To commemorate the death of James Knox Polk on 15th June, 1849
- Anson and Fanny Nelson, two friends of Polk's widow who visited her
every week, published the book "Memorials of Sarah Childress Polk" in
1892. The following quote with an excerpt of a newspaper article on
Polk's death is taken from it.
* * * * *
A Nashville correspondent of the " New York Herald " gave a detailed
description of the closing scenes, from which the following extract
Mr. Polk sent for the Rev. Dr. Edgar of the Presbyterian Church,
desiring to be baptized by him. He said, ' Sir, if I had suspected
twenty years ago that I should come to my death-bed unprepared, it
would have made me a wretched man; yet I am about to die and have not
made preparation. Tell me, sir, can there be any ground for a man
thus situated to hope?'
The minister made known to him the assurances and promises of the
gospel that mercifully run parallel with man's life. Mr. Polk evinced
much knowledge of the Scriptures, which he said he had read a great
deal, and deeply reverenced as divine truth. The conversation
fatiguing him too much, the baptism was postponed till the next
In the interval, he recollected that when he was Governor and lived
here, he used to hold many arguments with the Rev. Mr. McFerrin, a
talented Methodist minister; and that he had promised him that when
he did embrace Christianity, he, Mr. McFerrin, should baptize him. He
therefore sent for Dr. Edgar, made known this obligation, and
expressed his intention to be baptized by the Methodist minister.
The same day the venerable Mrs. Polk, his mother, a pious
Presbyterian lady, arrived from her residence forty miles distant,
accompanied by her own pastor, hoping that her son would consent to
be baptized by him. ' Mother,' said Mr. Polk, ' I have never
disobeyed you, but you must yield to your son now, and gratify my
wishes.' His wise mother did not hesitate to give her consent; and in
the presence of Dr. Edgar, and the Rev. Mr. Mack, of Columbia, he
received the rite of baptism at the hands of Mr. McFerrin.
He continued gradually to sink, and at twenty minutes before five
o'clock, on the afternoon of the isth of June, he passed away without
a struggle, simply ceasing to breathe. He was in his fifty-fourth
year. About half an hour before his death his venerable mother
entered the room, and kneeling by his bedside, offered up a beautiful
prayer to the King of Kings and Lord of Lords, committing the soul of
her son into His holy keeping.
The body lies in state to-day. The drawing-rooms are shrouded in
black; every window is in mourning with black scarfs of crape; the
two pillars before the south entrance, and the tall columns of the
portico facing the east, are wound with black cloth. Before the
funeral, Masonic ceremonies will be performed in the drawing-room
over the body. Death has irnpressed the features with the seal of
majesty. A plain silver plate upon the coffin bears his name, and the
dates of his birth and death."
- Several entries in James Polk's diary suggest that he was prepared for an untimely demise. I've often wondered whether he did not feel like a person who is designed to fulfil some task on earth and leave the stage shortly after it is achieved - although he utters thoughts about what to do in case of surviving his much younger wife.
On 18th February, 1849 Polk had written his last will and testament, which was signed and sealed ten days later. In Mark E. Byrnes' book "James K. Polk, a biographical companion" I found this testament printed and give the last part, containing the direction in regard of the emancipation of his slaves.
I devise, bequeath and give to my beloved wife, Sarah Polk, and her heirs forever, all the balance of my estate, not hereinbefore disposed of, wheresoever situated, including all my lands and real estate, all my servants and personal property of any description, in the States of Tennessee and Mississippi or elsewhere, and including also money and debts and securities, which may be due or owing to me, or held by me. I have entire confidence that my beloved wife, Sarah Polk, who has been constantly identified with me in all her sympathies and affections, through all the vicissitudes of my public and private life for more than twenty-five years, and who by her prudence, care and economy has aided and assisted me in acquiring and preserving the property which I own, will at her death make a proper and just disposition of what property she may then possess, between her relations and mine. This is left entirely to her sole discretion, but with a request, if she shall deem it proper, that it may be distributed as equally as practicable, between such of her blood relations and my blood relations, whether they be the nearest of kin or not, as she may select and deem to be the most worthy recipients of it. Should I survive her, unless influenced by circumstances which I do not now foresee, it is my intention to emancipate all my slaves, and I have full confidence, that if at her death she shall deem it proper, she will emancipate them.
I do hereby nominate, constitute and appoint my beloved wife, Sarah Polk, Executrix, and my faithful and trusty friends, John Catron and Daniel Graham Executors of this my last will and testament.
In witness whereof I have hereunto subscribed my name and affixed my seal this twenty-eighth day of February in the year of Our Lord, one thousand, eight hundred and forty nine.
(Signed) James K. Polk (Seal)
Signed, sealed and delivered by the testator in our presence, and in the
presence of each other, as his last will and testament, and witnessed by us at his request.
James H. Thomas
H. L. Turney
Cave Johnson we all know as one of Polk's best friends. James H. Thomas was the representative of Polk's electoral district, when he was a representative himself and Hopkins L. Turney the Democratic Senator of Tennessee, elected in 1845