1841 – The Sudden Death Of A U.S. President.

On March 4, 1841, William Henry Harrison – ‘Ole Tippecanoe – and John Tyler too, were being sworn into office, with Harrison – a Whig – stepping in as the 9th President of the United States. President-elect Harrison was replacing the old-school Jacksonian Democrat – Martin Van Buren – and there was great hope that the economic downturn that had resulted from the Panic of 1837 would now be adaquately addressed.

Here’s the front page of Iowa’s best-known newspaper of the day – The Burlington Hawkeye And Iowa Patriot – on Inauguration Day – March 4, 1841featuring a lead story on The President Elect at Baltimore.

As it turned out, Thursday, March 4, 1841 was a cold and wet day in Washington D.C. The newly-elected U.S. President – W.H. Harrison – wanted to show that he was still the steadfast war hero of Tippecanoe and that he was a better educated and more thoughtful man than the backwoods caricature portrayed in the 1840 presidential campaign. So, when he took the oath of office that day, Harrison chose not to wear an overcoat or a hat, rode on horseback to the grand ceremony, and then delivered the longest inaugural address in American history. At 8,445 words, it took him nearly two hours to read, although his friend and fellow Whig Daniel Webster had edited it for length!

In the process of portraying himself as a strong & vibrant man, Harrison caught one heck of a cold, and while historians debate over all of the reasons for his sudden demise, the 9th President of the United States died on Palm Sunday – April 4, 1841 at 12:30 am – only 31 days after his inauguration! In truth, as the word spread about the President’s death, the nation went into a time of shock. You see, not only was this the shortest presidency in U.S. history, it also was the very first time a U.S. President had died in public office. As one historian writes…

Before the death of William Henry Harrison in 1841, there was no established form for official mourning and funerals of presidents who died in office. However, it was clear that the death of a president called for a formal ceremony with symbolism suitable to the dignity of the state. The White House was heavily draped in black. The funeral ceremony was simple and was held in the East Room and attended only by invitation. The United States Marine Band played dirges as the coffin was mounted on a great black and white funeral car and during the procession out to Congressional Cemetery where the coffin was placed in a public vault, a temporary receiving chamber until the lingering winter in Ohio had passed, and it was a more appropriate time to send Harrison’s remains home. The 30-day ceremonials surrounding the death of Harrison were modeled after royal funerals establishing precedents, revived and reshaped to suit changing times, whenever one of his successors has died in office.

The April 11, 1841 edition of The New York Herald gave Americans the details of Memorial Services held to honor the late President.

Here in Iowa, it took a while for the details surrounding Harrison’s death to reach this far west. As you can see from the front page of the May 6th edition of The Hawkeye And Iowa Patriot (above), the top news story gives a long report on the funeral that was held in the White House on April 7th, 1841.

Which brings us, now, to our very rare postal cover and letter – dated May 7, 1841 and written in Burlington by Iowa’s Territorial Governor Robert Lucas (above left) and addressed to New York State’s Governor William H. Seward (above right) in Albany, New York.

(JP-077) This rare postal cover and letter was written on May 7, 1841 by Iowa Territorial Governor Robert Lucas, and postmarked on May 8(?), 1841 in Burlington, Iowa. It was addressed to His Excellency – William H. Seward – Governor of New York, Albany, New York.
Executive Department Iowa – Burlington May 7, 1841

Sir. I herein acknowledge the receipt of your communication of the 10th Ult (previous month) transmitting the proceedings of both houses of the Legislature of the State of New York relative to the death of William Henry Harrison, President of the United States.

I am with high respects, Your Obedient Servant
Robert Lucas

Now, as you can see, our letter from Lucas to Seward is really short, and at first glance it might seem like a rather trivial item, with Iowa’s Territorial Governor basically sending a confirmation note to the New York governor in Albany, acknowledging the receipt of papers that gave the details for “the proceedings of both houses of the Legislature of the State of New York” as they were held sometime after the death and funeral of President Harrison.

William Henry Seward served as United States Secretary of State from 1861 to 1869, and earlier served as governor of New York and as a United States Senator. A determined opponent of the spread of slavery in the years leading up to the American Civil War, he was a prominent figure in the Republican Party in its formative years, and was praised for his work on behalf of the Union as Secretary of State during the Civil War. He also negotiated the treaty for the United States to purchase the Alaskan Territory.

You see, following Harrison’s death on April 4, 1841, the entire nation was asked – by official decree – to participate in thirty days of mourning. And during that month, every state in the Union, including New York, held memorial services for the late President.

But, here’s the interesting fact. During Robert Lucas’ term (1838-1841) as Iowa’s first Governor, he made a concentrated effort to promote education around the Territory, and despite the limited funding he had available, Lucas and his young assistant – Thomas S. Parvin (see below) – spent a great deal of time & energy building up the Territory’s “official” library. Read more here.

So, undoubtedly, these papers referred to in our May 7th letter – sent from Governor Seward in New York – were just another valuable addition to Iowa’s growing Territorial Library that eventually made its way to Iowa City and for many years (1859–1882) was kept in Old Capitol. Sadly, many papers and books collected during these earliest days of Iowa Territory were lost in a devastating fire when North Hall – which housed the SUI Library from 1882-1901 – was struck by lightening in 1897. It’s our guess that the papers referred to in our 1841 letter were lost in that tragic event.

As we mentioned earlier, the sudden death of President Harrison was an event that no one had experienced ever before in America. Sadly, since 1841, there have been several other Presidents who have died in office. In 1850, Zachary Taylor died after only one year in office. In 1881 and 1901 Presidents Garfield and McKinley were assassinated. In 1923, Warren Harding died, and, of course, in 1945, while in his fourth term as President, Franklin Roosevelt passed. Maybe two of the more monumental losses were the assassination of President Lincoln in 1865, and President Kennedy in 1963. Here in Iowa City, large memorial gatherings were planned on the grounds of Old Capitol, and fortunately, photographs of both gatherings have been preserved. You can read more here.

Kudos to the amazing resources below for the many quotes, photographs, etc. used on this page.

William Henry Harrison, Wikipedia

The President Elect at Baltimore, Hawkeye And Iowa Patriot, March 4, 1841, p 1

William Henry Harrison Funeral – April 7, 1841, The White House Historical Association

William Henry Harrison Funeral In 1841, New York Herald, April 11, 1841, Timothy Hughes Rare Newspapers

On The Death of Wm. Henry Harrison, Hawkeye And Iowa Patriot, May 6, 1841, p 1

William H. Seward, Wikipedia

Case Map-1841 The Empire State, New York, HistoricPictoric.com

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