Today is the anniversary of the day in 1849 that President James K. Polk died just months after leaving office. He was the shortest-lived ex-president of all. And it was a pandemic that killed him.

It’s worth noting that Polk was only 53 when he left office. He’d been the youngest president ever at the time, but he’d run himself ragged in office, sometimes running the entire executive branch by himself, or only with help from First Lady Sarah Polk. The before/after photos are striking:

The Polks had a house waiting for them in Nashville, which they named Polk Place. They were going to finally get some rest. But they had numerous stops to make on the way back from D.C. Friends, allies and well-wishers were organizing elaborate parties & dinners for them.


Mr. Polk vacates the white house on Saturday, and starts for home on the following Tuesday, after the inauguration. He will be accompanied by Mr. Walker, Secretary of the Treasury. Some of the President's friends will accompany him to Richmond. He expects to arrive at Wilmington (N.C.) on Wednesday, where he will remain the invited guest of the town one day. On Thursday, he expects to arrive in Charleston, to stay one day, and partake of the cordial hospitalities of the common council. They will arrive at Savannah on Saturday, where they will lie by on the Sabbath, and then proceeds homewards to Nashville by way of New Orleans.

Note the stop in New Orleans. Polk, who was already suffering from a bad cold he’d picked up during the “dusty and fatiguing” tour, was now entering a city where cholera had been spreading.

CHOLERA IN NEW ORLEANS: The telegraphic accounts from this city tell us that the cholera was spreading with alarming rapidity. Had the authorities of that city done their duty in cleansing the streets, houses, etc, this havoc would not now have been on record. We earnestly appeal to our own Councils to be up and doing. There is no time to be lost.

Polk had hoped to zip through town and get back to Nashville, but the locals insisted he attend the massive dinner they’d planned for him, and he agreed.

Mr. Polk in New Orleans. We copy from the New Orleans Bulletin of the 23d March, the following report of the reception of Mr. Polk in that city: The Reception of the Ex-President. - The reception yesterday of Mr. Polk, the Ex-President of the United States, was of a character alike honorable to his late distinguished position as the Chief Magistrate of his country and to the dignity of the great commercial city of the South, and as such, is a subject of just pride to every one who is a true lover of our glorious confederation. Without any distinction of party, the whole city turned out to do honor to one who having been the first servant of the people...

We don’t know for sure where Polk got sick, but a public reception with lots of handshaking couldn’t have helped. And when I say Polk got sick, I mean he got sick. “My bowels were affected,” he told the doctor, and the shaking of the Boat had become inconvenient for me.” A doctor in Paducah somehow told Polk, who exhibited all the signs of cholera, that he didn’t have cholera. The Polks made it back to Nashville, but he was still quite ill. Newspapers ran updates on his condition, fully expecting him to pull through.

HEALTH OF MR. POLK. The Commerce, which left Smithland on Friday and reached here Saturday night, reports that, when she left, 'Mr. Polk was worse, but in no danger.' We have no later intelligence on this. A deep anxiety on this subject pervades the public mind, which we hope will be relieved by the next arrival from below."

But his condition deteriorated. By June 1849 Polk knew the end was near; he called for a preacher to baptize him, and his mother raced in from Columbia to see him one last time.

The conversation fatiguing Mr. Polk too much for him to be then baptized, it was postponed to take place the next evening. The same day, the venerable Mrs. Polk, mother of the ex-President, a very pious Presbyterian lady, arrived from her residence forty miles distant, accompanied by her own pastor, hoping that her distinguished son would consent to be baptized by him.

His last reported words, 103 days out of office, were to his wife: “I love you, Sarah, for all eternity, I love you.” Nashville put him with 32 other cholera victims in a temporary grave. He stayed there for nearly a year, until his permanent tomb was ready. Sarah Polk survived her husband for decades; in fact, Polk Place was an oddity in the Civil War, as both Union and Confederate officials would call on her. She died in 1891; Polk Place would be demolished in 1901.

James K. Polk's tomb in Nashville

The Polks are currently buried on the grounds of the Tennessee State Capitol, not far from where Polk Place once stood, but the efforts continue to move them to the grounds of the Polk Family Home in Columbia, Tennessee, which is now a museum.

And that’s the story of how a pandemic killed the 11th president of the United States. Be kind, read history, and wash your hands.