Coincidentally: A Nation Mourns

Adolf Frederick V, grand duke of Mecklenburg-Strelitz, was born during the presidency of James Knox Polk, who was born in Mecklenburg County, North Carolina. We might focus on the mighty Polk’s birth, as that partum from his mother’s womb coincided with the third partition of Poland. A more dour eye would rather focus on his death, simultaneous with that of King William II of Holland. The optimist thinks of births attached to the presidency (I have known only one person actually born in the White House and he was a clergyman, Francis B. Sayre, grandson of Wilson); the pessimist is more aware of obsequies.

On a macabre chart, all presidents elected at 20-year intervals from 1840 to 1960 died in office. The first, Harrison, died of pneumonia after one month in office. The interval between the Treaty of Aix-la-Chapelle in 1748 (on the centenary of which the grand duke of Mecklenburg-Strelitz was born) and the assassination of McKinley in 1901 is identical to the interval between Harrison’s golden day at Tippecanoe in 1811 and the death of vaudeville star Eddie Cantor in 1964.

More presidents died in retirement. A tremendous civil mysticism surrounds the deaths of Thomas Jefferson and John Adams on the 50th anniversary of July 4, 1776. James Monroe died five years later, also on Independence Day. This is matched only by King William IV dying on “Waterloo Day,” June 18, 1837, the anniversary of the battle, as he clutched a tricolor captured on the field of victory. Field Marshall Montgomery was born on the 50th anniversary of King William’s death. But that is an optimistic intrusion on our pessimistic panorama. Better to recall Queen Mary and Cardinal Pole dying of unrelated causes on November 15, 1558.

“When he went, the power and the glory of the presidency went with him.” So mourned Coolidge on the death of his son and namesake in 1924, which was the 500th anniversary of the death of John Zizka in Bohemia, a wrenching moment for the not habitually ebullient Hussites. The presidents of both sides in the Civil War lost young sons during their administrations. Lincoln’s son William Wallace (“Willie”) died in the White House from typhus on February 12, 1862, at the age of twelve. On April 30, 1864, the five-year old Joseph (“Joe”) Davis died in a fall from the veranda of the Confederate presidential mansion.

More haunting in retrospect is the rescue of Willie’s brother, Robert Todd, in 1864. As the young man leaned over the edge of a Pennsylvania Railroad platform in Jersey City, the press of the crowd caused him to stumble onto the tracks as a locomotive approached. He was pulled to safety by the firm hand of actor Edwin Booth, brother of the future assassin of Robert’s father. Robert became ambassador to Great Britain and, overcoming any fear of locomotives, president of the Pullman Company from 1897 to 1911, the centenary of the Battle of Tippecanoe. Having attended his own father’s deathbed, he was present at the assassinations of Garfield in 1881 and William McKinley in 1901. For official functions, some might have kept him on the “B” list.

Theodore, the good Roosevelt, indulged no superstitions of that sort, though he was painfully acquainted with the Grim Reaper. In New York City on St. Valentine’s Day in 1884, his mother Martha died from typhus at 3:00 a.m. and his wife Alice died in childbirth from complications caused by Bright’s disease at 2:11 p.m.

On the same day President Kennedy was shot in 1963, C.S. Lewis and Aldous Huxley died more peacefully, though their deaths got lost in the torrent of political publicity. A century or so from now the perspective may change, for monitoring kingdoms is not the way to measure true power and glory.

It has become customary in conversation today to refer to any fraudulent oracle as a Paphlagonian. This goes back to Alexander the Paphlagonian, an impostor of the second century, A.D. President Lincoln, who was no Paphlagonian, did seem to have some genuine foreboding, with his dreams about a ship in a storm. On the day of his assassination, he signed an act creating the Secret Service. And all who know salvation history know the dream of Pontius Pilate’s wife. She may have thought it coincidental that when she awoke the sky started to die. But Judea was a backwater far from Rome. Imperial attention at the time noted only one death of importance, the execution of Germanicus’s son Drusus.


*Originally published in Crisis Magazine

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