The Last Word
A 122-year-old life insurance application offers a glimpse inside a former U.S. president’s family history and lifestyle habits.
- Lori Chordas
- November 2018
Just a few weeks after winning the Republican nomination for president, William McKinley applied to the New York Life Insurance Company for a $50,000 life insurance policy, worth about $1.5 million in today's dollars. It was July 30, 1896. Five years later, McKinley, the nation's 25th president and former governor of Ohio, was assassinated, six months into his second term. McKinley was shot by an anarchist while standing in a receiving line at the Pan-American Exposition in Buffalo, New York. He died eight days later from gangrene at the age of 58.
In August, the McKinley Presidential Library &Museum in Canton, Ohio, used funds raised from a GoFundMe campaign and local donors to purchase the application from Signaturist Ink, the document's owner, for $4,750. One of the major contributors was the museum's insurance agent, the Schauer Group.
The policy application, which was signed by McKinley and completed by his physician, is now on display at the museum—home to the world's largest repository of McKinley artifacts.
Although the original application is on display in the museum, it will soon be replaced by a digital copy to preserve the document from light and other damaging elements, said Kimberly Kenney, assistant director and curator at the museum.
Inside the application is a treasure trove of information about the former commander-in-chief's medical history and health habits.
Along with his health history, McKinley's application includes information about some of his personal habits. McKinley, for instance, said he never used tobacco or other drugs in excess.
Kenney disputes that claim. “We know from historical documents that he had a pretty serious cigar habit—anywhere from eight to 10 cigars a day,” she said. Without photographic evidence, however, that becomes harder to prove.
McKinley also claims to have never indulged in daily alcohol consumption. “We believe that claim to be more accurate,” Kenney said. “William McKinley was a very active member of the Methodist church. At that time the Methodist's Book of Discipline had a clause urging members to reject alcohol. The application proves that he followed that principle.”
The causes of death for McKinley's relatives are also listed on the application. Although it's difficult to decipher his physician's handwriting, “we believe his paternal grandparents died from malaria fever, within two hours from each other,” Kenney said. McKinley's maternal grandfather died from typhoid fever and his maternal grandmother's cause of death is listed as “old age” at 73.
Other questions about the application remain. “We assume the application was turned in and accepted, but we don't know that for a fact. Also, we don't know if his wife, Ida, was able to collect the $50,000 life policy,” Kenney said.
McKinley applied for the policy after he had received the presidential nomination from the Republican Party. “He may have realized his life was going to become more high-profile and there were some risks involved in that, which may be why he decided to take out the policy,” Kenney said. McKinley's assassination in 1901 came just 20 years after the assassination of President James Garfield.
U.S. presidents often have longer-than-average life expectancies.
Click here to see a copy of the original life insurance application.