Died on the Fourth of July… Almost

Three presidents died on the 4th of July. One broke the curse.

It’s widely known that John Adams and Thomas Jefferson famously died on the same day – July 4th, 1826.

Their simultaneous passing on the 50th anniversary of the signing of the Declaration of Independence is viewed as a wonderfully patriotic cosmic coincidence, or at least a victory of the human will to hang on. (Or possibly some good old-fashioned euthanasia.)

What’s not as well-known is the fact that the fifth president, James Monroe, also died on the 4th of July, exactly 5 years after Adams and Jefferson. At the time it was reported as being a “coincidence that has no parallel,” which is another way of saying it was a little too perfect.

Two presidents dying on the fourth of July could be called a coincidence. Three is not only suspicious, but also passé. Copycat killers are unoriginal enough, but Monroe seemed like a copycat dier.

James Monroe: Copycat dier?

Monroe’s death left James Madison as the last founding father president alive, and his already poor health was deteriorating. Just weeks away from the 60th anniversary of the signing of the Declaration of Independence, the 85-year-old Madison must have felt like a character in the last act of a patriotic Final Destination movie. His doctors offered to give him stimulants to keep him alive until the fourth. If their plan worked, it would have made Madison the fourth president in a row to die on the fourth of July, and it would have turned an already unparalleled coincidence into a joke.

According to Dolley Madison’s niece Mary Cutts, Madison refused to be “unnecessarily stimulated,” preferring instead to die “in the full possession of all his noble faculties.”

Just saying no to drugs was probably a wise choice based on the horrifying side effects of stimulants available back then. One powerful stimulant he might have been offered was Spanish fly, or cantharis, described in the 1839 Dispensatory of the United States as a “highly valuable remedy.” In large doses it could produce:

“obstinate and painful priapism [a prolonged erection], vomiting, bloody stools, severe pains in the whole abdominal region, excessive salivation, with a fetid cadaverous breath, hurried respiration, a hard and frequent pulse…frightful convulsions, tetanus, delirium, and death.”

Madison decided that hanging on for one more fireworks show wasn’t worth the risk of becoming a slobbery raging boner goblin.

James Madison on stimulants. (And steroids.)

On the morning of June 28, 1836, Madison’s niece asked him what was the matter and he replied, “Nothing more than a change of mind, my dear.” Those were his last words.

James Madison exercised his own independence, passing away just a week shy of America’s 60th birthday and forever breaking the eerie presidential tradition of dying on the fourth of July.

The Dispensatory of the United States by George Bacon Wood, Franklin Bache


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