A couple of years ago, Forbes magazine ran an article under the excitable headline: “America’s deadliest jobs”. It used data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics to tell us that, in 2012, the most dangerous things an American could do to earn their crust included flying a plane (53.4 deaths per 100,000 workers per year), being a fisherman (117 deaths) and logging (a terrifying 127.8 deaths). That last figure works out to approximately a 0.13 per cent chance of any individual logger meeting a horrible fate in any individual year – which doesn’t sound so bad, but certainly doesn’t sound great either.
One job not included in the figures however – perhaps because of the gratifying lack of fatalities in 2012 itself – must be, statistically speaking, one of the most dangerous of all: being president.
As of 2016, 43 men have occupied the Oval Office. (Barack Obama is counted as the 44th president due to the weird historical quirk of Grover Cleveland, who served two non-consecutive terms and consequently gets to be both the 22nd and 24th presidents; I don’t make the rules). Of these, eight have died in office. Eight, out of just 43.
Which is quite a high number on the whole. If you pick any individual president at random, there is an 18.6 per cent change that they didn’t make it out of the White House alive. I mean, would you take a job with those kind of odds?
The Bureau of Labor Statistics numbers, of course, tell you the risk of death for particular jobs in any given year, so let’s crunch the numbers a different way. In the 228 calendar years since 1789, when George Washington first took the oath of office, sitting presidents have died in eight of them. That means that, in any individual year, the odds of the sitting president dying are just over 3.5 per cent.
Which, by my count, means that being president is roughly 27 times more dangerous than being a logger. Sorry, Forbes, which is the most dangerous job in America again?
Okay, so I’m being slightly disingenuous here, in about six different ways. For one thing presidents tend to be older, and so more likely to die anyway; for another, in a sample size this small, the stats are probably meaningless.
And for yet another I’m comparing figures for 2012 with those from a period of nearly two and a half centuries. At the start of that period doing almost anything – treating the sick, delivering the post, drinking a glass of water – was vastly more likely to kill you than it is today.
But the biggest way in which I’m being disingenuous – or at least, the one which gives me the best excuse to talk about the actual presidents, which is frankly my real motive here – is best phrased as a question: how many of those eight dead presidents actually died because they were president?
Four of them definitely did, because those four were assassinated. Those, if you’re struggling to recall, were:
Abraham Lincoln (1865), shot by John Wilkes Booth, a confederate sympathiser unhappy with the outcome of the American Civil War.
James Garfield (1881), shot by Charles Guiteau, a fairly unhinged man who without any particular qualification for the role, demanded to be named as US ambassador to Vienna. When nobody in Washington had wanted to give him the job, he got it into his head that the problem was Garfield, and felt vice president Chester Arthur might be more amenable to his kind offer, so decided to take action.
William McKinley (1901), shot by anarchist Leon Czolgosz, in an era when getting shot by anarchists was frankly all the rage.
John F. Kennedy (1963); oh boy am I not getting into that one.
At any rate – it’s pretty clear that those guys died in large part because they were president. I mean, office seekers and anarchists don’t shoot random people just for the sake of it.
The standard narrative is that the other four dead presidents died of natural causes. That number, though, is not as clear cut as one might think.
Warren G. Harding (1923) and Franklin D Roosevelt (1945) both died of of cerebral haemorrhages, brought on by underlying ill-health. It’s possible that without the stress of office this could have been avoided or delayed, but Roosevelt, in particular, was not a well-man. You have to squint pretty hard to say that they died because they were president, as opposed to simply while they were.
The “natural causes” that killed two other presidents really might be things you could reasonably blame on the fact they were president, however. William Henry Harrison (1841) had the shortest tenure as president – just 30 days, so short that his death has become a punchline:
[See also: Is everything suddenly going Joe Biden’s way?]
Urban legend blames Harrison’s death on his refusal to wear a coat for his ridiculously over-long inauguration speech. After two hours in the cold, the story goes, he caught a chill, took to his bed and expired a month later without really getting to do very much presid-ing.
The standard account, though, may not actually be true. The Washington Post’s excellent Presidential Podcast has come up with evidence that Harrison actually died of typhoid fever, contracted through a White House water supply that had its source a bit too close to the local cess-pits. Dr Philip Mackowiak, the University of Maryland historian who uncovered this evidence, reckons that the same contamination may also have finished off president Zachary Taylor, who died in office in 1850 – as well as James K. Polk, who died in 1848, just months after leaving the White House, and assorted members of other presidents’ families or staff.
Whichever of them wins the next election, it’s pretty unlikely that Hillary Clinton or Donald Trump will be finished off by a bug in the White House water supply. Assassination is much less likely than it once was, too: since the shooting of McKinley in 1901, it’s been part of the Secret Service’s job to stop such things happening (and, with one admittedly major exception, they’ve done pretty well at this).
But however you frame the statistics, it is undeniably true that there was a period of US history where sitting presidents expired at a frankly ridiculous frequency. Presidents died in office in 1841, 1850, 1865, 1881, 1901, 1923, 1945, 1963 – eight times in just 122 years. Without living a particularly long time, someone could possibly have plausibly seen six presidents die.
It happened a lot, that’s all I’m saying. You’d be better off taking up logging.