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Morbid Curiosities 

The Historical Society explores a dead President's lesser-known pastimes.

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A horoscope President James A. Garfield received in 1880, about a year before his death, contained these prophetic words: "There are implications that, about four months into your inauguration, you will meet with a serious personal calamity. For a long time, your life will be in serious peril." President Garfield was shot a year later, remained in critical condition for more than two months, and eventually died.

It couldn't have happened to a weirder president. "He was really into phrenology, or studying bumps on the head," explains Allison Sharaba, operations manager for the Western Reserve Historical Society. Along with some others of his day, Garfield believed that a person's character and mental capacity could be ascertained by fondling the cranium. The unusual interests of our 20th President are among the stories that will be shared Saturday at Ghosts of the White House, a presentation of the Western Reserve Historical Society about White House legends and uncanny facts. Don't be fooled by the program's title, Sharaba says. The accompanying tour of Garfield's mansion is not a ghostbusting endeavor. "We're not saying that Lawnfield is haunted," she says.

It should be a chilling afternoon nonetheless. The event features dramatic, somewhat bizarre re-creations of Garfield and his wife discussing phrenology. A real live funeral director discusses the origin of the wake, the differences between coffins and caskets, and the roots of the term "dead ringer." And the director's wife sheds light on Victorian mourning customs. There will also be a horse-drawn funeral coach from the 1880s, which is still occasionally used for services.

Other period tales stray from presidential weirdness. Like the yarn about Dan Sickles, a Civil War officer whose leg was amputated below the knee after an encounter with an airborne cannonball. Sickles survived the injury and preserved his severed leg in a whiskey barrel. The limb, fortunately, will not be on display Saturday.

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