The Strange Case of Zachary Taylor

With the return of The X-Files we at The NYRD have had some strange notions lately. Maybe the world is run by secret Illuminati bent on controlling our lives and dictating the fashion trends of our tinfoil hats, or then again maybe we are just succumbing to the very human need to see conspiracies where none exist. Either way we decided that it was time to delve into one of the biggest tinfoil hat theories in American history. It famously involves the assassination of a well know and beloved President of the United States who served during a time of crisis… You’ve guessed it, we’re talking about Zachary Taylor.

The First Presidential Assassination?
Zachary Taylor was only seventeen months into his first term as President when he died of what doctors concluded was stomach-related illness, but because we are humans and conspiracy theories are not a modern invention, there were all sorts of rumors that Taylor had been poisoned by arsenic, as his symptoms were very similiar to arsenic poisoning. So who would kill the President? Why might he have died? Wait, are we you talking about that kid on Home Improvement? We know you are asking yourself these questions and more. So in order to tackle your Tim Allen and non-Tim Allen related inquires we believe it is best to start at the beginning.

Taylor was an army man. He fought in the War of 1812, but won his fame during the Mexican-American War. He became a national hero, known for being a great leader and an inspiring man. The Whig Party eventually persuaded Taylor to capitalize on his popularity and run for President in 1848. By all appearances Zachary Taylor had no interest in politics or being President. He won because of his popularity as a war hero, but he spent most of his time ignoring Congress and avoiding his cabinet, like Todd when he refuses to put his dishes away after lunch. In a time when the United States was becoming increasingly polarized over the question of slavery, the lack of vocal and political support for slavery from the President -who himself was a slave owning Southerner- became increasingly frustrating for the South, maybe even enough to commit… dum dum dum… Murder.

Who Done it?
To further compound the problem for Southern slave owners when Taylor found motivation to be Presidential his policies seemed to favor abolitionists and anti-slavery proponents,  more and more. You see, Zachary Taylor did not support the idea of allowing the right to own slaves to expand into the western territories, a move which would eventually begin to erode the power of the pro-slavery voting block in Congress and the Senate. He also died a few weeks before he was set to veto several pro-slavery bills that had been presented to him by Congress. To add further credence to the conspiracy theory, Taylor’s death opened the door for Vice-President Millard Fillmore, a pro-slavery figure, who very promptly passed the Compromise of 1850 as one of his first acts in office. So is this all coincidence, or something more sinister?

One of the problems is that pinpointing who committed such crime has its own difficulties. Remember back in those days there was no such thing as the Secret Service or even the FBI. The White House was a government building and Mrs. Taylor often reported that she would find strange people wandering the halls and even in her own bedroom. The President of the United States was very accessible, as was the food he ate. Taylor contracted cholera morbus, a 19th century term that commonly meant, “We have no idea what killed him.” His sickness coincided with a long day of celebration and public meetings on the 4th of July in 1850, and the list of people he had contact that day with was a long one. Yet, that did not stop people from speculating, loudly and publically.

At the time of Zachary Taylor’s death, the Baltimore Sun really got into the conspiracy vibe of things. They were like the CNN of their day. In all fairness, the newspaper was not the only one putting forth the poisoning theory, but they did go so far as to name names. Prominently, The Sun suggested that the death could have been the work of two men, Robert Toombs and Alexander Hamilton Stephens. Both men were Georgia Congressmen and were called “Southern Ultrists,” at the time. It was reported that they threatened to vote for Taylor’s “censure,” if he did not support the South. In all fairness to the Sun, -they didn’t know it at the time- Toombs would eventually become the Confederacy’s Secretary of State and Stephens its Vice-President. So in retrospect, they may have been pretty “ultrist,” but the real question is, were they extreme enough to censure Taylor… dum dum dum… permanently?

The Verdict
Enter Clara Rising, a retired University of Florida humanities professor and author, she became interested in Zachary Taylor and his death in the mid-1980’s. In 1991 she even went so far as to convince Taylor’s descendants and the US Government to exhume the dead body of the twelfth President so it could be subjected to modern -well 1990’s- laboratory testing. Various dental, bone, and hair samples, were sent to three different facilities for that purpose. The final result came back that Zachary Taylor died of… drum roll… a “myriad of natural diseases which would have produced the symptoms of gastroenteritis.” It was ruled a death by natural causes, despite the fact that the remains yielded trace amounts of arsenic, but the medical examiner felt assured that those were too low to cause the death. Even more reassuring he explained how apparently all human beings have between 0.2 to 0.6 ppm of arsenic in their system at any given time… so, yay?

Many people in Taylor’s day were convinced that the popular, reluctant, and possibly anti-slavery President was murdered in order to pave way for a Southern power grab. Republicans, especially, subscribed to the idea as they were the party of most Northern abolitionist, which also shows you how much things have really changed since the days of Zachary Taylor. Many believed that there would be other targets, like Andrew Jackson, James Buchanan, and William Henry Harrison. Yet, in perhaps the greatest irony of this whole story, when Abraham Lincoln first took office he received hundreds of letters warning him that he was going to be assassinated, just like Taylor. Of course those letters warned against eating suspicious food and nothing about celebrities wielding guns.

So the next time a friend espouses a rumor to you about 9/11 or tells you how Kennedy was killed by hitmen hired by his own dog, Pushinka -She was Russian after all- just smile and nod and know that conspiracy theories have existed as long as humans. Maybe, in a way, the paranoia of people in the mid 1800’s justified. The Civil War was only years away and tensions were growing in all parts of the country. To many assassination may not have seemed like a big leap, and in some ways it is more comforting to believe that coincidence and bad luck are the result of secretive and powerful sources -whether they be big business, the government, or the Southern aristocracy- rather than just random chance. Conspiracies are a way we humans try to claim some agency over our chaotic world. The truth is often a lot scarier, sometimes bad things just happen. That is true whether it be car accidents, a deranged man with a gun, or just a bad bowl of cherries on a hot 4th of July in 1850.


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