Ever since my preventive medicine courses in medical school, I’ve been intrigued by statistics. These can reveal fascinating and sometimes even useful information on mortality and morbidity trends in a given population.
For example, among Titanic survivors, a greater percentage of adult male first class passengers survived than third class children (what happened to “women and children first”?).
A year after their injury, elderly patients who suffer a hip fracture have a greater life expectancy than those of the same age who did not. Don’t rush out and push grandma down the stairs though, as this is because only seniors of superior strength and health survive the year.
Yes, there may be some truth to Mark Twain’s assertion that: “…there are lies, damn lies…and then there are statistics.” But stats can reveal interesting truths from raw data. Just look at what a little number crunching recently showed me about the occupants of the White House.
Surfing the web a few weeks ago, I came across a site that gives the medical history and cause of death of many American presidents. This prompted me to take a little harder look at the vicissitudes of this exalted political position.
One discovery I made was that, though Barack Obama is the 44th president of the United States, there have only been 43 presidents. This puzzled me until I realized that Grover Cleveland was elected for two non-consecutive terms; hence, he is counted as both the 22nd and 24th president.
Of additional interest is that of 43 presidents, a total of eight died in office. Four were assassinated, all by guns: Lincoln in 1865, Garfield in 1881, McKinley in 1901 and Kennedy in 1963. If you want to be specific, most experts feel that Garfield wasn’t killed by the bullet itself, but by the attentions of the numerous physicians who attended him incessantly probing and contaminating his wound.
Non-physicians Alexander Graham Bell and Canadian-born Simon Newcomb tried to avoid this by locating the bullet with a newly invented metal detector. Unfortunately no one thought to take the president off of the (also newly invented) metal spring mattress on which he lay, which jammed the magnetic signals, rendering the detector useless. Many also think attempts by doctors to probe Lincoln’s wounds may have killed him, or at least hastened his demise.
Apparently McKinley wasn’t killed by his doctors, but they could have saved him had they known where the bullet was located. Ironically, he was shot at the Pan-American Exposition in Buffalo, New York, a few yards from another new invention, the x-ray machine. Unfortunately no one thought of carrying him next door and trying out the new device.
Of the four presidents who died natural deaths in office, William Harrison perished from pneumonia, Zachary Taylor from possible typhoid fever, Warren Harding from an infarct (fortunately not in the arms of his alleged mistress, Nan Britton), and Franklin Roosevelt from a cerebral hemorrhage.
A closer look at these numbers shows that about 18% of U.S. presidents died while in office. Half of these were assassinations! This gives an incumbent president a 9% chance, about one chance in 11, of being murdered by a firearm while serving his term.
Moreover, Theodore Roosevelt received a non-fatal bullet wound to the chest in 1912 and Ronald Reagan in 1981. If we count attempts where someone fired but missed, we’ll find that Andrew Jackson escaped assassination in 1835 when his two assailants’ guns misfired. Franklin Roosevelt narrowly escaped being shot in 1933, though several bystanders were injured and Chicago Mayor, Anton Cermak, later died of his wounds.
Harry S Truman escaped one serious assassination attempt unscathed (and no, there is no period after the S – S was his actual middle name). Gerald Ford dodged two assassination attempts, both by women, the only efforts on record by the fairer sex to dispose of a president. What this says about women and about Ford I have no idea.
Therefore, in total ten U.S. presidents were killed, wounded or at least shot at — a total of 23.2% or almost one-in-four assaulted by a firearm! If we break this down, three of the four presidents successfully assassinated — Lincoln, Garfield and McKinley — were members of the Republican Party.
Since a total of 18 past presidents were Republicans, this reveals that one in six Republican presidents was murdered in office. Additionally, two Republican presidents, Theodore Roosevelt and Ronald Reagan, were intentionally but non-fatally shot. Thus, five of 18 Republican presidents or 28% were victims of murder or injury by firearm. That’s more than one in four!
Only one assassinated president, John F. Kennedy, was a Democrat. Those Democrats aspiring to the Oval Office shouldn’t feel too secure, however. All three of the attempts in which the assassin missed completely were directed at Democrats Andrew Jackson, Franklin Roosevelt and Harry Truman.
Thus of the past 14 presidents who were Democrats, someone tried to or succeeded in killing four, which is 28.6%, over one in four! It would seem the Democrats were not better liked, but simply luckier (or their assailants were lousy shots.)
Let’s not forget the now defunct parties that elected members to the Oval Office. Those who were members of the Federalist Party (Washington and John Adams), and Democratic-Republican Party (Jefferson, Madison, Monroe and John Quincy Adams) all escaped their terms without fatality of any kind. Nobody assassinated any of the four Whig presidents but they must have been a sickly lot. Two of them, Harrison and Taylor, died of natural causes in office, giving the incumbents of this party a 52 mortality rate.
Overall, the most surprising thing about my survey was the large number of attempts by Americans to eliminate their chief executive with firearms. Being president is a lot riskier than serving in the military in Afghanistan. Given the statistics, I sure wouldn’t want the job of President of the United States. While those who occupy the Oval Office may be called many things, “coward” shouldn’t be one of them.
“Chicago Tribune: Encyclopedia Britannica
“McKinley Assassination attempt” Public Domain
“Ronald Reagan” Courtesy of www.ronaldreagan.com