Review: Dead Presidents – An American Adventure into the Strange Deaths and Surprising Afterlives of Our Nation’s Leaders

The best way I can think of to describe this book is as a frequently clever, always engaging collection of presidential trivia roughly linked to, as the title promises, the many strange deaths and sometimes surprising legacies of several American presidents.  In my reading of presidents’ biographies, I’ve often been intrigued by the torments many underwent in the process of dying, especially in the late 18th and early 19th centuries. Washington, it seems was virtually tortured to death, though the interesting details in Carlson’s telling centers more on what happened to his body after he died and the peculiar routes taken to many memorials to him.  Trust me, they didn’t tell you this stuff in grade school.  If they had, no kid would ever have respect for the intelligence or judgment of his adult forebears.

The death that sticks with me most is that of James Garfield.  I knew that it was not the would-be assassin’s bullet that killed him but the infection he got when his doctor stuck his finger into the wound.  But I had no idea how many doctors had actually stuck their fingers into that hole, nor the extent of the incredibly torturous actions of his physician over the course of the next 80 days.  Truly, if you were watching the Keystone Kops doing surgery in a movie theater or seeing this in a Saturday Night Live skit, you wouldn’t be able to stop laughing.  Inasmuch as comedy is the sum of tragedy plus distance, the cruelty imposed on Garfield for three months sadly emphasizes the tragic element of that equation. It’s horrific, topped only by the fact that his doctor had the arrogance to send Congress a bill of $250,000 for his work, a sum of many millions in today’s dollars that  it’s reassuring to note the lawmakers refused to pay

But there’s much else you’ll learn in this book about everyone from John Adams to John Tyler and beyond. It’s not illuminating history, but it’s engaging, often delightful – if it’s permissible to use that word on such a macabre subject – reading.