Severe Weather Casts Dark Shadow over Inaugurations One President Died in 1841 after Catching Chill

Article excerpt

THE SNOW BLEW into drifts and even toppled utility poles; 6,000 shovelers struggled to clear the streets between the Capitol and White House. Yet as noon approached on Inauguration Day, it was still snowing, and the temperature was at the freezing mark.

"I always knew it would be a cold day when I got to be president," William Howard Taft quipped to a reporter on that frigid day in 1909.

Nature does not always frown on presidential inaugurations, but occasional storms have been miserable, even fatal. William Henry Harrison declined the offer of a closed carriage and rode on horseback to the Capitol, braving cold temperatures and a northeastern wind on March 5, 1841. After speaking for more than an hour, he returned to the White House, again on horseback, catching a chill that eventually turned to pneumonia. He died a month later. "He was the first American president to die in office, a victim of his militant disdain for the elements," Patrick Hughes, a historian, observes in Weatherwise magazine. Ronald Reagan, who broke Harrison's record as the oldest man to become president, was more cautious in 1985 when the coldest weather in inaugural history struck Washington. Reagan moved the ceremonies indoors and canceled the parade. When Franklin Pierce was sworn in on March 4, 1853, the weather was raw and windy with light snow falling. Abigail Fillmore, wife of outgoing President Millard Fillmore, caught cold while sitting on the windswept inaugural platform. She died of pneumonia within weeks, Hughes says. Originally, presidential inaugurations were held on March 4, a date selected in an era of slow travel so that all the participants could be present for the ceremony. By the 1930s, transportation was much better. And politicians wanted to shorten the long "lame duck" period between the election in November and the inauguration, so a decision was made to change the date to January. Weather records showed that Jan. 20 tended to have mild conditions, so it was chosen. But the first ceremony on that date, in 1937, took place in a deluge, with 1. …


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