Hail to the chiefs! A road trip to where our presidents took their last breaths

Jeffrey A. Engel, director of the Center for Presidential History in SMU's Dedman College of Humanities and Sciences, talks about fascination with the deaths of past presidents.

By Andrew Clark

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’s tomb.

Across the room, my travel partner — and future best man — Bryan Buckler did the same to John Quincy Adams’s.

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....

“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.”

Sometimes there are factors that are beyond even a president’s control.

“Who owns a site can really impact what it ultimately turns into,” Engel says.

“You have things like Ford’s Theatre, which has been preserved and is a tourist attraction. The square where JFK died was turned into a shrine. Also, the circumstances surrounding a demise will affect the treatment of a site, too. For instance, there’s a difference in interest between someone passing on in their sleep and an assassination.”...