Case 4 of 7 / Franklin Pierce
Franklin Pierce of New Hampshire was a Democrat who was elected the 14th President in 1852. Though a northerner and a pro-Unionist, Pierce also enjoyed strong support in the South, and he viewed radical northern abolitionists as a threat to unity. Pierce’s one-term presidency would go on to be deemed a “failure” by establishment historians, and this “correctionist historian” would have to agree with academia in this case; while noting, in all fairness, that few placed in his predicament could have succeeded. Pierce’s fear of “The Slave Power” expansionists alienated pro-Union and anti-slavery groups for he, like President Fillmore, appeased the secessionists by signing the Kansas–Nebraska Act(which allowed slavery in new territories) and enforcing the Fugitive Slave Act.
Far from calming the situation, Pierce’s approach only exacerbated the related controversies of slavery expansion and the coming secession. It can rightly be said that the Civil War started under Pierce’s watch, in the new territory of Kansas where “free state” settlers bloodily battled with “slave staters.” (see “Bleeding Kansas“) Much like what was going on over in Europe, this period in US history was one in which the government, particularly the dangerous office of the presidency itself, regardless of who was holding it, was the most destabilized it had ever been — and it was all by design of “somebody.”
Before we review the possible, but not fatal, presidential poisoning of Pierce, it is important to note that he came close to dying in an “accident” two months before being sworn in. Pierce and his wife, Jane, sustained minor injuries after their train-car derailed in Massachusetts and toppled down a 20-foot embankment — coming to rest on its roof. Killed in the strange accident was their 11-year-old son, Benny. Pierce himself pulled little Benny from the wreckage. The back of the boy’s head had been torn off by flying debris. After glimpsing the horrible sight, Jane, according to a witness, went into “agony beyond any description.” She suffered from severe depression the rest of her days. It is also said that Pierce himself was never the same after the accident; and that be became weak and prone to manipulation. Understandable.
Things get even freakier. During this pre-inauguration period, Pierce’s vice-President-to-be, a southern pro-unionist named William R. King of Alabama, like Presidents Harrison, Polk and Taylor in recent years, also came down suddenly ill while in Cuba — “tuberculosis” they said. King was so ill that he couldn’t make it back to Washington DC for the March swearing-in. He was administered the oath of Vice Presidency while still in Cuba. Just 6 weeks later, King, 67, was dead and Pierce went without a VP for his whole 4-year presidency. Just imagine the political destabilization had Pierce and King both died during the pre-inauguartion period. Who would have become president then, when Fillmore’s term expired? Rules of succession only apply to sitting presidents & vice presidents — not pre-presidents.
In Summer 1853, Pierce developed a severe respiratory infection while traveling to the world’s fair in New York. He described his sudden affliction as “a pain in his lungs” — and was forced to cancel some speeches. Back in Washington, he took to bed. Observers described his state as “broken and wretched.” Though called a severe cold at the time, the lung illness was obviously something more — possibly pneumonia.
Chills and fever again afflicted Pierce in summer 1854. Both the President and the First Lady developed a chronic cough — with both, according to one source, coughing up blood. (here) Were it not for the sudden and unexpected deaths of THREE recent presidents, the recent death of Pierce’s VP, and the horrible train derailment which killed his son — one could reasonably dismiss the sickness of the Pierces as pneumonia or tuberculosis. But given all of these strange occurrences and the crazy political climate leading up to the Civil War, Pierce’s sudden lung ailment, which he survived, should also be considered suspicious — because poisons can indeed cause what is known as “chemical pneumonia.” After leaving office in 1857, both Pierces died young, Jane in 1863, age 57 — and Franklin in 1869, at age 65.