Monday, April 4, 2016

William Henry Stemwinder

March 4th, 1841
William Henry Harrison gets a bad rap. Conventional wisdom states that our 9th President must have been a blustery egotistical old fool to give a speech that lasted nearly two hours in the cold rain. Maybe he was but while it's true that his inaugural speech was twice as long as any of his eight predecessors, it was common to give lengthy speeches in those days. In our modern sound bite world, the thought of a speech like that generates gasps and ridicule. Most movies aren't even that long. But this was 1841, not 2016.

Oratory skills in the 19th century were highly prized. They especially came in handy for Harrison during his old frontier Governor days. He became a seasoned negotiator with Native American tribes who relied on verbal tradition and valued such speaking skills. WHH was also well read and idolized Plato and Cicero so much so that he emulated and referenced them in his public speeches. In the 1800s a term was coined for a long rousing speech, a stem-winder. This was slang for speeches so long that listeners had to rewind their watches during its course. And it was a compliment! Lincoln is famous for his short two-minute address at Gettysburg but the speech that preceded it by former Secretary of State Edward Everett was two hours. People thought that was too short. American poet Ralph Waldo Emerson once exclaimed "The highest bribes of society are all at the feet of the successful orator. All other fame must hush before his. He is the true potentate."
Practicing oratory skills with Tecumseh in 1810
The bottom line is, while still a tad bit lengthy, it was shorter than Harrison's original. Future Harrison/Tyler US Secretary of State Daniel Webster (a contemporary of Emerson) had edited down the President elect's speech in February 1841 killing "seventeen Roman proconsuls", Webster boasted. Still, none of this had any bearing on his cause of death. Harrison probably died from a deadly combo of typhoid and early 19th-century medical treatment, not just the pneumonia that is often cited. A cold can irritate the lungs creating an environment where the bacteria that cause pneumonia can thrive, but one doesn't catch a cold from dressing poorly in the cold. That's common knowledge now. Also, Harrison complained of no symptoms until March 27th. That was 23 days after the speech. 

I doubt his cause of death will ever be corrected (or fully known) in the history books. It's repeated so much so that it is now the "truth" much like other moments in history that make great stories. Daniel Boone wore a coonskin cap (only on TV). Paul Revere yelled, "the British are coming" (he didn't). Al Gore claimed he invented the internet (he didn't really say that). 
April 4th, 1841
Could Harrison have given a 20-minute speech and survived?  Maybe. But his death certainly wasn't caused by ego-driven fashion choices on a cold and damp March day. In fact, the idea that the weather and the length of the speech is what killed him didn't appear until the 1939 Harrison bio "Old Tippecanoe". Yes, NINETEEN thirty-nine.
It seems to me that at the age of 68 and environmental factors he would have contracted some sort of malady. Bacteria-infested drinking water caused by open sewage was literally everywhere in DC. No matter what he got sick from, Harrison would have likely died anyway given the state of medicine in 1841. 
Harrison's doctors did what they thought was best in their day for their high profile patient. Yet...they did have another option. Instead of leeching, cupping, and enemas along with cocktails of mercury, opiates, and brandy, they could have just done nothing and let whatever was ailing him run its course. Oddly, had he not been the President, this is what a doctor may have prescribed for a mere citizen. Non-treatment was even prescribed for gunshot victims in those days. As long as the shrapnel wasn't endangering an organ or bleeding someone out, leave them be. The crude medical treatments here were, in fact, weakening the 68-year-old President even further. Harrison died a week later on April 4th, 1841 at 12:30 AM. The official cause of death was listed as pneumonia which was really a secondary diagnosis from a few days earlier.

Hey, it sure has been good fodder for one and a half centuries. Let's stop now.