An entertaining exploration into the death stories of our nation’s greatest leaders—and the wild ways we choose to remember and memorialize them.
To public radio host and reporter Brady Carlson, the weighty responsibilities of being president never end. As Carlson sees it, the dead presidents (and the ways we remember them) tell us a great deal about ourselves, our history, and how we imagine our past and future. For American presidents, there is life after death—it’s just a little weird.
In Dead Presidents, Carlson takes readers on an epic trip to presidential gravesites, monuments, and memorials from sea to shining sea. With an engaging mix of history and contemporary reporting, Carlson recounts the surprising origin stories of the Washington Monument, Mount Rushmore, Grant’s Tomb, and JFK’s Eternal Flame. He explores whether William Henry Harrison really died of a cold, how the assassin’s bullet may not have been what killed James A. Garfield, and why Zachary Taylor’s remains were exhumed 140 years after he died. And he explains the strange afterlives of the presidents, including why “Hooverball” is still played in Iowa, why Millard Fillmore’s final resting place is next to that of funk legend Rick James, why “Who’s buried in Grant’s Tomb?” became a running gag for Groucho Marx, why Ohio and Alaska fought for so long over the name of Mt. McKinley (now known as Denali), and why we exalt dead presidents not just with public statues and iconic paintings but with kitschy wax dummies, Halloween costumes, and bobblehead dolls.
With an infectious passion for history and an eye for neglected places and offbeat characters reminiscent of Tony Horwitz and Sarah Vowell, Carlson shows that the ways we memorialize our presidents reveal as much about us as it does about the men themselves.
About the Author
Brady Carlson is a reporter and the on-air host of NPR’s Weekend Edition for New Hampshire Public Radio. He lives in New Hampshire with his wife and children.
[An] amusing survey of presidential death and remembrance.
— Kate Tuttle
Brady is an exuberant guide to presidential wishes, myths, and monuments, both official and forgotten, and what dead presidents reveal about ourselves, our history, and how we imagine our past and the future.
— Virginia Prescott
In this entertaining biography-cum-travelogue . . . Carlson shifts deftly among sombre, macabre, and playful stories and shows how the death-tourism industry reveals more than amusing trivia.
Dead presidents haven’t been this surprising, entertaining, and even funny since my eighth-grade classmates and I saw animatronic Lincoln whirr to life or, later, when I voted for failed San Francisco mayoral candidate Jello Biafra.
— Jack Hitt
The funniest and most entertaining book about death you’ll read this year—and my favorite book about corpses since Mary Roach’s Stiff. Plus, I learned a ton about our commanders-in-chief, many of whose lives got much more interesting after they stopped breathing.
— A. J. Jacobs
Lots of books explain how tough the presidents have it when they are alive—scandals, impeachments, gray hair—but here at last is a terrific investigation of the post-life presidency, a rollicking but always thoughtful exploration of the after-the-White-House whereabouts of the forever former chief executives. Brady Carlson is the perfect road-trip companion, smart and good-hearted, a combination that we can only hope for in presidents, alive or dead.
— Robert Sullivan
A spirited debut. . . . A brisk, lighthearted travelogue with an exuberant guide.