President Zachary Taylor died on July 9, 1850, five days after becoming ill at a Fourth of July celebration. He apparently overindulged on raw cherries and iced milk; his doctors cited the cause of death as “acute gastroenteritis.” Taylor’s body rested in Washington, D.C.’s Congressional Cemetery until three months later, when it was transported to a family plot in Louisville, Kentucky. At that point, the case of Taylor’s death seemed to be closed.
In the 1970s and ‘80s, however, theories that President Taylor had been poisoned became popular. The most persistent conspiracy theorist was Clara Rising, a humanities professor at the University of Florida who was researching a book on Taylor. Rising wondered how Taylor could have been so suddenly stricken with gastroenteritis when he was in otherwise good health for his age. (Taylor was sixty-five when he died.) She also speculated that powerful contemporaries of Taylor had motives to kill him. These included southern politicians surprised and angered by the slave owning Taylor’s reluctance to support the westward expansion of slavery; and Vice President Millard Fillmore, who stood to assume the presidency if Taylor died. “The suspicions are really in the history books,” Rising told The New York Times. “Right after his death, everything he had worked against came forward and was passed by both houses of Congress.”
Rising also argued that it was important to know if Taylor had been murdered, which would make him the nation’s first assassinated president. She convinced Taylor’s descendants that her theory of arsenic poisoning was plausible, and on June 17, 1991, officials of the Jefferson County Coroner’s Office exhumed President Taylor’s body from the family crypt. Rising and several of Taylor’s descendants observed as the crypt was opened and Taylor’s casket removed.
Expecting a cast iron coffin, technicians instead found a wooden one made of black walnut with a deteriorated lead liner. They originally planned to open the casket inside the crypt, take the hair and fingernail samples needed for arsenic tests, and immediately put the coffin back in place. Seeing the poor condition of the casket changed their minds, and they instead placed it into a large protective pouch and removed it to the coroner’s office. After taking the samples, they returned the casket to the crypt later the same day. The samples were transported to Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Tennessee for testing.
The results came two weeks later: trace amounts of arsenic were indeed found in President Taylor’s remains, but they were far too low to have contributed to his death. Arsenic readings that low are not abnormal in healthy adults and are not even close to lethal. President Zachary Taylor was not poisoned. “It is my opinion,” said Kentucky Medical Examiner George Nichols, “that Zachary Taylor died of one of a myriad of natural diseases which could have produced the symptoms of gastroenteritis.”
Iced milk and cherries did not kill the President, but probably irritated and complicated something already in his system. During Taylor’s time in Washington, the city was notoriously filthy and fetid. Open sewers were common. Those with the means to do so often fled the city during summer to avoid cholera, malaria, and other such diseases. It was likely one of these illnesses that caused the “acute gastroenteritis” cited by Taylor’s doctors.
Those doctors, by the way, did Taylor no favors. Records of the President’s treatment show that his medical team gave him opium and ipecac as well as bleeding and blistering treatments. They likely worsened, not improved, his condition, and for all we know Taylor might have recovered if simply left alone to heal. Nearly everyone now concedes that in 1881 President James A. Garfield died not from assassin’s bullets, but from shoddy medical care. Perhaps President Taylor should be thought of as having suffered the same fate.
So Zachary Taylor was not the first assassinated president. His presidency provides opportunities to expand our knowledge of mid-nineteenth century politics and the North-South sectional crisis. His death gives us reason to consider the evolution of American medical care and the glories of modern sanitation that most of us take for granted and rarely discuss among pleasant company. Exhuming Taylor’s body proved that he died of natural causes, not foul play. He was not the target of some treacherous conspiracy but rather a victim – like so many other Americans of his time – of medical practices and sanitary conditions reminiscent of the Middle Ages. The exhumation showed that the Taylor murder conspiracy, like most conspiracy theories, was simply a figment of someone’s overactive imagination.
Oh, and what of the book Clara Rising was researching when she began her quest to have Taylor’s body exhumed? She finished it in the early 1990s, but it generated no interest from publishers until 2007, when it appeared as The Taylor File: The Mysterious Death of a President. Based on what we now know from the exhumation Rising herself initiated, medical records, and about Washington, D.C.’s sanitary conditions in 1850, President Taylor’s death does not really seem mysterious at all.