Louis Picone has met two former United States presidents and countless presidential candidates, but he has had far more interesting experiences thanks to commanders-in-chief who are no longer living.
The Hamilton native has been across the country and around the world thanks to an interest in presidential history that has morphed into something of a second career. An IT professional during the day, Picone has written two books on presidents. The first, Where The Presidents Were Born, hit shelves in 2012. The second, entitled The President Is Dead!, was published by Skyhorse Publishing in New York in August 2016. He has started work on two more books: one about presidents and sports, the other about the tomb of Ulysses S. Grant.
His writing has taken him to all 50 states, as well as earned him an invitation to speak at the June 2016 U.S. Presidents and Russian Rulers conference at the Russian Academy of Sciences in Moscow. A wealthy Russian had picked up Picone’s first book while visiting the U.S., and enjoyed it so much that he remembered Picone when he organized the conference.
Picone wound up on a guest list full of academics from Harvard and Yale, an experience he likened to being called to play baseball for the New York Yankees.
Picone, 46, grew up in Hamilton Square, where he lived until 1993. He attended Alexander Elementary School and Reynolds Middle School in the township, before heading off to Notre Dame High School as a member of the Class of 1988.
Picone credits his teachers in the Hamilton Township School District for laying the groundwork for his love of research and writing. He, in particular, remembers the guidance of his 4th grade teacher at Alexander, J. Graham McCabe, who died in 2006. Picone said McCabe taught him how to play chess, and also allowed him and a few other students to write “books” when they finished their classwork. At the time, Picone loved to write about animals, and he took joy from the endeavor even though his books only consisted of a string of facts he pulled from encyclopedias.
“I remember being very proud of one I did about the hippopotamus,” Picone said. “I forgot about that for many years, but I was reminded of it as I did my research on presidents, so I always make sure to thank Mr. McCabe for encouraging us to use our free time to do something productive.”
The other positive influence came from his parents, Ralph and Marie. Ralph worked for the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s food stamp program, while Marie stayed at home with their four children: Rosemarie, Ralph, Louis and Joseph. The family would take trips together, often working in an educational angle.
“My family has always been into history,” Picone said. “Any trip we took, we would always fit in a historic site.”
About 10 years ago, Picone’s childhood interest in history turned into a full-fledged obsession. In lieu of gifts for birthdays and holidays, he started taking his parents on trips to National Park Service historic sites. Picone took note on a trip to George Washington’s birthplace in Virginia that the location had an interesting backstory of its own.
This was the seed for Picone’s first book. But it wasn’t later, until a road trip to a Beatles festival in Louisville, Kentucky, that Picone had the idea to research presidential birthplaces. On that trip, en route to Kentucky, Picone and his companions decided to stop at the birthplace of all seven presidents who were born in Ohio.
It was harder task to complete than imagined. Some of the structures no longer existed and little information was available about them. Warren G. Harding’s birthplace, for example, had been leveled, and a small sign on a grassy lot was the only indication that a president had been born there.
Once Picone started researching the birthplaces, he found each one had interesting stories that did not jive with the minimal recognition some of the locations have received. He visited places, such as the house where Abraham Lincoln was born, and thought, “What happened here between this president’s birth and today?” The answer to that question wound up being too compelling not to share.
So, Picone began writing his first book in secret. Not even his wife, Francesca, knew about it until Picone had been working on the project for a few months, and had completed half the book.
Picone’s sister, Rosemarie Flood, edited the finished product. Picone then sent manuscripts to 15 publishers before finding a taker in Schiffer Publishing, an independent publisher out of Atglen, Pennsylvania. At the same time, he began to take seriously jokes his friends made about writing a death-centric follow-up to his book about births.
The idea wasn’t so far-fetched. In fact, while doing the research about presidential births, he had found a lot of good information about the lives and deaths of presidents, as well. Picone’s research on presidential deaths dug up more than just the where and when of the expiring, and curious tidbits kept arising, evolving the focus of the book as Picone wrote it.
The circumstances surrounding the sudden death of Warren Harding has captured the imaginations of modern-day historians and conspiracy theorists, but Picone learned that journalists had the same thoughts and questions just a day after Harding died. Abraham Lincoln had nearly every doctor in Washington, D.C. attending to him after he was shot by John Wilkes Booth—not to help the already-dead president, but to be able to claim they had treated the 16th president. A number of presidents passed through Mercer County in the days immediately before or after their deaths, including Lincoln and James A. Garfield. One, Grover Cleveland, lived in Princeton, and is buried under a nondescript marker in the Princeton Cemetery on Witherspoon Street.
For both books, Picone did some research online, using archives of old newspaper articles. But he preferred to discover the stories in person, at sites important to that president’s birth and death. He also used archives at the various sites for information. To learn more about William Henry Harrison, Picone interviewed the person who maintains the 9th president’s grave site. Picone estimates he has put 10,000 miles on his car traveling for research for his books.
A number of presidents passed through Mercer County immediately before or after their deaths.
He receives plenty of assistance from his family. Picone’s younger brother, Joseph, has lent a hand by visiting sites, doing research and taking pictures. Picone also often brings along family on his trips. He and his father, Ralph, took a trip to the 2015 Iowa State Fair to meet the 2016 candidates for president. Picone met nearly all of them—except for President Donald Trump, who failed to show up for a scheduled appearance next to a giant butter sculpture of a cow. The Picones waited for several hours before Ralph tired of waiting and wandered away, only to walk straight into Trump riding in a golf cart. The elder Picone nabbed a handshake from the 45th president.
Picone’s wife Francesca, the daughter of realist painter Mel Leipzig, uses her background as a photographer and graphic designer to help with the books—she took the author photograph Picone used on the dust cover of “The President Is Dead!” In the photo, Picone sits in front of a painting Leipzig did of him.
Their children, 13-year-old Vincent and 9-year-old Leonardo, have absorbed their father’s enthusiasm. Leonardo even owns a Lincoln costume, and likes to dress up as Honest Abe from time to time.
One spring break, they drove to Tennessee, and wound up taking a detour through Indianapolis, Indiana, to see the Benjamin Harrison House. This year, the family plans to fly to Los Angeles, rent a car, visit the presidential libraries of Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan in Southern California and then drive back home to Succasunna, in Morris County, hitting sites along the way.
“I might need to bribe them sometimes,” Picone said. “But they’ve been great travel companions. I’m thinking, ‘They’re just going along with it.’ But we leave the tour, and they’re asking questions that show they’re really engaged.”
Of course, this may be because Picone has provided his children with experiences few Americans can claim. The family spent Easter 2012 in Jimmy Carter’s hometown of Plains, Georgia, and wound up running into the former president and his wife, Rosalynn, during Easter Sunday services. After church, the Picones went up to say hello to Carter, as the rest of the congregation exited by wishing “Mr. Jimmy” a happy Easter. Picone spent about five minutes speaking with Carter, who took interest in Picone’s work researching the presidential birthplaces. After the book was published, Picone sent him a copy, along with two photos of the Picones with the Carters. Two weeks later, Picone received one of the photos back, marked with well-wishes from the Carters.
Picone’s other experience with a living president went somewhat differently. During a trip to Bill Clinton’s presidential library in Little Rock, Arkansas, Picone happened to walk into the building as the 42nd president was exiting. Picone shook Clinton’s hand, but didn’t have time to snap a photo. Later, Picone emailed the staff of the library with a picture of himself, and asked if they could send him a still from the library’s security footage that showed Picone shaking Clinton’s hand. He never heard back.
“But I am sure I ended up on some sort of watch list,” Picone said.