Slowly my fingers slid along the surface.
“You know, that’s made of Quincy granite," our tour guide said, as my hand went down the edge of John Adams’ tomb.
Across the room, my travel partner — and future best man — Bryan Buckler did the same to John Quincy Adams’. We were standing in a crypt a few stories underneath a church in downtown Quincy, Mass. This was the last stop on a one-week journey that led us up and down the mid-Atlantic visiting any sites related to the U.S. presidents. Or, more precisely, where they died.
It all started with a phone call I made many months before.
“Hey, why are you whispering?" Bryan asked.
“Because I shouldn’t be here," I replied.
“Where are you?"
“I don’t know, man."
“I’m on the eighth floor of the Palace Hotel in San Francisco."
“I wanted to see where Warren G. Harding died."
Bryan and I had fostered a friendship based on our parallel upbringings. He spent his childhood playing with presidential jigsaw puzzles. Instead of “Where the Wild Things Are," my parents read me bedtime stories from a Funk & Wagnalls presidential encyclopedia. Bryan and I were not normal suburban Boston kids by any stretch. In fifth grade, I worked tirelessly on a 20-page treatise about Millard Fillmore, our esteemed 13th president — known mainly for signing the Fugitive Slave Act in 1850 — for a history report. I came to school dressed as Fillmore, replete with a mock fat pouch and a gray wig. I may have been the only 9-year-old who considered himself a Whig.
Throughout our days at UMass Boston, Bryan and I continued to feed into our mutual love of the presidents, whether it was visiting JFK’s birthplace or placing takeout orders under the name James K. Polk.
Naturally, when I called Bryan from the Palace Hotel, his interest was piqued, since we also share a fascination with death. Our shelves are filled with books that explore the ins and outs of presidential assassinations.
When I went to the Palace Hotel, I saw nothing that gripped my historical interests. To my naked eye, it was simply a hotel — albeit one that looked like it could double as a set for “The Great Gatsby." But after my visit to Harding’s death site, I got to thinking: There was no obvious plaque, no mention that anything remotely important happened at the hotel on Aug. 2, 1923. (He died of a heart attack in Room 8064.)
Almost everything related to the U.S. presidents is considered hallowed. Their birthplaces are marked or preserved as sacred tourist havens. People collect campaign ephemera and buy countless pieces of memorabilia bearing their likenesses. Even their china patterns are kept behind glass.
How can the death sites of U.S. presidents turn into afterthoughts when nearly everything else about them becomes an invaluable artifact?
According to some of the country’s most venerable presidential scholars, the paradox is understandable.
“As a general rule, birth sites help us understand the formation of one’s character," says Jeffrey Engel, the director of Presidential History Projects and an associate professor of presidential studies at Southern Methodist University in Dallas. “It gives you glimpses into a president’s childhood experiences and how those experiences may have shaped their views. On the other side, death sites just capture a culminating moment in time."
The majority of death sites are on the East Coast, with just a handful in California, Texas and the Midwest.
In our eyes, the tenants and landlords of all presidential death sites should take a page from the infamous Ford’s Theatre.
There’s no greater celebration of death in America. In fact, without death, Ford’s Theatre might not be standing today. The story is rather well known by now. There was a play at Ford’s Theatre many years ago. President Abraham Lincoln went to see it. Assassination ensued. Theater became infamous.
Paul Tetreault, the theater’s director, met us shortly after tours closed for the evening. In a few hours, the building would reopen for its evening performance. Though his background is in theater, Paul has been fed a steady diet of Lincoln books since taking his post at Ford’s in 2004. When it came down to why Ford’s — and not the quiet and unassuming Petersen House across the street where Lincoln actually died — became this tourist mecca, Paul reasoned: “People don’t come here just because he was shot. It’s because of how great he was. It wasn’t James Buchanan who was assassinated here. What Lincoln did in 4½ years, a lesser person could not do."
He was right. Infamy leads to preservation and remembrance. It’s one of the unwritten rules of death we had learned during the trip. And not all the presidents had proved to be popular — take your Martin Van Burens and William Henry Harrisons and James Buchanans.
Still, did that mean they should be forgotten?
Long before Snooki and the Trump Taj Mahal, the Jersey Shore was something of a surrogate Camp David. Long Branch, a small seaside town on the northern coast, was a favorite spot of James Garfield. He loved it so much he chose to recover there after he was shot by Charles Guiteau, a crazed office seeker who was unhappy that he never received an appointment from Garfield despite having no qualifications. But Garfield never recovered. As a result, it was also where he died.
A beautiful granite marker sits near where the home that he died in once stood. A friend had lent the home to the ailing Garfield during his last stages of life. The stone is simple, yet to the point. It states that he died at this site on Sept. 19, 1881. Unfortunately, it rests on a narrow residential road in an area canvassed with NO PARKING signs. Bryan and I pulled to the side of the road and hurried over to the site. A chilled saline air blew against us as we huddled around the stone and took pictures.
When we got back to Massachusetts, I thumbed through the Garfield section of Sarah Vowell’s masterful book “Assassination Vacation," in which she made a study of the assassination sites of presidents Lincoln, Garfield and McKinley. Vowell mentions that the marker Bryan and I were looking at was the fruit of an 8-year-old boy’s campaign more than a half-century ago.
Naturally, I wanted to talk to him.
After consulting a few newspaper archives and searching the Internet, I was able to track down Bruce Frankel. He is now in his 60s, a retired lawyer living in Fort Myers, Fla. And, as I found out, Frankel is exactly like us.
“My parents were driving one day when I was a kid, and I just started reciting the presidents," he said over the phone. “I had memorized them from an encyclopedia we had."