James K. Polk

Stacy Conradt
Stacy Conradt / Stacy Conradt

Every time we so much as touch a toe out of state, I’ve put cemeteries on our travel itinerary. After realizing that there are a lot of taphophiles out there, I’m finally putting my archive of interesting tombstones to good use.

Library of Congress

James K. Polk may be one of history’s most underrated presidents—he got more done in four years than many presidents do with twice the time. Though his term was not without controversy, some of his accomplishments included opening the U.S. Naval Academy, the Smithsonian, and the Department of the Interior. He issued the first postage stamps. He re-established an independent treasury. He lowered taxes. He expanded the U.S. territory, including much of the southwest and the northwest. Despite his success, Polk swore that his first term would be his only term, and he was true to his word. When up for re-election in 1850, Polk kept his hat out of the ring.

Sadly, his refusal to run again may have led to his early demise. Polk embarked upon a victory/goodwill tour of the South upon his retirement from office, It’s believed that this tour is where he contracted cholera, which killed him 53 days after leaving the White House. He was just 54 years old. Though Polk was buried at the Nashville City Cemetery, he didn’t stay long—the following year, his tomb was completed on the grounds of his home, Polk Place. His body was moved. But even that wasn’t the end of it. When Sarah Polk joined her husband in death in 1891, she requested that the State of Tennessee maintain Polk Place. The State almost purchased it to renovate into the governor’s mansion, but in the end, Polk’s heirs sold the property to a developer. In 1893, James and Sarah Polk were moved to the grounds of the State Capitol in Nashville, and Polk Place was razed. It may be of some solace, however, that the State Capitol is only a couple of blocks from where Polk Place once was. But tell that to Polk—legend has it that he still roams the Capitol grounds, probably mad that he got stuck there to make way for some apartments.

(James K. Polk also happens to be the subject of one of my favorite They Might Be Giants songs:)

See all entries in our Grave Sightings serieshere.