Special Report

The Stories Behind the Deaths of 39 American Presidents

Source: iip-photo-archive / Flickr

John Tyler
> When he died: Jan. 18, 1862
> Age: 71
> Cause of death: Stroke

Tyler was in poor health for most of his life, and in the first days of 1862, he grew dizzy and collapsed. A few days later, he found it difficult to breathe and a doctor was summoned. When he was assured that he wasn’t dying, Tyler replied “Perhaps it is best,” and expired, probably from a stroke.

Source: iip-photo-archive / Flickr

Martin Van Buren
> When he died: July 24, 1862
> Age: 79
> Cause of death: Bronchial asthma

After a year of declining health, Van Buren died at home at — according to his New York Times obituary — “the close of a long and serious illness, originating, we understand, in an affection of the chest.” Bronchial asthma was probably the cause, though heart disease may have been a complicating factor. His last words, cryptically, were “There is but one reliance.”

Source: Library of Congress / Getty Images

Abraham Lincoln
> When he died: April 15, 1865
> Age: 56
> Cause of death: Assassination (gunshot wound)

As every schoolchild probably knows, Lincoln was shot by an actor and part-time Confederate spy named John Wilkes Booth as the president and his wife were watching a play, “Our American Cousin,” at Ford’s Theatre in Washington, DC. After lingering for eight hours in a coma, Lincoln died. His last words are not recorded.

Source: Public Domain / Wikimedia Commons

James Buchanan
> When he died: June 1, 1868
> Age: 77
> Cause of death: Respiratory failure

While some sources say that Buchanan simply died of a bad cold which got worse. It’s also possible, though, that he was one of more than 30 victims of a still-mysterious affliction called National Hotel disease, which affected some guests who stayed — as Buchanan had — at the Washington hotel of that name. Buchanan’s last words are said to have been “Oh, Lord God Almighty, as thou wilt!”

Source: 8905239@N05 / Flickr

Franklin Pierce
> When he died: Oct. 8, 1869
> Age: 64
> Cause of death: Cirrhosis

Pierce was a prodigious drinker for most of his adult life, and refused to give up alcohol even when he was diagnosed with cirrhosis. No family members were present when the disease claimed his life. His last words are unknown.