjamin Harrison V, signed the Declaration of Independence, served three terms as governor of Virginia, and was a member of a prominent family that had close ties to George Washington. Harrison’s son, John Scott Harrison, was a Congressman and fathered another Benjamin, who would go on to become the 23rd President of the U.S. in 1889.

4. Harrison's supporters gave away booze during his presidential campaign.

Harrison briefly returned to private life after resigning as a general during the War of 1812 but later served in the Ohio State Senate, the U.S. House of Representatives, and the U.S. Senate. He ran unsuccessfully for President as a Whig in 1836 and returned to the campaign trail four years later. His second time around, which has since been called the first modern presidential campaign, produced a mythical image of Harrison as a hardscrabble frontiersman. When a newspaper seemingly ridiculed him by saying that he’d prefer to sit in a log cabin with a barrel of hard cider, Whig supporters began calling him the “Log Cabin and Hard Cider candidate.” They also handed out whiskey in branded bottles that were shaped like log cabins and other promotional knickknacks, including cigar tins, sewing boxes and pennants.

Harrison actively campaigned for himself, unheard of at the time, while incumbent Martin Van Buren remained in the White House. The very first presidential campaign slogan, “Tippecanoe and Tyler Too,” a reference to Harrison’s military heroism and running mate John Tyler, adorned the various odds and ends handed out by supporters. Harrison’s campaign rally at the site of Tippecanoe drew an estimated 60,000 people, and numerous songs and jingles, like “Good Hard Cider,” “The Gallant Old Hero,” and “The Log Cabin” were written about him.

5. His inauguration speech was the longest to date.

On a wet, winter day in 1841, the 68-year old Harrison eschewed a coat, hat, or gloves and dove into the longest inauguration speech ever given. His 90-minute talk, written by himself and edited by former Senator Daniel Webster, spanned 8445 words and covered not only political but personal issues in an attempt to make the “Log Cabin and Hard Cider” candidate seem more presidential.

6. His tenure as president lasted 33 days.

Just three weeks after taking office, Harrison, feeling ill and complaining of fatigue and anxiety, summoned his doctor, Thomas Miller, to the White House. Miller treated Harrison with the standard medications and practices of the day, including opium and enemas. Miller reported Harrison had a sinking pulse and cold, blue extremities, and after eight days of delirium and pain, Harrison became the first American President to die in office. Some historians speculate Harrison caught a cold during his interminably long inauguration speech that developed into an ultimately fatal form of pneumonia.

7. Pneumonia may not have been what killed Harrison.

Miller listed Harrison’s cause of death as pneumonia of the lower lobe of the right lung … complicated by congestion of the liver.” Modern scholars think the explanation may be more complicated. In those days, Washington, D.C. had no sewer system, and the White House and its water supply sat mere blocks from a marsh that held a depository of “night soil,” human excrement and waste hauled in every day. Harrison likely suffered from enteric fever caused by one of two bacteria, Salmonella typhi or S. paratyphi, that devastated his gastrointestinal system. Two other presidents, James K. Polk and Zachary Taylor, also suffered severe gastroenteritis while living in the White House, and Taylor, like Harrison, passed away in office.

A Brief History of Presidential Funeral Trains

Funeral Train of President Abraham Lincoln
Funeral Train of President Abraham Lincoln
Library of Congress, Wikimedia Commons // Public domain

The body of President George H. W. Bush will be transported by train along a 70-mile route to College Station, Texas, where it will be taken to its final resting place at the George H. W. Bush Presidential Library and Museum at Texas A&M University. The train—Union Pacific 4141, named for the 41st president—is painted robin's egg blue (just like Air Force One) and will tow a special transparent viewing car, allowing the public one last chance to pay their respects to the former head of state.

It's the first time a president's body has been moved by funeral train in almost 50 years.

Funeral trains, however, used to be something of a tradition for departed politicians: Presidents Abraham Lincoln, James A. Garfield, Ulysses S. Grant, William McKinley, Warren G. Harding, Franklin D. Roosevelt, and Dwight D. Eisenhower were all transported to their final resting places by a ceremonial train. (As were other government figures, including Robert F. Kennedy, Douglas MacArthur, and Frank Lautenberg.)

Lincoln's funeral train, the first, was arguably the most memorable. Traveling 1654 miles from Washington D.C., to Springfield, Illinois, the train chugged at a steady speed of 20 mph and stopped at 180 cities over the course of 13 days. The steam engine featured a portrait of Lincoln at the front and carried nine cars covered in elaborate mourning bunting. According to Olivia B. Waxman at TIME, "When it was in transit, a train traveling 30 minutes ahead of the Lincoln Special sounded a bell to alert those in the area that the funeral train was approaching. Those who could only see it at night camped out at bonfires along the route." Millions of people turned out to show their respects.

The next presidential funeral train was for another head of state who sadly also succumbed to gunshot wounds—James A. Garfield. According to the James A. Garfield National Historic Site blog:

"All along the route mourners stood at trackside, heads bowed as the train went by and church bells tolled. Bridges and buildings were draped in black. At Princeton, New Jersey, students scattered flowers on the track and then retrieved the crushed petals after the train had passed to keep for souvenirs. The train was met in Washington by the Chief Justice, Garfield's entire cabinet, and Presidents Grant and Arthur."

In many cases, the funeral trains traveled through places beloved by the presidents. Ulysses S. Grant's train was saluted as it passed through West Point. McKinley's train made haste to reach his beloved home in Canton, Ohio. (Many onlookers, not content to just bring flowers, made mementos by placing coins on the tracks and watched as the train flattened them.)

Meanwhile, FDR's funeral train—which embarked on a nine-state, three-day ride—carried much more than the president's remains: It also carried some of the most important people in government, including Roosevelt's family, the vice president and his family, every Supreme Court Justice, and most of the administrative cabinet. According to the MacMillan synopsis of Robert Kara's book FDR's Funeral Train, "Many who would recall the journey later would agree it was a foolhardy idea to start with—putting every important elected figure in Washington on a single train during the biggest war in history."

In some cases, the deceased had a special connection to the train itself. Eisenhower's body was transported in a car named "The Old Santa Fe." It was a familiar place: Ike had ridden the same car when he made his first campaign speech in 1952. Similarly, Bush—a train lover—had been acquainted with his funeral train for more than a decade, having given the 4300-horsepower locomotive his seal of approval back in 2005. At the time, he even gave the train a two-mile test drive and called it, "The Air Force One of railroads."

George H.W. Bush's Service Dog, Sully, Will Fly to D.C. With the Former President's Casket

Streeter Lecka/Getty Images
Streeter Lecka/Getty Images

Former president George H.W. Bush died Friday, November 30, leaving behind five children, 17 grandchildren, and one loyal service dog. Sully H.W. Bush, the yellow lab who served as Bush's companion for the last several months of his life, will accompany his late owner's casket to Washington D.C., CNN reports.

George H.W. Bush brought Sully (named after the pilot who famously landed a damaged plane on the Hudson River) into his home following the death of his wife Barbara in April. Trained by America's VetDogs, a charity that connects service dogs to veterans with disabilities, Sully can respond to a list of commands, including answering the phone. On Sunday, December 2, George H.W. Bush spokesman Jim McGrath shared a photo on Twitter of the dog lying in front of the president's casket with the caption "Mission Complete."

In addition to serving as the 41st president from 1989 to 1993, George H.W. Bush was a World War II veteran, businessman, and congressman. He passed away at his home at age 94, following struggles with numerous health conditions, including a type of Parkinson's disease.

Sully will be accompanying his owner's casket when it makes its way to Washington, D.C., where the former president will lie in state under the Capitol Rotunda before he's brought to his final resting place at his presidential library in College Station, Texas. The service dog's next job will be helping military veterans in the Walter Reed National Military Medical Center in Maryland.

[h/t CNN]

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