William Henry Harrison, elected in 1840, is famous in American history for being the last president born a British subject. At 68, he was also the oldest president to be sworn in (before Ronald Reagan’s election in 1980). And, of course, he was the first US president to die in office, having served just 31 days from March 4, 1841, to April 4, 1841. That’s a short time at the helm, but in the Ming Dynasty, there was an emperor who trumps President Harrison for brevity of office.
On this date (August 28) in 1620, Zhu Changluo ascended the throne as the new Ming emperor, ushering in the Taichang era. Unfortunately, the era would be short-lived. Less than a month after his ascension, Zhu Changluo would be dead, having pooped himself to death under mysterious circumstances.
Zhu Changluo’s father, the Wanli Emperor, ruled China for 48 years, some more significant than others. In the last years of his reign, Wanli seemed to withdraw from court affairs and matters of state, in part due to the constant infighting and squabbles over his choice of heir.
In theory, choosing the heir for a Ming emperor should have been simple. The founding emperor of the Ming Dynasty, Zhu Yuanzhang, had decreed that the first son of the emperor (or, if he were deceased, his first son) would be the presumptive heir.* The problem was that the Wanli Emperor did not care much for his eldest son. Wanli was infatuated with the Lady Zheng, his favorite consort. Zhu Changluo was not a product of this union. He was born of another member of the palace harem — the Forbidden City version of a random hookup. All of his life he had to compete with his half-brother, Zhu Changxun, the son of Lady Zheng and Wanli.
When Wanli’s officials told him that Wanli had to accept Zhu Changluo as the heir, Wanli fumed and pouted and eventually went on strike…for nearly 15 years. Lady Zheng, not wanting to leave anything to chance, conspired to have Zhu Changluo assassinated in 1615. She escaped blame, but her co-conspirators among the palace eunuchs were executed for their role in the plot.
When Wanli died in 1620, it was Zhu Changluo, according to dynastic law, who took the throne. What happened next is a matter of debate. Lady Zheng, who outlived her paramour the Wanli Emperor, did not abandon her schemes for her son. According to one account, she bestowed on the new emperor a gift of eight beautiful and nubile maidens to try and drain Zhu Changluo’s essence. When that didn’t work, she seems to have tried a more direct approach.
According to unofficial histories, Zhang Changluo became unwell with severe indigestion and asked his officials for medicine. One of these officials, Li Kezhuo, gave the emperor two pills. The first seemed to cure the emperor, the second taken a little later did not. The next day, Zhu Changluo was found dead from a severe attack of diarrhea. The emperor had literally shat himself lifeless after only 28 days in power.
As bad as this was for Zhu Changluo, and it’s hard to imagine it ending worse, the result for the Ming Dynasty was nearly as disastrous.
Zhu Changluo’s heir and eldest son, Zhu Youxiao, was 15 at the time and may or may not have been developmentally disabled. Ruling as the Tianqi Emperor, Zhu Youxiao was a weak and ineffective monarch who allowed power at court to fall into the hands of eunuchs, especially the notorious Wei Zhongxian. Opposition to Wei’s usurpation of power would lead to a major political crisis which pitted the officials against the court and weakened the central government at a critical time for the dynasty. Li Kezhuo, who was blamed for prescribing some seriously bad drugs to the emperor, was nearly executed for his troubles. Eventually, Li was exiled to the frontier as punishment.
*It should be noted that this went sideways almost immediately. Zhu Yuanzhang’s first son, Zhu Biao, predeceased his father. When Zhu Yuanzhang died in 1398, the throne went to Zhu Biao’s first son, Zhu Yunwen. Zhu Yuangzhang’s fourth son, the formidable Prince of Yan, Zhu Di, had little patience for the rules of succession and refused to accept his nephew as the new ruler and did what any loving uncle would do in this situation and launched a coup in 1399. Zhu Yunwen’s reign ended when his palace caught on fire during his uncle’s assault on the imperial capital at Nanjing, and while no body was ever found, his reign as emperor had come to an end. His uncle, Zhu Di, moved the capital to Beijing and declared himself the emperor. As the Yongle Emperor, he became one of the most famous and energetic rulers of the Ming era, responsible for the construction of modern Beijing, rebuilding the Great Wall, and launching the Zheng He expeditions to Western Asia and Africa.