It is unprecedented for a sitting U.S. president to become seriously ill in the month before a national election.
Since Trump confirmed Friday, October 2, that he and First Lady Melania Trump had contracted COVID-19, probably during a Rose Garden ceremony introducing his Supreme Court pick Amy Coney Barrett, there has been conflicting information coming from his doctors, Sean Conley, and his chief of staff, Mark Meadows, as to the severity of the President's illness. As of Sunday, October 4, it was understood that he was receiving medication reserved for severe cases.
At any rate, Trump's sickness has triggered any number of conversations about the nuclear codes, the temporary handing off of presidential powers, and even succession (it's thought that V.P. Mike Pence would take over, and that if both Trump and Pence were felled, it would be Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi — though there is some debate over that).
One aspect of these historic events is the idea of a president dying in office, something that may feel rare to most Americans. One would have to be over 60 to recall the feeling of learning of the assassination of President Kennedy (1917-1963) in 1963, and about 80 to remember the death, of a cerebral hemhorrage, of President Franklin Roosevelt (1882-1945) during the final stages of WWII.
Following, a list of every U.S. president who died in office. Note: Eight out of 45 (so far) means over 17% have done so:
(1) William Henry Harrison (1773-1841): The ninth president — a Whig who at 68 was at the time the oldest man elected to the office, a record he held for 139 years — died of what has commonly been called pneumonia (but what may have been typhoid or paratyphoid fever, or septic shock brought on by one or the other) just 31 days into his first term after a nine-day illness. He did not become sick by talking too long in the rain at his inauguration. His death, which may well have been hastened by the questionable medical treatments of the era, triggered a Constitutional crisis in that it was not clear whether the Vice President should take over immediately. It was decided this was the case, an important precedent, so his V.P. John Tyler (1790-1862) took the oath of office and became "10."
(2) Zachary Taylor (1784-1850): The nation's twelfth president, a Whig war hero, died 16 months into his first term after apparently contracting a digestive malady (thought to be cholera morbus at the time). He had eaten raw fruit and iced milk at a Fourth of July celebration in D.C. (at a time when open sewers were the norm) and became bedridden; several members of his Cabinet were similarly stricken. He died five days later, leading to the presidency of Millard Fillmore (1800-1874). Assassination theories centering around the idea that pro-slavery Southerners had slipped Taylor arsenic were so prevalent that in 1991, he was exhumed and his body was tested for the poison. The results — which have been questioned — showed the original diagnosis, cholera morbus aka gastroenteritis, probably complicated by barbaric medical intervention, had been correct.
(3) Abraham Lincoln (1809-1865): As you may have heard, 16 was shot in the back of the head on April 14, 1865, during his second term, by Confederate spy John Wilkes Booth (1838-1865). The controversial Republican, who had earned the ire of slavery-mongers, died the following morning, never having regained consciousness. He was succeeded by Andrew Johnson (1808-1875).
(4) James A. Garfield (1831-1881): The 20th U.S. prez, a compromise Republican candidate selected by the RNC, was shot and killed six and a half months into his first term by Charles J. Guiteau (1841-1882). Garfield survived the initial shooting on July 2, 1881, but succumbed to his wounds that September 19. Guiteau had delusionally thought his work for Garfield entitled him to a consulship abroad, was rebuffed, and resorted to murder. He was executed the following year. Chester A. Arthur (1829-1886) succeeded Garfield. Interestingly, Arthur spent his presidency sick with nephritis, waged a token battle for his party's nomination for a second term (he lost) and died just a year after leaving office of a cerebral hemorrhage ... after having all of his papers burned. Dra-ma! The point being — the U.S. very nearly experienced two presidents in a row dying in office.
(5) William McKinley (1843-1901): McKinley, the nation's 25th president, served from 1897-1901. In the first year of his second term, riding high with what historians have noted was a successful Republican presidency, he was shot twice in the abdomen by anarchist Leon Czolgosz (1873-1901) while visiting the Temple of Music in Buffalo, New York, as part of the Pan-American Exposition. It was a stop McKinley's advisors had sought to persuade him to skip, fearing lax security and maximum exposure to the public. Seriously wounded, McKinley urged that the crowd not be allowed to tear the assassin limb from limb (he was executed in the electric chair within two months) and asked that the news of the attack be broken to his wife gently. By all appearances, McKinley seemed likely to survive, and his doctors did little to prepare the American public. When his condition worsened a week later, it was because he was succumbing to gangrene, untreatable then. He died in the early morning hours of September 14, and was replaced by veep Theodore Roosevelt (1858-1919), who would go on to become one of our most consequential leaders.
(6) Warren G. Harding (1865-1923): Harding was a highly popular Republican leader who served from 1921-1923, when he was felled by what was later understood to have been a heart attack. He had felt ill for several days leading up to his passing, and the nation watched for news of his recovery. Yet again, people were unprepared when things did not resolve positively. They were even more surprised when, postmortem, a number of scandals related to Harding were revealed. More so because of what we know now than what the American public knew during his lifetime, 29 is one of the country's least respected presidents. He was succeeded by another winner, Calvin Coolidge (1872-1933). Harding is the last Republican POTUS to have died in office — so far.
(7) Franklin Delano Roosevelt (1882-1945): Roosevelt, widely considered one of the best U.S. presidents — and the last to serve more than two terms, so far! — was also the only POTUS to serve while in a wheelchair, a result of polio or possibly Guillan-Barré syndrome. He died of a cerebral hemorrhage just before the end of WWII, and was succeeded by Harry S. Truman (1884-1972). Worth noting that 32 was the first of only two Democrats to die in office, and the only to die by any means other than assassination.
(8) John F. Kennedy (1917-1963): Kennedy was the first U.S. prez born in the 20th century, and the first and only sitting Democratic president assassinated. Shot to death in Dallas — one of the most remembered and notorious events of the entire last century — by Lee Harvey Oswald (1939-1963), Kennedy's death spawned a multitude of conspiracy theories, fanned by Oswald's own murder on live TV by nightclub owner Jack Ruby (1911-1967), who would die in prison for his crime. Replaced by Lyndon B. Johnson (1908-1973), Kennedy is remembered for so many firsts, but one important last attached to his name until now: 35 is the last U.S. president to die in office, and the (at least) 57+ years between his death and whichever U.S. president is next to die in office is a record-long period of time between such events.