Presidents: Benjamin Harrison
Birthplace: North Bend, Ohio
Visited in 2013.
Log Cabins and Hard Cider and Historical Markers.
The bustling streets of downtown North Bend.
A great president deserves a wordy sign.
It takes a big man to admit his mistakes, and I made one in 2006. I was doing a stand-up gig in Cincinnati, my brother Dave came to visit me, and we went 20 minutes west to see William Henry Harrison's tomb.
No, we haven't gotten to the mistake yet.
After bumming around in Indiana territory for a few years, W.H. Harrison backed up a state and bought a farm in North Bend, Ohio. He was elected to Congress while living there, and when he ran for president his campaign touted his rustic log cabin living along the Ohio River. It was a total scam, since Harrison replaced the initial log cabin with a mansion. He was a rich dude. But why argue with success?
These days, Harrison's tomb is arguably the most interesting thing in North Bend, which has a population of about 900. It has a very nice monolith, it's on the side of a hill, and it overlooks the river. I've seen worse presidential graves. We checked it out, took some silly photos and went back to Cincy to do something else that was probably equally cool. It's how we roll.
The mistake: We forgot about Benjamin. The Harrison family was in North Bend for a while, and William's grandson was born there in 1833. The Ohio historical mafia put up a very nice sign to commemorate the blessed event, and we didn't even think to look for it. Every time I stared at my presidential "to do" list over the next seven years, that was the dagger in my heart. So close, yet so very far.
That's why I vaulted out of bed at my moderately cheap hotel on June 1, 2013. The night before, I had driven until 1 a.m. to get to the Cincinnati region. That Saturday, it was like waking up at 4 a.m. on Christmas morning, only I wasn't a kid, and my family wasn't there, and there was no promise of making memories that anyone would want to share, and instead of a nice breakfast casserole I had a Rice Krispie treat that I bought at a gas station the day before.
The Benjamin Harrison marker is easy to find. It's at the intersection of Washington and Symmes (the maiden name of Benji's grandmom) in a residential neighborhood, where it quietly drives up the property values ALL DAY LONG. No one was on the street that morning, so no one saw the single tear roll down my cheek as I stood there and contemplated the career of Benjamin Harrison in all its glory.
Once I had composed myself, I decided to revisit William's tomb; they put in a new parking area since 2006, which made this visit all the more special. Other than that, no real changes to report. He's still dead.
Home: Benjamin Harrison Presidential Site, Indianapolis, Indiana
Visited August 23, 2005.
The most fun you can have in Indianapolis, guaranteed.
A historic re-enactment of the front porch campaign.
All great stories have to begin somewhere. Benjamin Harrison's started ... not in Indianapolis. He was an Ohio boy.
But my presidential story started with Benjamin Harrison. I was in Indianapolis, working at a comedy club downtown, and I had nothing to do during the day. Fellow comedian (and Indianapolis resident) John Garrett was up for some recreational learning. And so we checked out the Benjamin Harrison Home, not far from John's apartment and not swamped by rabid, history-loving crowds. We were the only people on the tour, we had a good time, and I wrote a few notes about it on my blog. I had been to a few presidential sites before -- Mount Vernon, Monticello -- but this was the one that somehow launched a hobby.
I couldn't say why. But why not Benjamin Harrison?
Rags-to-riches stories are just fine, but what about riches-to-richer? What about the chumps who have to live up to generations of ridiculous standards? Benjamin Harrison's great grandfather signed the Declaration of Independence, his grandfather was a war hero and U.S. president, and his dad was a U.S. Representative. You think you feel pressure to take over the plumbing supply business from your dad; Benjamin Harrison was on the next level.
But Harrison did alright for himself. He was born in North Bend, Ohio, went to Miami University and became a lawyer. And not just any lawyer -- in the professional sense, he's sometimes ranked as the best lawyer among U.S. Presidents (he argued a case before the Supreme Court after leaving office, in fact). When war broke out, he channeled the spirit of his grandpa and recruited 1,000 troops to form the 70th Indiana, because that's what you did back then. Even if you had a great job or a happy family, you just dropped everything and signed up for the army. And you grew a beard. It was the law.
Before the war was over he was a brigadier general, and after the war he went back to lawyering. He was chosen for the Senate in 1881 -- this was back when state legislatures picked senators -- and in 1888 he was a compromise candidate for the Republicans. He was a safe, inoffensive choice to run against President Grover Cleveland. He somehow won.
And then, staying true to form, he did nothing all that interesting in office. Harrison lost his bid for a second term, defeated by a resurgent Cleveland; the campaign was also a muted affair because Harrison's wife died in the middle of it. He went back to being a lawyer.
It's all very impressive. It's also very boring on paper, and that's why he'll mostly be remembered as the creamy Republican filling of the Grover Cleveland era. But if you're in Indianapolis, swing by his house. At the time I visited, they had tours led by costumed docents, armed with funny trivia. The home has a bunch of original decorations and Harrison memorabilia. Visit, and think long and hard about how there's a little Benjamin Harrison in all of us. There's not really, but if you're in Indianapolis, you'll probably be looking for ways to kill time.
Grave: Crown Hill Cemetery, Indianapolis, Indiana
Visited in 2008.
Benjy, the deceased. He's resting on a hillside in Indiana.
He has a middling reputation, considering he was a publicist.
This one is more for my cool Nordic ski cap thing. I miss it.
Bonus grave marker!
Indianapolis, like most major American cities, has its fair share of dead people, and the creme de la dead people are in Crown Hill cemetery. It's a sprawling urban greenspace that boasts the final resting place of three U.S. vice presidents, a bunch of Indianapolis governors, gangster John Dillinger, jazz trombone legend J.J. Johnson and inventor Eli Lilly.
And let's not forget Indiana's favorite son. Not David Letterman, who as of this posting is still alive. I am talking about another great bearded American: Benjamin Harrison.
Harrison is on a hillside at Crown Hill, in a fairly modest plot with a fairly modest marker. He's buried with both of his wives. (Don't worry, the first one died before he married the second. Harrison was cool but he wan't THAT cool.) He was done in by the flu in 1901, and he passed away in his Indianapolis home, not far from the cemetery.
You'll note that "president" doesn't get top billing on his grave marker. Instead, he is described as a "lawyer and publicist." Publicist meant something different in the 19th century, but I think we can all agree that someone should make a historical sitcom where Benjamin Harrison tries to do damage control after his celebrity clients wake up next to prostitutes who died of an opium overdose.