Brady Carlson may be known in the New Hampshire writing community for his work with NHPR, but he’s also a book guy, too — his latest project, Dead Presidents: An American Adventure into the Strange Deaths and Surprising Afterlives of Our Nation’s Leaders, serves as evidence.
The book, released Feb. 1, mixes history with travel writing and tells stories about what happens after presidents die. It required more digging and researching than you might think. Most books only have tiny snippets of this kind of information.
“The way most people write biographies is, when the person dies, the book ends,” Carlson said.
For research, he relied heavily on travel and interviews. It brought him to 36 different sites across the country.
Carlson has long been fascinated with presidents, ever since the fifth grade, when he visited Lincoln’s tomb in Springfield, Illinois. He thought just being in the presence of the 16th president’s body would spark interest, but what was equally fascinating was learning the site was designed to deter potential grave robbers after attempts in 1876.
“There’s this whole story people weren’t writing, and it was that story they weren’t telling that appealed to me,” Carlson said.
Carlson came up with the idea for the project a few years back. He first thought he’d write about it in a blog, which might then turn into a book, but when he got a call from a book agent not long afterward, he began researching in earnest. He found a lot of common stories and themes, some funny, some heartbreaking, some that were just plain weird.
“One that I found kind of creepy was how often their bodies are moved,” Carlson said.
For instance, President James Monroe had been buried in New York — where he lived at the end of his life and died — but as tension built up with the Civil War, folks in the South lobbied for his body to move to Virginia. When it arrived, it was met with a parade and celebration.
Grave robbery aside, Lincoln’s body had life after life, too, taking a very long funeral tour on its way back to Illinois. Millions wanted to pay their respects, Carlson said, but the U.S. government also wanted to impose a kind of punishment.
“They wanted to put Lincoln’s body on display, so as to say, ‘Here’s what the Southerners did to us,’” Carlson said.
For some presidents, death forgives all. Richard Nixon died 20 years after Watergate and had a very large televised funeral with all living presidents in attendance.
“It was everyone saying, essentially, let bygones be bygones. … It was this sort of national movement, where the country as a whole declared the war on Richard Nixon was over,” Carlson said.
Carlson also took a trip to Dallas, Texas, during the 50th anniversary of the Kennedy assassination. He said it’s a subject people in Dallas still get riled up about, even now.
“They don’t like for people to think of them as the place of the Kennedy assassination,” Carlson said. “A lot of people blamed the city and a lot of the anti-Kennedy voices in the city at the time.”
What struck Carlson was how big we go for presidents. The Washington Monument took almost a century to build, and when it was finished, it was the tallest structure in the world. Building had started while Washington was still alive, and he had wanted nothing to do with it.
“People were essentially acting against Washington’s own wishes. He said, ‘I just want to be left alone,’” Carlson said.
One of Carlson’s last trips was to West Branch, Iowa, to attend the Hoover-Ball National Championships. The game is a popular pastime in the former president’s hometown, one Hoover’s doctor developed in response to his fondness for snacking. It involves throwing a giant medicine ball over a net.
Carlson thinks these stories say a lot about the American people, and he hopes this book helps get those tales out.
“There are a lot of long, interesting, compelling stories, but they’re so hidden. We forget to ask, how did that get there? Why is that the way it is?” Carlson said. “If we’re willing to spend millions of dollars to bury [presidents] and have planes flying overhead while we’re burying them, they must have meant something to us. … Those situations can tell us more about ourselves than the person we’re burying, naming a school after or who we’re naming the highway for.”