The 3 Presidents Who Died on the Fourth of July (And Other Strange Fatalities)

(L-R): John Adams, Thomas Jefferson and James Monroe, who all died on Independence Day.

Independence Day: America’s birthday, the most terrifying 24 hours of the year for dogs, and the day that American presidents are most likely to kick the bucket.

That’s right. The Fourth of July has the strange distinction of being the day that three presidents died. Two of them—John Adams and Thomas Jefferson—passed just five hours apart in 1826. The third, James Monroe, died exactly five years later. The fact that the men were all founding fathers, and served as the second, third and fifth U.S. presidents makes the coincidence even more odd. (The fourth president, James Madison, died on June 28, 1836. Imagine if he’d held on for six days!)

While Harry S. Truman and Gerald Ford both died on December 26 (in 1972 and 2006, respectively), and Millard Fillmore and William Howard Taft both died on March 8 (the former in 1874; the latter in 1930), the close cluster of July 4 deaths is definitely stranger. Especially given the historic importance of the day.

The first to go, Thomas Jefferson, was 83 at the time of his death and had been bedridden for a month with a variety of physical ailments. He caught a fever on July 3 and succumbed the next day, at 12:50pm at home in Monticello, Virginia. Meanwhile, 569 miles away in Quincy, Massachusetts, 90-year-old John Adams was also on his death bed. He died soon after his friend, entirely unaware of Jefferson’s passing. Adams’ oblivious last words were reportedly: “Thomas Jefferson still survives.” It was the 50th anniversary of the signing of the Declaration of Independence.

President John Quincy Adams, struck by his father and Thomas Jefferson dying not just on the same day, but on such a historic occasion, called the timing “visible and palpable remarks of divine favor.” Senator Daniel Webster agreed, remarking in a eulogy a month after Adams’ and Jefferson’s deaths that they were “proofs that our country and its benefactors are objects of His [God’s] care.”

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Precisely five years after Jefferson and Adams passed away, James Monroe died of tuberculosis, aged 73, at his daughter’s home in New York City. Four days later, the Boston Traveler noted: “Again our national anniversary has been marked by one of those events, which it may be scarcely permitted to ascribe the chance.”

Though the timing of the three deaths remains surprising even today, creepy coincidences are something of a tradition when it comes to American presidents. One such example is that of Theodore Roosevelt’s wife and mother dying on the same day in 1884—on Valentine’s Day, no less.

The most infamous set of eerie parallels, however, can be drawn between the lives of Abraham Lincoln and John F. Kennedy. They include the following:

  • Both were elected to Congress in ’46 (granted, in different centuries).
  • Both became President in ’60.
  • Both lost sons while living in the White House. (Lincoln’s 11-year-old son William died of typhoid; Kennedy lost 2-day-old Patrick to infant respiratory distress syndrome.)
  • Both are remembered primarily for their work to advance civil rights.
  • Both were shot in the head on a Friday, while their wives were present.
  • Both were succeeded by Presidents named Johnson (Andrew and Lyndon B. respectively) who were born in ’08.
  • Both of their assassins were known by three names—John Wilkes Booth and Lee Harvey Oswald—comprised of 15 letters total.
  • Both murders involved theaters. (Booth shot Lincoln at Ford’s Theatre, Washington, D.C.; Lee Harvey Oswald was arrested at the Texas Theatre in Dallas directly following Kennedy’s murder.)

You’d be hard pushed to find an American today who doesn’t know about the Kennedy curse, but few remember that Lincoln’s son Robert may also have battled some bad luck. After his father was killed, there was speculation that, had Robert attended the theater that night—as was originally intended—his seat might have blocked Booth’s shot and saved his father. For years, Robert was forced to wonder if he could have prevented the assassination. That was, until he was present for two others.

On July 2, 1881, Robert was in New Jersey traveling with President James Garfield—for whom he was acting Secretary of War—when Garfield was assassinated by Charles Guiteau. Twenty years later, Robert was also present at the shooting of President William McKinley, who was shot twice by Leon Czolgosz at the Pan-American Exposition in Buffalo, New York. He later died of gangrene caused by the wounds.

Robert began to wonder if he was hexed. (It can’t have helped that all three of his brothers died before they reached adulthood.) After McKinley’s death, Robert refused to be present at any events a president might be attending. “No, I am not going,” he once said, “and they’d better not ask me because there is a certain fatality about presidential functions when I am present.” Robert had nothing to worry about. The only other president to ever again die by assassination was—checks notes—John F. Kennedy.

Happy Independence Day, everyone! (And happy birthday to Calvin Coolidge—the only president to ever be born on the Fourth of July.)