Wednesday, March 23, 2016

Death In High Office: Patterns of Coincidence in American History (?)

Deaths of U.S. Presidents in Office

On the second to last day of March in 1981, nearly three months before the one hundredth anniversary of the assassination of President James A. Garfield, President Ronald Reagan was shot while walking toward the car that was supposed to take him to his next scheduled engagement. It is remarkable that the similarities between these two assassinations is rarely if ever mentioned, especially given the number of similarities.

The chief difference between the two incidents is that, whereas Reagan ultimately recovered from his wounds, Garfield finally succumbed to his on the September 19 following the assassination. Paradoxically, Garfield’s wounds were relatively less serious than Reagan’s, and, if somehow the two presidents had traded places across time in the very moment following their each being shot, President Reagan would not have survived in the hands of 1880s medical science whereas Garfield would almost certainly have recovered from his wounds had they been treated in the 1980s. Advancements during the intervening century in surgery, blood transfusion, and antibiotics would have made all the difference.

A rundown of the similarities between the two assassination attempts reveals that, although each similarity, separately, could be chalked up to unremarkable coincidence, taken together they are remarkable. Both presidents were elected in their century's eightieth year, and both were walking toward a mode of transportation—Garfield toward a railroad car at a Washington, DC, station, Reagan toward an automobile parked on the street in front of a Washington, DC, hotel—when each was shot twice in the torso by a pistol-wielding malcontent. Both assassins had been stalking the president and had delusional justifications for shooting him, which both confided to their journals, providing attorneys in each case with an argument for an insanity defense. In the case of Garfield’s assassin, the defense failed to save him from hanging a year after the shooting, but Reagan’s would-be assassin wound up in extended custody, saved by the fact that none of the 1981 victims died until years after his trial and, perhaps, because insanity defenses worked more often in the twentieth century than in the nineteenth.

The repetition of similar presidential assassinations one hundred years apart is not a novel idea. The ninety-eight year interval between the assassinations of presidents Abraham Lincoln and John F. Kennedy might be even less exact than the one between the attempts on Garfield and Reagan, but the case is more famous and there were as many or more coincidences between Lincoln and Kennedy. Both were elected in their century’s sixtieth year, both were in a sitting position at the time of their assassinations, both were shot in the back of the head, and both presidents’ autopsy reports were mysteriously lost. Moreover, Lincoln was succeeded by his vice-president, Andrew Johnson, while Kennedy was succeeded by his vice-president, Lyndon Johnson.

The deaths of presidents in office seem to have followed patterns until they stopped doing so, detracting from the otherwise uncanny impression that the patterns might have been predictive, which they evidently are not. Here are the facts surrounding the eight presidential deaths in office, combined with those regarding the assassinations that were either successful or came very near to being successful:

1. Andrew Jackson survived an assassination attempt in 1835. A man fired two pistols, point blank, at the president, but both misfired. The aged president attacked his assailant with a cane before police rescued the would-be assassin.

2. William Henry Harrison died from natural causes in April 1841, just days after his inauguration. (Rumor/ legend has had it that he was poisoned, but there is no proof of this.)

3. Zachary Taylor died from natural causes in May 1850, a year after his inauguration.

4. Abraham Lincoln, first elected in 1860, was assassinated in April 1865, less than a month after his second inauguration. (Lincoln had escaped several kidnapping and assassination attempts.)

5. James A. Garfield was assassinated in July 1881, just a few months after his inauguration. (He died in September.)

6. William McKinley, like Lincoln, was elected to two terms. He was assassinated in 1901, about six months after his second inauguration. (He both was assassinated and died in September.)

7. Warren G. Harding died from natural causes in August 1923, in the third year of his first term. (Rumor/ legend has had it that he was poisoned, but there is no proof of this.)

8. Franklin D. Roosevelt died from natural causes in April 1945, three and a half months after being inaugurated to a fourth term. (He had survived an assassination attempt when he was president-elect in 1932.)

9. John F. Kennedy was assassinated in November 1963, the third year of his first term.

10. Ronald Reagan survived an assassination attempt in March 1981, about two months after his first inauguration.

Except for the death in office of Zachary Taylor in 1850, which stands outside of the pattern, there were presidential deaths in office every twenty years from 1841 until 1961 as the president who was inaugurated in those years almost regularly died in office despite there being no rational way of accounting for such a pattern. (I will speak loosely here, using the years of election and inauguration rather than the actual years of death when the patterns truly ended, for example, in 1963.) If we count the near assassination of Reagan in 1981, this pattern might have been expected to continue beyond the end of the twentieth century, but it ceased. Not only did Reagan not die in office, but George W. Bush, who was inaugurated in 2001, survived his presidency. There are always threats against the life of a sitting president, whoever he might be, but none of these that we know of has even come close to success since 1981. This might be a testament to the measures taken to protect the president. For example, by the time of Reagan’s presidency, the Secret Service detail protecting him had been especially trained to do the counterintuitive: deliberately step in between the president and a gunman trying shoot the president. Agent Timothy McCarthy received a bullet to the chest because he stepped in front of Reagan. The wound did not end his life, but it ended his career. That bullet might otherwise have entered the president’s body and been fatal.

Deaths of Vice-presidents in Office

What is hardly ever examined is the pattern of vice-presidential deaths in office; yet there is such a pattern, and it is rather noteworthy, although, like the presidential pattern of deaths in office, the vice-presidential pattern only covers a limited period before which it did not exist and after which it has ceased to occur. It is not surprising that this pattern has been ignored. For one thing, the pattern is just a bit over-complicated. For another, Americans have always treated the vice-presidency with remarkable carelessness, both in their choice of vice-presidents and in terms of the historical oblivion that they face, unless, of course, they go on to become presidents themselves.

Perhaps the president with the worst luck in keeping his vice-presidents alive was James Madison. His first vice-president, George Clinton, who had already served as Thomas Jefferson’s second vice-president, died shortly before his party met in convention to nominate Madison for a second term in 1812. Massachusetts Governor Elbridge Gerry, whose name survives in American politics as the origin of the term “gerrymandering,” was nominated and elected vice-president, but he died mid-term from natural causes. This left the vice-presidency vacant. (Until 1973, the vice-presidency would be left vacant when the vice-president died in office or when the president died and the vice-president succeeded to the presidency; the Twenty-fifth Amendment was passed in 1967 to allow the president to nominate a new vice-president.)

Not quite in synch with the pattern of presidential deaths in office, the pattern of vice-presidential deaths is, nevertheless, best seen in relation to the deaths of presidents, beginning not with William H. Harrison but rather with the seeming odd man out, Zachary Taylor. This complicated pattern needs to be sketched out in order to be revealed. Taylor died in 1850, having been inaugurated only a year and four months earlier (leaving his underrated vice-president, Millard Fillmore, with a mountain of seemingly insoluble problems on his plate, over ninety percent of which Fillmore successfully resolved, for which posterity has never given him due credit). Following Fillmore’s fulfillment of Taylor’s term, the next president was Franklin Pierce. Pierce’s vice-president, William Rufus DeVane King, was the first vice-president since Fillmore. King died after 46 days in office, never once having performed his official duties. (As evidence that Americans have a history of being careless in choosing vice-presidents, it should be noted that when the Democrats nominated him for vice-president at the convention, they knew very well that King was a sick man and that he would be unlikely to live out his term.)

The next president was James Buchanan, and if we cared, at this remove, we might be glad to know that neither he nor his vice-president died in office. However, the next president was Lincoln who did die in office, although both of his vice-presidents survived their terms in office. His second vice-president succeeded to the presidency. After Andrew Johnson finished Lincoln’s second term, Ulysses S. Grant was elected president for two terms. It was the second of Grant’s two vice-presidents, Henry Wilson who died during Grant’s second term.

Within this seemingly random chronicle, a pattern actually emerges: A president (Taylor) dies in office and his vice-president (Fillmore) becomes president; the next president’s (Pierce) vice-president (King) dies in office, and the next president (Buchanan) and his vice-president (John Breckinridge) survive office. A second cycle begins and a president (Lincoln) dies in office and his vice-president (Andrew Johnson) becomes president; the next president’s (Grant) vice-president (Wilson) dies in office, and the next president (Rutherford B. Hayes) and his vice-president (William Wheeler) survive in office. A third cycle begins when a president (Garfield) dies in office and his vice-president (Chester A. Arthur) becomes president; the next president’s (Grover Cleveland) vice-president (Thomas Hendricks) dies in office, and the next president (Benjamin Harrison) and his vice-president (Levi Morton) survive in office. Here there is a wrinkle because the next president was Cleveland who is the only president to have been elected to a second term that was not consecutive to his first term. If we regard Cleveland as the same man as he was in his first term (rather than regarding him as both the twenty-second and the twenty-fourth presidents, which is how he is conventionally seen) and ignore his disconnected second term, then the fourth cycle begins when a president (William McKinley) dies in office and his vice-president (Theodore Roosevelt) becomes president. (Here we do have a genuine exception to the pattern because McKinley’s first vice-president, Garret Hobart, died in office.) The next president’s (William H. Taft) vice-president (James S. Sherman) dies in office, and the next president (Woodrow Wilson) and his vice-president (Thomas Marshall) survive in office. (Although Wilson barely survived, spending his final years in office in extremely poor health.)

That marks the end of the pattern of vice-presidential deaths in office. A fifth cycle of this pattern almost seems to begin when a president (Warren G. Harding) dies in office and his vice-president (Calvin Coolidge) becomes president; but then the next president’s (Herbert Hoover) vice-president (Charles Curtis) does not die in office. After that, the next president’s (Franklin D. Roosevelt) three vice-presidents all survive, but, Roosevelt, partly because he is elected and reelected to four terms until after 1940, himself becomes the next president to die in office and is succeeded by his (third) vice-president, Harry S Truman. No more vice-president’s have died in office since Sherman in 1912, although one vice-president, Spiro Agnew, resigned in 1973.
Patterns A and B

One way of looking at these patterns is to suggest that there are two patterns, one in which the vice-presidents die (Pattern B) and one in which they do not (Pattern A). Pattern A runs for only one cycle from 1840 to 1849, involving the administrations of William Harrison (who died in office), John Tyler, and James K. Polk, but it continues after three cycles of Pattern B from 1850 to 1920. There are then two cycles of Pattern A that run from 1920 to 1960. It is as if three cycles of Pattern B are sandwiched between three of Pattern A. Thus: A, B, B, B, A, A.

The pattern of presidential deaths in office continues until the failed attempt on the life of Reagan in 1981, at which point the pattern seems to have ended. There is no predictable pattern, however, because all of the patterns we have discerned ended in the increasingly distant past, disappearing just as inexplicably as they appeared. There have been attempts to make highly speculative explanations for the discontinuities in these patterns. I will indulge these notions only to dismiss them. An astrological theory is that all of the presidents who died in office are associated with Saturn in the earth signs, Taurus, Virgo and Capricorn. Apparently, Saturn was in air or fire signs in the years 1800, 1820 and 1980 when presidents who were not (successfully) assassinated were elected. Unfortunately for this theory, Saturn was in an earth sign, Taurus, in 2000. This astrological explanation for why the pattern has not continued does not work to explain why the pattern did not pick up again in the twenty-first century.

An even less orderly explanation (astrology at least has a mathematical regularity, after all) is that a curse was placed on the presidency by Native Americans. On whom was this curse placed in particular? William Henry Harrison or Andrew Jackson, both “old Indian fighters,” might be suggested. But this notion raises more questions than it answers. Jackson was not assassinated, though someone tried. Harrison died in office, but why would the pattern end by 1980? If the Pattern B vice-presidential deaths in office have something to do with such a curse, why? And why is it so complicated? Here, however, there is a marvelously imaginative suggestion as to why the vice-presidential “curse” might have ended. Pattern B ended with the election of Herbert Hoover whose vice-president, Charles Curtis, should have died in office according to the pattern; however, Curtis might well be expected to be immune to Native American curses because he was three-eighths Native American. Indeed, he was descended on his mother’s side from two chiefs, he was raised partly on the Kaw Reservation in Kansas by his maternal grandparents, and his boyhood nickname was “Indian Charley.” Clearly, a Native American curse cannot be worked on such a man, if we are to believe that the vice-presidential wrinkle in the patterns of death in high office is of Native American origin.

The bother is that both the astrological and curse explanations leaves much to the imagination and no pattern that will tell us anything about the future. The U.S. patterns of death in high office have always defied explanation. The one explanation that covers not only the patterns but the exceptions to the patterns (such as the death in office of vice-president Garret Hobart, which does not fit any pattern) is the fact that we humans, being dependent on our ability to see patterns anywhere, often see them everywhere, even where they do not exist. The Patterns A and B that we have been considering, most likely exist purely in the mind of the beholder. As remarkable as these patterns seem to be, in the real world there is likely not any meaningful pattern at all.

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