CINCINNATI -- Before the presidents Bush, there were the Harrisons: the ninth elected leader of the United States, William Henry Harrison and his grandson, the 23rd president, Benjamin Harrison.
William Henry, a Native American fighter, a frontiersman and the founder of North Bend, Ohio, was best known for being elected president under the campaign slogan “Tippencanoe and Tyler Too” and dying after just one month in office.
William Henry's grandson, a more citified and quiet man known affectionately as “Little Ben,” was a Cincinnati native, lawyer and statesman whose legacy lives on in his hometown of Indianapolis but is mostly forgotten elsewhere.
Their stories are well-documented in countless history books and on websites that millions can access. The stories of their respective fathers -- Benjamin Harrison V and John Scott Harrison -- rarely are told.
Here are their stories:
Big man with big ideas
Benjamin Harrison V (1726-1791) was a Virginia plantation and slave owner. Accounts say the big man had an equally large personality that intrigued some of his fellow Founding Fathers, such as George Washington, but irritated others, John Adams among them.
While preparing to be the 19th Founding Father to sign the Declaration of Independence, Harrison had this to say to the man standing next to him -- the future vice president under James Madison -- Elbridge Gerry:
“I shall have a great advantage over you, Mr. Gerry, when we are all hung for what we are now doing. From the size and weight of my body I shall die in a few minutes and be with the angels, but from the lightness of your body you will dance in the air an hour or two before you are dead.”
Benjamin V’s family came from England to Virginia in the 1630s. His father and two of his nine siblings were killed by a lightning strike when Benjamin V was 19. The tragedy influenced his choice to discontinue his education at the College of William and Mary in Williamsburg.
Benjamin V inherited the bulk of his father’s estate and headed up the family’s Berkeley Plantation for the rest of his life.
Harrison's wife was Englishwoman Elizabeth Bassett. They had seven children, William Henry (1773-1841) being the youngest. He sent William Henry off to college to study medicine but died before witnessing any of his son’s many adventures out West and major accomplishments in pubic office.
At age 32, Benjamin V was elected to the Virginia House of Burgesses, where he served two split terms (1756-58, 1785-86). He was among the first to protest English taxation of imported goods in 1770 and condemned the Intolerable Acts inflicted on the colonies by King George III in 1774. That same year, Benjamin V was one of seven Virginians selected to serve in the first Continental Congress.
He shared a house with George Washington while living in Philadelphia during the second Continental Congress in 1775 and signed the Declaration of Independence there in 1776.
Benjamin V left Congress in 1777 and returned to Virginia, where he served as governor from 1781 to 1784. A staunch opponent of centralized government, he refused to sign the Constitution in 1788 because it lacked a Bill of Rights.
Benjamin Harrison V died in his home following a dinner party in 1791 and was buried at Berkeley Plantation, the beloved home he rebuilt after it was ransacked and partially burned by turncoat Benedict Arnold in 1781. A review of Howard W. Smith’s 1978 biography of Benjamin V described him as having been “one of Virginia’s more neglected Revolutionary sons.”
Ghoulish goings-on in Cincinnati
One might think being the only American whose father and son served as president of the United States would be what history buffs would remember most about two-term Cincinnati Congressman John Scott Harrison. That would be true if it weren’t for a little body snatching incident in late May 1878.
John Scott (1804-1878) was born to William Henry and Anna Symmes Harrison while they were living in Vincennes, Indiana. He studied medicine as a young man and served on the Cincinnati College board of trustees at age 20, but later on he switched to farming on his father’s North Bend spread.
John Scott’s first wife, Lucretia Johnson, bore him three children but died at age 25. He married Elizabeth Irwin in a year after his first wife's death, and the couple added 10 children to the family over the next 18 years.
The Whig Party called on John Scott to run for Congress, and he won a seat in 1852. He switched to the Opposition Party in 1853 and was re-elected, but he lost his campaign to return for a third term in 1856.
He sold the Harrison Family estate in 1871, keeping just six acres, which included the family cemetery of his father-in-law, land baron John Cleves Symmes, and the presidential tomb of his father.
When John Scott died at age 73 in 1878, he was considered to be a very old man and wore a long gray beard that was the fashion of the time. He was buried in one of the 24 vaults in the Harrison Tomb.
But not for long.
Within days of his May 25 death, John Scott’s body was found to be missing. His sons, among them future president Benjamin (1833-1901), coordinated a widespread search. Benjamin was there when John Scott’s body was found dangling in a pickling vat at Ohio Medical College, put there by mischievous medical students who planned to learn from it.
People criticized the lack of security at the Harrison Tomb. Some suggested the remains of John Scott and his father be moved to Spring Grove Cemetery. They weren’t.
Thirty-two years later in 1910, the spectacular body snatching story still resounded with American newspaper readers. To quash the many exaggerated descriptions of the Harrison boys finding their father’s corpse, a former Cincinnati reporter named Henry E. Krehbiel, who had been working across the street from the medical college on that awful day, gave The New York Times this quote he got from a tearful Benjamin Harrison:
“And out of the hole in the floor hanging by his neck, a hook under his ear, stark naked, with his gray beard and his hair shaved off, for he had already been on the table, came my father!”