The Unexplained: Was it a medical assassination?

Zachary Taylor, war hero and American President. Who wanted to see him dead?

The man who had been president for only sixteen months went steadily downhill and died within five days, telling his wife he was ready to go.

On June 17, 1991, a somber group of researchers assembled at a tomb in a Louisville, Kentucky, cemetery.  They were there to remove a man’s remains and conduct tests.  There had been some nagging questions for over a century and a half from a few interested people.  What was the cause of death?  Was it gastroenteritis or poisoning by the hands of others?

The person in question had been of robust health.  He was not a likely candidate for death.

In fact, right before he became ill in July of 1850, he had been an important attendee at the groundbreaking ceremony of the Washington Monument.  The man was Zachary Taylor, the twelfth President of the United States.

Who would want this man dead?  There lies the mystery.  Did anyone wish to see him gone?  Like many politicians, he was bound to have made some enemies.  Speculation had grown over the years that Southern politicians could have had an agenda.  Zachary Taylor opposed extending slavery to the Western territories.

The groundbreaking ceremony for the Washington monument took place during the fanfare of the Fourth of July celebrations.  That particular day in Washington was marked by a blanket of oppressive heat and humidity.

Sara Marie Hogg

The sixty-five-year-old president decided to take some cooling refreshments.  Would lemonade have been a better choice—maybe chilled tea and biscuits?  Zachary Taylor had a refreshing break of a bowl of cherries and a pitcher of iced milk.  Who prepared it?  Who served it?  No one knows.

When he returned to the White House, he was consumed by thirst and downed several glasses of water.

Taylor began suffering from severe stomach cramps and ate only slivered ice.  He seemed to get better for a day.  He wrote some letters and signed some bills.  Then, when he took a slight turn for the worse, his physician, aided by another so-called doctor, began administering all kinds of medicines and even performed some bleedings.

The man who had been president for only sixteen months went steadily downhill and died within five days of onset.  He expired on July 9th after telling his wife he was ready to go.

Zachary Taylor had returned a hero from the Mexican-American War.  He had taken on Santa Anna at Buena Vista.  His largely outnumbered force had won.  He earned his nickname of Old Rough and Ready and became popular.  He had also served in the Black Hawk War.  His patriotism to America was apparent.

Zachary Taylor had been against some of the pressing items before Congress and had been stalling on them.  There was no connection seen at the time of his death.  His death was seen as a huge and tragic accident to most.  They tacked on terms like cholera morbus, gastroenteritis.  This was not unknown during the 1850s because of sanitary conditions at the time.

Taylor’s vice-president, Millard Fillmore was sworn in with haste.  How could a president and his vice president be so different?  Fillmore was swift to propose and pass all of the controversial matters before Congress that Taylor had tried to prevent.  Does this seem a bit fishy?  Most of it was matters dealing with the expansion of slavery.  The country was in boiling turmoil during the years before the Civil War.

Years later, a novelist noticed that Zachary Taylor’s illness had many of the signs of arsenic poisoning.  It is not too far a stretch of the imagination to wonder if supporters of Millard Fillmore had arranged to get him into office.  Or perhaps some Southern sympathizers wished to get Taylor out of the way.

Enough logical questions were put forth for the writer to be granted approval to have the body of Taylor exhumed in 1991 and have it tested for arsenic.

Guess what.  There was arsenic in the remains, but it was a fraction of a fatal amount.  It was an average amount that could have been found in a body from sources other than by human intervention, at that time.

Historian Samuel Eliot Morrison wrote that Zachary Taylor died of a combination of official scandals, Washington heat, and doctors.

He was convinced Taylor would not have died if he had not gone to a doctor.  Morrison said that the physician was assisted by a Baltimore quack that gave him ipecac, calomel, opium, and quinine – a 40-gram dose. Was it medical assassination, Morrison quipped.

To me, and perhaps some others, there is still room for the possibility of some nefarious activity on the part of some unknown persons.  There are other ways to taint food besides arsenic, many not detectable over a hundred and fifty years later.  To me, it is still a question mark—especially when politics are involved.

Sara Marie Hogg is the author of Curious, Indeed, a collection of true stories about the bizarre and unexplained. Please click HERE to find the book on Amazon.

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