Special Report

Tragic Events in the Lives of US Presidents and Their Families

Most of us have been affected, at some point in our lives, by the loss of someone close to us. Being famous or holding a prominent position doesn’t make the pain any less severe – and through our nation’s history, a number of presidents have suffered such losses.

To compile a list of tragic events in the lives of U.S. presidents and their families, 24/7 drew on sources such as History, Britannica, PBS.org, NPR.org, the Miller Center (a nonpartisan affiliate of the University of Virginia that specializes in presidential scholarship, public policy, and political history), and various presidential websites.

Most of the tragedies in the lives of the nation’s first families involve the passing of young children – many before they learned to walk. Families of 19th-century presidents Thomas Jefferson, William Henry Harrison, Zachary Taylor, and Abraham Lincoln all had numerous children, and all saw some of them die from conditions such as tuberculosis, typhus, and cholera. (Can you solve these real “Jeopardy!” clues about U.S. presidents?)

Franklin Pierce, the nation’s 14th president, lost all three of his boys. The last of them, Benjamin, was killed in a train accident on the way to his father’s inauguration with his parents.  

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Some of the wives of presidents passed away before their husbands got to the White House. Martha Jefferson died in 1782, 19 years before Thomas Jefferson took office. Hannah Van Buren, the wife of the country’s eighth president, died from tuberculosis in 1819, 18 years before husband Martin Van Buren won the presidency. Theodore Roosevelt lost his first wife, Alice, in 1884, the same day his mother passed away, and 17 years before he ascended to the White House.

Fate dealt a cruel hand to the four presidents later felled by assassin’s bullets. Abraham Lincoln, James A. Garfield, William McKinley, and John F. Kennedy all lost children before or during their time as president. (Read the stories behind the deaths of 39 American presidents.)

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