Did William Henry Harrison Really Die of Pneumonia?

James Lambdin, The White House Historical Association, Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons
James Lambdin, The White House Historical Association, Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons

Whether you learned it in school, or through a jaunty musical number on The Simpsons, the sad tale of William Henry Harrison is one of the more unique in American history. Before being elected the ninth President of the United States in 1840, Harrison was known as a military hero who led his troops to victory against an attack from the Native American confederacy in 1811, later known as the Battle of Tippecanoe. His heroics extended into the War of 1812, when he recovered Detroit from the British and won the Battle of Thames.

Military notoriety has often given way to a road into politics, especially in the 19th century. Harrison was soon elected a senator for Ohio, and then eventually became president after beating incumbent president Martin van Buren in 1840. At 67 years old, Harrison took office as the oldest president to ever be elected—a record that would stand until Ronald Reagan's election in 1980 at 69 years old. Despite the cold, rainy weather in Washington D.C. on inauguration day, Harrison stood in front of the masses without his overcoat, hat, and gloves, and gave an 8445-word speech that would last almost two hours. Three weeks later, Harrison complained of fatigue and of a cold, which later turned into what doctors called pneumonia. On April 4, 1841—exactly one month after taking office—Harrison was dead.

The historical narrative virtually wrote itself: Harrison, after being improperly dressed for the weather, got pneumonia and would go down as a cautionary tale (or a punch line) and as having the shortest presidency on record. But was it really pneumonia that killed him? Harrison's own doctor, Thomas Miller, was skeptical. He wrote:

“The disease was not viewed as a case of pure pneumonia; but as this was the most palpable affection, the term pneumonia afforded a succinct and intelligible answer to the innumerable questions as to the nature of the attack.”

While revisiting the case a few years ago, writer Jane McHugh and Dr. Philip A. Mackowiak of the University of Maryland School of Medicine came up with a new diagnosis after looking at the evidence through the lens of modern medicine: enteric fever, also known as typhoid fever. They detailed their findings in the journal Clinical Infectious Diseases [PDF] and for The New York Times.

Before 1850, Washington D.C.'s sewage was dumped in a marsh just seven blocks upstream from the executive mansion's water supply. McHugh and Mackowiak hypothesize that Harrison was exposed to bacteria—namely Salmonella typhi or S. paratyphi—which could cause enteric fever. Harrison also apparently had a history of severe indigestion, which could have made him more susceptible to such intestinal distress. While treating Harrison, Miller also administered opium and enemas, both of which would cause more harm than good to someone in Harrison's condition.

Harrison would not have been the only person to be afflicted with a gastrointestinal illness while occupying the presidency in this time period. Both James K. Polk and Zachary Taylor, according to McHugh and Mackowiak, suffered through severe gastroenteritis, and the duo theorizes it was the same enteric fever as Harrison's. Polk recovered, while Taylor died in office of his illness, less than 10 years after Harrison's death.

Though Harrison's insistence on soldiering through his lengthy, bitterly cold inauguration while dressed in his finest spring wear wasn't a high point in presidential common sense, there's plenty of scientific evidence to suggest that it didn't contribute to the shortest presidency in American history.

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Why Are Elections Held on Tuesdays?

iStock/YinYang
iStock/YinYang

Ever wonder why Americans always vote in federal elections on Tuesdays? There are a few reasons—including a little something to do with the horse and buggy.

Between 1788 and 1845, states decided their own voting dates. In 2012, then-Historian of the Senate Don Ritchie told NPR that strategy resulted in chaos, a "crazy quilt of elections" held all across the country at different times to pick the electors—the white, male property owners who would cast their votes for president on the first Wednesday of December. In 1792, a law was passed mandating that state elections be held within a 34-day period before that day, so most elections took place in November. (Society was mostly agrarian; in November, the harvest was finished but winter hadn’t yet hit, making it the perfect time to vote.)

The glacial pace of presidential elections wasn't a huge issue in the late 18th and early 19th centuries—communication was slow, so results took weeks to announce anyway—but with the advent of the railroad and telegraph, Congress decided it was time to standardize a date. Monday was out, because it would require people to travel to the polls by buggy on the Sunday Sabbath. Wednesday was also not an option, because it was market day, and farmers wouldn’t be able to make it to the polls. So it was decided that Tuesday would be the day that Americans would vote in elections, and in 1845, Congress passed a law that presidential elections would be held on the Tuesday after the first Monday in November.

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, let us know by emailing us at bigquestions@mentalfloss.com.

This article originally ran in 2012.

Does Sound Travel Faster or Slower in Space?

iStock/BlackJack3D
iStock/BlackJack3D

Viktor T. Toth:

It is often said that sound doesn’t travel in space. And it is true … in empty space. Sound is pressure waves, that is, propagating changes in pressure. In the absence of pressure, there can be no pressure waves, so there is no sound.

But space is is not completely empty and not completely devoid of pressure. Hence, it carries sound. But not in a manner that would match our everyday experience.

For instance, if you were to put a speaker in interstellar space, its membrane may be moving back and forth, but it would be exceedingly rare for it to hit even a single atom or molecule. Hence, it would fail to transfer any noticeable sound energy to the thin interstellar medium. Even the somewhat denser interplanetary medium is too rarefied for sound to transfer efficiently from human scale objects; this is why astronauts cannot yell to each other during spacewalks. And just as it is impossible to transfer normal sound energy to this medium, it will also not transmit it efficiently, since its atoms and molecules are too far apart, and they just don’t bounce into each other that often. Any “normal” sound is attenuated to nothingness.

However, if you were to make your speaker a million times bigger, and let its membrane move a million times more slowly, it would be able to transfer sound energy more efficiently even to that thin medium. And that energy would propagate in the form of (tiny) changes in the (already very tiny) pressure of the interstellar medium, i.e., it would be sound.

So yes, sound can travel in the intergalactic, interstellar, interplanetary medium, and very, very low frequency sound (many octaves below anything you could possibly hear) plays an important role in the formation of structures (galaxies, solar systems). In fact, this is the mechanism through which a contracting cloud of gas can shed its excess kinetic energy and turn into something compact, such as a star.

How fast do such sounds travel, you ask? Why, there is no set speed. The general rule is that for a so-called perfect fluid (a medium that is characterized by its density and pressure, but has no viscosity or stresses) the square of the speed of sound is the ratio of the medium’s pressure to its energy density. The speed of sound, therefore, can be anything between 0 (for a pressureless medium, which does not carry sound) to the speed of light divided by the square root of three (for a very hot, so-called ultrarelativistic gas).

This post originally appeared on Quora. Click here to view.

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