Skip to main content
A red rose lying on JFK's grave

JFK and the US presidents who died in office 

Image: TJ Brown /

To mark the 60th anniversary of his assassination, Kennedy explores the life and legacy of John F. Kennedy, the 35th President of the United States. This series takes an intimate look at JFK's early years, his time in World War II, his journey onto the political scene and the dramatic twists and turns of his presidency. Kennedy starts Tuesday, 28th November on Sky HISTORY.

John F. Kennedy is possibly the most universally recognised US President who died in office due to the shocking nature of his assassination in 1963. But did you know several other presidents passed away during their tenure?

1. William Henry Harrison - 4 April 1841

William Harrison stands out as having the shortest presidency which lasted just 31 days. The slave owner, whose actions as a military commander during the War of 1812 defeated Native American coalitions, was the first US President to die while in office after succumbing to pneumonia.

His unexpected demise was the result of taking a morning walk without a coat and getting caught in a rainstorm. Despite various treatments, such as applying mustard plaster to his stomach as well as taking laxatives, laudanum, opium and concoctions of wine and brandy, the 68-year-old passed away after becoming delirious.

2. Abraham Lincoln - 15 April 1865

The 16th president of the US, Abraham Lincoln was the first to be assassinated while in office. He was shot on 15 April 1865, while watching a play at Ford’s Theatre in Washington, DC.

Lincoln, famous as a campaigning slave abolitionist, was regarded as a war hero for his efforts in preserving the Union during the Civil War. His assassin, John Wilkes Booth, was a Confederate sympathiser but also known to the public as a stage actor.

Shot at point-blank range in the back of the head in front of his wife, Lincoln died the next day after having been in a coma for eight hours.

3. James Garfield - 19 September 1881

James Garfield was a self-made politician known for his efforts to tackle political corruption and champion the rights of African Americans. He became the 20th president after nine terms in the US House of Representatives, but only got to serve 200 days.

Garfield was murdered while intending to leave Washington by train for a cooler climate. A staunch believer in universal education and civil rights advocator, the president was shot at the Baltimore & Potomac Railroad Passenger Terminal by Charles J Guiteau, an embittered attorney who lay in wait by hiding by the lady’s cloakroom. Guiteau believed the president had denied him a consular post in Paris.

Once Garfield was exposed on the platform, Guiteau fired a revolver hitting the president once in the arm and the back. Wounded, Garfield survived for weeks but died of sepsis after doctors probed his body with unsterilised hands while trying to locate the bullet.

4. William McKinley - 14 September 1901

William McKinley was 58 years old when he was killed by an assassin. The one-time governor of Ohio made few strides to uphold civil rights while serving as president but was a keen advocator for high taxes believing that they would restore prosperity. Despite not making the lynching of African Americans an official crime, he did include two African Americans on his inauguration committee.

McKinley was the third president to be assassinated when he was shot at the Pan-American Exhibition in Buffalo by an anarchist who fired two bullets at him.

5. Warren Gamaliel Harding - 2 August 1923

A member of the Republican party, the 29th president of the United States was one of the most popular with citizens due to his relatable background as a working man in his younger years. Warren Kinley is also viewed by some historians as having had little impact due to him seeing the role of president as largely ceremonial. Known for his lack of decisiveness and avoiding issues, he is credited with holding progressive views on race.

However, like previous Republican presidents, he failed to adopt anti-lynching legislation and curtailed immigration to the US. His marriage was unconventional due to his wife’s previous marriage to a man she had a child with and later divorced. Harding died from a heart attack that was exacerbated by pneumonia. He died while his wife was reading a complimentary review about him.

6. John F. Kennedy - 22 November 1963

The charismatic US president is associated with one of the most reported and examined assassinations in history. John F Kennedy was the 35th president of the United States, a Roman Catholic and the youngest president when he was sworn in office on 20 April 1961. He oversaw one of the most tumultuous periods in world history, including the Vietnam War, conflict with the Soviet Union, the civil rights movement, and the threat of nuclear catastrophe after the ‘Bay of Pigs’ crisis in Cuba.

Revered as a liberal and a symbol of modernity in American politics, the handsome cultural icon was barely past his third year in office when he was infamously assassinated while touring in a motorcade in Dallas, Texas. It was the first assassination of a president to be recorded by domestic cameras.

Kennedy was shot twice, once in the back and head and died thirty minutes later. The alleged assassin, Lee Harvey Oswald, said to be the lone sniper, was himself shot and killed by nightclub owner Jack Ruby before Harvey could be tried.