The Strange Case of President Zachary Taylor

Zachary Taylor is not exactly a household name.  He served as President of the United States for just sixteen months, from March 4, 1849 to July 9, 1850.  He is best known for his service as a former general in the Mexican-American War as well as his rather long nickname (“Old Rough and Ready”).  So, why does he matter today?  Because 161 years after he died, rumors persist that his death was no accident.  In fact, many believe that President Zachary Taylor was assassinated.

President Zachary Taylor (1848)
Painted by Joseph Henry Bush
Source: Wikimedia Commons via The White House Historical Association

The Odd Death of Zachary Taylor

On July 4, 1850, President Taylor became overheated.  To alleviate his symptoms, he drank a pitcher of milk and ate both a bowl of cherries and several pickles.  Five days later, he died.  Almost immediately, rumors spread that he’d been poisoned.  However, for more than a century, historians blamed various ailments for his passing, including cholera, typhoid fever, and food poisoning.  Then, in the late 1980s, an author by the name of Professor Clara Rising decided to challenge established history.

The (Flawed) Exhumation?

Professor Rising theorized that unknown persons assassinated President Taylor via poison, specifically arsenic.  She convinced his distant relatives to exhume the body.  On June 17, 1991, his lead coffin was removed from the ground.  Soon after, Dr. George Nichols and Dr. William Maples discovered that Taylor’s remains were in remarkably good shape.  They proceeded to gather tissue samples.  Initial tests showed relatively high arsenic levels.  However, they were proclaimed too low to indicate a deliberate poisoning.

But the rumors didn’t end.  In 1999, Michael Parenti revisited the arsenic theory in his book History as Mystery and reported numerous flaws in the autopsy.  He also provided a convincing mass of circumstantial evidence that pointed to a poisoning.  For example, Zachary Taylor’s hair showed a suspicious amount of antimony, which is poisonous.  Also, the amount of arsenic revealed in a sectional analysis of his hair was similar to that of other poison victims.  And that’s just the tip of the iceberg.

Why would anyone assassinate Zachary Taylor?

One possible motive for assassination was the issue of slavery.  Although he owned slaves, President Taylor was considered a moderate on the issue.  As such, he didn’t support the Compromise of 1850, which required the return of runaway slaves.  Henry Clay, the bill’s author, attacked Taylor within the Senate.  Threats of secession rang out across the nation.  In response, Zachary Taylor threatened military action against the “traitors”.  Civil war seemed like a near certainty.  But President Taylor’s death paved the way for a temporary peace.  Also, it enabled Millard Fillmore, a known supporter of the Compromise, to take office.  Fillmore later passed a revised version of the Act.

Guerrilla Explorer’s Analysis

President Taylor doesn’t seem all that important today.  However, if it weren’t for that fateful July 4, the name Zachary Taylor might have been etched indelibly into Civil War history, rather than that of Abraham Lincoln.  Evidence for an assassination is credible.  Also, numerous pro-slavery advocates, including many powerful ones, had strong motives to kill President Taylor.  Historical detectives need to revisit this case.  When they do, it’s quite possible that they’ll find that the first assassination in American history wasn’t of Abraham Lincoln but rather, of a little-known military hero named Zachary Taylor.

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