Here is the latest in a series of examinations into urban legends about toys and whether they are true or false.
TOY URBAN LEGEND: John Tyler was playing marbles when he was informed that President Harrison had died and Tyler was now President.
Marbles have been a popular game for centuries, possibly even in the time of Ancient Egypt (marbles existed back then, but I am unsure if they were used as a game – I know by the time of the Roman Empire, the game of marbles existed).
Marbles were little glass balls (nowadays ceramic marbles are used) that were used to play a game (in the most popular version of marbles, known as “ringer) that involved drawing a circle in sand and then players would take turns knocking other players’ marbles out of the circle with their own marble.
But how does this involve John Tyler?
John Tyler was the running mate for William Henry Harrison in the famous 1840 United States Presidential Election that involved the famous “Tippecanoe and Tyler, too” slogan (Harrison was known as a war hero of the Battle of Tippecanoe, where U.S. forces in the Indiana Territory under the leadership of Harrison launched a pre-emptive strike on the American Indian Indian confederation led by Tecumseh – Harrison’s forces were victorious, although the highly outnumbered Tecumseh’s group). The pair were elected, defeating incumbent President Martin Van Buren (only the third sitting President to be defeated in a general election).
Tyler instantly became a major part of United States history when, after just a month in office, President William Henry Harrison died of pneumonia. For the first time in U.S. history, a sitting President was dead. Unlike today, the country was not exactly sure how to proceed, as the Constitution only says:
In Case of the Removal of the President from Office, or of his Death, Resignation, or Inability to discharge the Powers and Duties of the said Office, the same shall devolve on the Vice President.
So the question was – do just the DUTIES devolve to the Vice-President, or does the Vice-President BECOME the President?
Ultimately, it was the latter, but for a period in time, there was actual uncertainty as to what would happen with the Presidency.
In any event, a popular legend involving John Tyler is what he was doing when he was notified that Harrison was dead.
Just from a sampling of the internet…
Tyler was playing marbles when he learned that he was to be President.
He was on his knees playing marbles when informed that he had become president upon the death of Harrison.
So, is it true?
Most likely, no, it is not.
Edward Crapol, most likely the world’s leading expert on John Tyler, pretty much debunks the legend in his recent biography on Tyler.
Another tale about that momentous day, delightful for its rustic simplicity and republican innocence, had the fifty-one-year-old aristocratic Virginian playing marbles with his sons in front of his home when the young Webster (the son of the Secretary of State who notified Tyler of Harrison’s death) arrived from Washington.
Tyler initially may have been startled by the dispatch from Harrison’s cabinet announcing the president’s death, but surely the marbles tale is apocryphal. It surfaced decades later in the early twentieth century, long after the principal parties involved had died, in a breezy and unreliable collection of personal reminiscences about former presidents.
That’s Crapol’s take, which I think in and of itself is pretty convincing.
However, on top of that, the United State Senate’s official history of Tyler also has the notification taking place at dawn (which is where most other historical records has it taking place).
On top of THAT, here is a cartoon from 1888 depicting Tyler’s notification of Harrison’s death.
As you can see, as Carpol notes, the marbles story was not even part of the popular knowledge during the 19th Century.
So since no one has ever seen a source for the marbles story, all other records say otherwise, and, as Carpol notes, it just plain ol’ doesn’t seem likely, I’m going with it being a false story introduced to add some color to Tyler’s history.
The legend is…
STATUS: I’m Going With False
Thanks, of course, to Edward Crapol and his book, John Tyler, the Accidental President. Click on the link to purchase it!
Feel free (heck, I implore you!) to write in with your suggestions for future urban legends columns! My e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org