Dead Presidents

Historical facts, thoughts, ramblings and collections on the Presidency and about the Presidents of the United States.

By Anthony Bergen
Asker Anonymous Asks:
I have a question not necessarily about a president, but about his father. Do you know how Augustine Washington Sr. died? All I can find is "sudden" death but never an actual cause of death. Was he in an accident?
deadpresidents deadpresidents Said:

No, it wasn’t an accident; he died of an illness, but I’ve never read exactly what the illness was. It’s been suggested that he died of tuberculosis or smallpox, since both of those illnesses took their toll on the Washington family, but it seems as if that happened after Augustine Washington died. George and his brother contracted smallpox around 1752 and traveled to Barbados with hopes of the climate helping their recovery. George obviously survived, but Lawrence died of smallpox, but again, that was nearly 10 years after their father died.

Augustine Washington was just short of being 50 years old when he died in 1743 and he traveled frequently for business, including trips across the Atlantic to-and-from England. Due to his extensive travels, it really could have been any type of illness that killed him, but it was definitely of natural causes rather than any sort of accident.

"Hope drives belief. Belief drives action. And action achieves results." — Maryland Governor Martin O’Malley
Asker Anonymous Asks:
Should Jerry Brown drink and bathe in blood for a few weeks so he can become young enough to run in 2016?
deadpresidents deadpresidents Said:

"THAT’S THE SOLUTION!" says everybody at Ready For Hillary when they read this post.

Asker Anonymous Asks:
Do you know Rob Cockerham? What's he like? He also lives in Sacramento and I figure all you internet celebrities probably must get together to play beer pong all the time or something.
deadpresidents deadpresidents Said:

Is that a real person? Hopefully he’s not an athlete because that would be an unfortunate name to put on the back of a jersey.

No, I do not know him. There are actually about 2.5 million people that live in the Sacramento metropolitan area, so we don’t all know each other, believe it or not. Plus, I spent four years out-of-the-state, so I didn’t play a whole lot of beer pong during that time. In fact, the last time I played beer pong was…oh yeah..I’ve never played beer pong because I’m 34 years old and it’s disgusting to drink beer that has spent the night hosting a dirty-ass ping pong ball that’s bounced all over a garage or a “man cave” (I hate that word more than war) and has been in the gross hands of a bunch of drunk people who probably went to the bathroom 600 times without washing their hands that night. I’m sorry, I know people probably enjoy it and have great memories of beer pong, but it’s disgusting; if you want to get drunk, why don’t you just drink? And anytime I see a picture of people playing it, I imagine that everyone there is wearing a t-shirt they bought from “Busted Tees” and listening to insulting “tributes” by some soft-rock solo singer ironically covering classic gangsta rap songs.

Anyway, I don’t know what internet celebrities are, but I certainly wouldn’t count myself as one. I’m a historian and I work hard at being good at it; my only connection to the internet is using it as a platform to hopefully spread some knowledge and engage with people interested in learning something. But I wish the best for that dude that I don’t know because, for some reason, we miraculously haven’t crossed each other’s paths while living in one of the largest metropolitan areas in the United States. I’m sure it’ll happen soon.

Asker anna8910 Asks:
So today at the University of Georgia Press we finished the inventory on all the books we have on hand and I think we MIGHT even have more than you!
deadpresidents deadpresidents Said:

Well, I’m going to have to do something to change that.


Riots in Puerto Rico and an attempt on President Truman’s life, 1950:

This assassination attempt on President Harry Truman is one of two major incidents in the 1950s connected to the Puerto Rican Nationalist movement that are strangely overlooked or flat-out forgotten about in history.

During the Truman Administration, extensive renovations were done on the White House — basically, the interior of the Executive Mansion was completely gutted and rebuilt — and the First Family spent four years (1948-1952) living across the street in Blair House, which is traditionally used as an official guest house for visiting dignitaries and the place that the President-elect stays the night before being inaugurated.

On November 1, 1950, President Truman was taking a nap in an upstairs bedroom when Puerto Rican nationalists Griselio Torresola and Oscar Collazo approached Blair House with a brazen attack plan; they intended to shoot their way past Truman’s protective detail on Pennsylvania Avenue in broad daylight, enter the building through the front door, and kill the President.

Collazo opened fire first, wounding a uniformed White House Police officer, and alerting Secret Service about the attack, triggering a gunfight in the streets below the window of the room where the President was sleeping. Collazo’s progress was halted by a Secret Service agent who shot him in the chest and left him badly wounded. Collazo continued firing at police officers and Secret Service agents despite being wounded. Other agents rushed to secure all entries to Blair House and engage the gunmen.

Torresola reached one of the security booths where White House Police officers — who are essentially uniformed members of the United States Secret Service — were stationed to secure the perimeter surrounding Blair House and opened fire at nearly point-blank range on Officer Leslie Coffelt. Torresola shot Coffelt four times with wounds that would be mortal; Torresola figured that Coffelt had been neutralized and continued towards to building while Collazo continued to fire at some of the other agents and police officers, without striking anyone.

Officer Coffelt was down and gravely wounded, and Torresola was still standing and shooting. Collazo was wildly firing shots, but was down near the steps of Blair House, unable to get any further due to his chest wound. White House Police Officer Joseph Downs made a dash towards a door leading to the basement of Blair House, hoping to keep Torresola from getting into the building, but became Torresola’s next target in the process. Downs was shot three times, but was able to secure the basement door despite his wounds.

Officer Donald Birdzell had been the first person wounded in the attack, and the only person who was hit by one of Oscar Collazo’s bullets. Collazo had shot Birdzell in the knee as the attack commenced, and as Birdzell attempted to steady himself and take aim at the gunman, Torresola shot him in the other knee. Officer Birdzell survived his wounds, but Torresola was still fighting his way to get into Blair House. At this point, a head poked out of an upstairs window, curious about the cause of the commotion interrupting his nap. With a gunfight raging in the streets below, an officer had to order the President of the United States to “Get the hell back!”. Two weeks after the attack, Truman shared details about the assassination attempt to his cousin, Ethel Noland, and said that the director of the Secret Service, U.E. Baughman later pointed out, “Mr. President, don’t you know that when there’s an Air Raid Alarm you don’t run out and look up, you go for cover!”

As President Truman got a quick bird’s-eye view of the carnage below, Griselio Torresola reloaded his 9 mm for one last do-or-die charge into the President’s temporary residence. Bleeding profusely and mortally wounded, Officer Leslie Coffelt had been left for dead in the security booth after Torresola shot him four times at the beginning of the rampage. The President ducked out of sight as a Secret Service agent demanded of him. Torresola inched near the steps of Blair House. Officer Coffelt summoned his last surge of strength, his final burst of action, and in his life’s closing seconds of consciousness, he pulled himself up to a standing position, leaned against the security booth, and fired one shot for the people, for the President, and for public service. After firing his one, single, final shot, Officer Leslie Coffelt collapsed and never regained consciousness; he died from his wounds four hours later at a Washington hospital and remains the only Secret Service agent in American history to be killed while protecting the President.

Griselio Torresola had reloaded his gun and was within several feet of the steps leading to the entrance of Blair House when Officer Coffelt fired his last shot. Torresola didn’t get an inch closer than that. From a distance of about ten yards, Coffelt shot the assassin — the man who was trying to kill the President, had shot two of Coffelt’s colleagues, and caused the severe wounds that Coffelt would soon die from — in the head, killing him instantly. President Truman wore that Coffelt had “put a bullet in one ear and it came out the other.” Leslie Coffelt was buried with full honors at Arlington National Cemetery.

The other Secret Service agents, White House Police officers, U.S. Capitol Police officers, and responders involved in the attack on Blair House were honored by the President and their respective law enforcement organizations. Officers Donald Birdzell and Joseph Downs fully recovered from their wounds. The other Puerto Rican gunman, Oscar Collazo, recovered from his wounds. He was convicted of murder and sentenced to death, but shortly before Collazo’s scheduled execution in 1952, President Truman commuted his sentenced to life in prison. In 1979, President Jimmy Carter further commuted his sentence to time served and Collazo was released from prison. He returned to Puerto Rico and continued to advocate independence for his home island until his death in 1994.

Nearly four years later, another dramatic incident by Puerto Rican Nationalists occurred which many Americans aren’t aware of despite the magnitude of the event. On March 1, 1954, four members of the Puerto Rican Nationalist Party, three men and one woman were viewing the proceedings of the United States House of Representatives from the chamber’s “Ladies Gallery”. On the floor of the House, over 240 Representatives were debating an immigration bill when the Puerto Rican woman, Lolita Lebrón, the leader of the Nationalist team, displayed a Puerto Rican flag and yelled “¡Viva Puerto Rico Libre!” All four Puerto Ricans were armed with semi-automatic weapons and opened fire on Congress. Over 30 shots were fired and five Congressmen — Ben Jensen of Iowa, Kenneth Roberts of Alabama, George Hyde Fallon of Maryland, Clifford Davis of Tennessee, and Alvin Bentley of Michigan — were wounded. Shockingly, those were the only five people who were shot and nobody was killed; Bentley’s chest wound was the most serious, but House pages quickly carried him out of the chamber and he received immediate medical attention. The four attackers were quickly arrested and eventually convicted and sentenced to a minimum of 76 years in prison instead of the death penalty, as the government had requested. One of the attackers was released from prison in 1978, and the other three had their sentences commuted by President Carter in 1979 at the same time as Oscar Collazo. They returned together to Puerto Rico and were welcomed home as heroes in San Juan.

Dear Readers,
I have written millions of words about history and the Presidents here on Tumblr, but few of those words have been about me or my personal life. I answer questions about myself once in a while when people are curious about the guy behind my work, but most of my readers know that I very rarely post anything personal, and I don’t ever ask for anything from you; for me, your support and the kind feedback that I usually receive about my writing is enough and I always appreciate it.

But there are obviously things that I care about and have a personal interest in, and I recognize that I am fortunate enough to have a platform that gives me a certain amount of influence that might be able to make a difference when it comes to subjects that I have an interest in. I have well over 10,000 followers who see my posts on their Tumblr dashboards and upwards of 25,000 unique, non-Tumblr users who regularly visit this website every day. I would never abuse that audience by using my platform to spam my readers incessantly. However, I am taking advantage of that platform today and reaching out to you, my audience, on this one specific occasion because it means a lot to me.

When I was 19 years old, I started running an after-school program for elementary school children (ages 5-12) in Sacramento. It was a pilot program taking place in a half-dozen schools in our school district and it failed at six of the seven schools, so when the grant which funded the program expired after three years, the school district chose not to reapply for the grant. The program did not fail at my school, though; the students in my program showed continued improvement in attendance, behavior, classroom grades, and standardized test scores every year that they were in my program. My program was such a success, in fact, that our site re-applied for the grant’s recertification on our own, as a stand-alone program. And despite applying for another grant by ourselves, without any significant support from anyone but our school’s parents, students, and staff, we received approval for three more years of funding. It remains the most important and rewarding thing that I have ever done in my life.

Audreyanna was in my program throughout her time in elementary school, and I grew close to her and her mother over the years. I had wonderful relationships with the families and students in my program and within the community, and have always hoped that my former students were able to learn at least half as much from me as I learned from them. As the families and students have gotten older, many of them have lost touch, but Facebook helps me to see how far so many of my former students have come. Audreyanna and her mother were more than participants in my program, though; they became something like family to me, as quite a few of my former students did.

I’m sharing this GoFundMe effort because I know how hard Audreyanna has worked to get to where she is today. I’ve always known that she could do whatever she set herself out to do. I know that is one of those phrases that sounds like a cliche, but it is quite simply the truth. For years, Audreyanna was like a daughter to me and I can’t help but be immensely proud of her. Audreyanna’s GoFundMe project isn’t some crazy pipe dream; it’s a pragmatic step towards advancing further in the career field that she has chosen and has worked diligently to accomplish. She’s hoping to raise funds that would allow her to take the classes necessary for her to become a registered dental assistant.

My readers don’t know Audreyanna, but you know who I am, and since thousands of people will read this, I’m not going to hesitate for a second if I can write a few paragraphs that could possibly steer some support towards a person that I have always cared about as if she was my own daughter, have constantly been proud of, and who is working so hard to achieve her goals.

Please consider helping Audreyanna out via her GoFundMe page. I assure you that you would be supporting someone absolutely deserving of your help. You would also make me one very grateful Presidential historian — in fact, if you help turn Audreyanna’s dream into a reality and make a donation to Audreyanna’s GoFundMe project, I will send you a free PDF copy of my book, Tributes and Trash Talk: What Our Presidents Said About Each Other. Just e-mail me ( and let me know that you made a donation and I’ll send you a copy.

Thank you,

Asker emt4com Asks:
The other day you mentioned you thought LBJ might have lived through another term as president. I've thought the same about TR. He loved the presidency so much, even though he thought he had someone to carry on his policies for him, why did he step aside in 1908? If he had run in 1908, he would have won, right? Do you think he could have been like his cousin & served 11, 15, or even 19 years? Maybe even more as the job seemed to give him life?
deadpresidents deadpresidents Said:

Theodore Roosevelt stepped aside in 1908 because immediately after winning the 1904 election, he announced that he wouldn’t run for President in ‘08. It was one of those situations where he probably wanted to grab the words out of the air and take them back as he was saying them. TR loved being President and he regretted his 1904 declaration to not run in 1908 for the rest of his life. But Roosevelt also strongly believed that a person’s word is their honor and he couldn’t bring himself to break the promise he made in 1904, even if the electorate would have not only forgiven him for it, but would have preferred that he run again. 

TR definitely would have won in 1908, and if he had been re-elected that year, he would have probably implemented a progressive agenda and neuter the basis for Woodrow Wilson’s successful 1912 campaign for the Presidency. Plus, Roosevelt wouldn’t have had to torpedo poor William Howard Taft and split the Republican Party, which likely would have helped him win re-election again in 1912 because the electoral landscape would have been very different. TR probably could have been elected again-and-again if he had run in 1908 and held on to the job. Roosevelt was still popular and even though he kept his promise in 1908, many Republicans urged him to reconsider — including Roosevelt’s handpicked successor, Taft. Unfortunately for TR, keeping his promise in 1908 complicated his political future, especially because of the break with establishment Republicans and President Taft.

As it was, TR had a remarkable showing in 1912 considering his party split into separate factions and he had to run as a third-party candidate for a party that was basically just thrown together at the last minute when Taft was renominated by the GOP. TR didn’t run in 1916 because he still had to heal some wounds within the Republican Party and wanted to show solidarity by staying out of that race and supporting the GOP nominee, Charles Evans Hughes. Hughes lost that 1916 race to Wilson with one of the narrowest Electoral College margins in American history (Wilson 277, Hughes 254), so even with the lingering intraparty bad blood, Roosevelt probably could have won the 1916 election. He was not going to sit out the 1920 election and he was the clear frontrunner for 1920 basically from Election Day 1916. Roosevelt would have won the 1920 election — and won big considering the fact that the comparatively unknown (and exceedingly unqualified) Warren G. Harding ended up winning over 400 Electoral votes.

Roosevelt died on January 6, 1919, and that shook up every projection of the 1920 Presidential election. We mention Roosevelt’s popularity as one of the reasons he could have been elected President on several occasions, but another important factor was his age. When TR assumed the Presidency upon the assassination of President McKinley, he was just 42 years, 322 days old; he was the youngest President in history. He’s still the youngest President in history. In fact, Roosevelt was younger when he LEFT office after 7 1/2 years as President (50 years, 128 days old) than most Presidents have been upon their inauguration! TR was 60 years, 71 days old when he died, meaning TEN Presidents were older on the day of their inauguration than Roosevelt was on the day that he died.

I imagine that you’re probably right and that Roosevelt’s health — like LBJ;s — would have benefited from TR staying active and engaged through the important work that he was doing everyday. There are a couple of differences, though. Roosevelt remained a lot more active than LBJ did after leaving office. TR was very involved in politics nationally and in New York; he continued his amazingly prolific output as a writer; he dedicated significant amounts of time and energy on his expeditions as a naturalist and hunter; and let’s not forget that he actually did run for President again (and was so active during that campaign that he was shot in the chest in an assassination attempt and then gave an hour-long speech before heading to the hospital). LBJ let himself go in a way, but TR couldn’t stop going full-steam ahead on multiple projects.

But in Theodore Roosevelt’s case, that active and adventurous lifestyle probably contributed to his death. In 1914, TR spent nearly eight months on a scientific expedition in Brazil exploring a destination so remote that it was called the River of Doubt since few explorers had ever successfully reached it (Brazil later renamed it “Rio Roosevelt” in TR’s honor). During the Brazilian expedition, Roosevelt suffered a nasty cut on his leg that became so infected that there were worries it might have to be amputated in the field. Even more worrisome was the fact that Roosevelt was stricken with malaria so severe that he was hallucinating and had a dangerously high fever which reached 106 degrees. Roosevelt was convinced that he was dying and urged the other members of his expedition, which included his son, Kermit, to carry on without him because he worried that he would hold the party back and expose all of them to further danger. The rest of the expedition refused and eventually got Roosevelt out of the Amazon and back home to New York.

TR had recurring bouts of malaria for the rest of his life and never fully recovered from that or the serious infection which nearly cost him his leg. Roosevelt was famously energetic and physically active — his exercise regiments in the White House often included boxing, wrestling, and jiujitsu (TR basically the first American mixed martial artist). But he was weakened by the illnesses from Brazil and was hospitalized for weeks at a time when he had relapses, even though he was not quite 60 years old. Roosevelt still had his eye on a run for the White House in 1920 despite his health problems, but he really began to decline rapidly after July 14, 1918. All four of his sons saw combat in World War I and made their father immensely proud; his three oldest sons, Theodore Jr., Kermit, and Archibald had been wounded in action. But on July 14th, the former President’s youngest son, 20-year-old Quentin Roosevelt, a fighter pilot in the early American Army Air Force was shot down by a German fighter in a dogfight over France.

Theodore Roosevelt had spent his life seeking military glory and praising the heroic action of “the man in the arena”, but when his son was killed in action, the horror of war truly came home for him. Roosevelt was devastated by Quentin’s death and his already-declining health seemed to fail even more quickly. The chronic health problems stemming from the expedition in Brazil, constant physical pain from a life filled with dynamic exercise of his body and mind, and a broken heart from the death of his youngest son sapped him of his strength and stripped him of two things that Theodore Roosevelt always had in abundance — endless energy and iron will. TR was only 60 years old when he died, but he was the oldest 60-year-old man who had ever lived.     

Asker Anonymous Asks:
How about a list of the best California governors not named Edmund Gerald Brown?
deadpresidents deadpresidents Said:

Sure, go for it.

Asker Anonymous Asks:
Any opinion on the revival of Detroit?
deadpresidents deadpresidents Said:

I’m in favor of it.

(We’re not considering Detroit revitalized yet, are we? Because, if so, we should probably revise our definition of “revival”.)

Asker atinyripple Asks:
Are you excited about the new downtown arena being built?
deadpresidents deadpresidents Said:

Absolutely. I’m excited about the prospect of a new arena being built in the heart of downtown Sacramento because I’m positive it will revitalize a part of the city that badly needs it and that could truly be a fantastic area. Downtown Sacramento is so pedestrian-friendly and capable of being a great destination for visitors and tourists that I think the new Kings arena is undoubtedly going to be an economic boost and the type of project that takes Sacramento to another level — a place that it should be considering the size of the city. That’s something that a lot of people tend to be surprised by when they visit Sacramento — they don’t recognize how big of a city it actually is, and a vibrant entertainment district downtown that gives those restaurants and bars and clubs and other businesses a reason to be open past the early evening when the government employees head home will raise Sacramento’s profile.

Plus, the renderings of the new arena look really cool, and keeping the Kings in Sacramento helped save the soul of the city. Kevin Johnson will never have to pay for a drink in Sacramento for as long as he lives for the part he played in saving the Kings. KJ was a star in the NBA for the Phoenix Suns and never played for the Kings, but for what Mayor Johnson did for the city, the Kings should retire his jersey number as a tribute anyway.  

So, yes, I’m definitely excited, and I’m happy that I’m back home in Sacramento to see the construction of the new arena and the evolution of my city.

Did you ever think that making a speech on economics is a lot like pissing down your leg? It seems hot to you, but it never does to anyone else.
Lyndon B. Johnson (1908-1973) to economist John Kenneth Galbraith (1908-2006)