How Did President Zachary Taylor Actually Die?

tags: Zachary Taylor

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On July 4th, 1850, at around 4 o'clock in the afternoon, Zachary Taylor returned to the White House for supper. 

After a lengthy, very hot day of attending outdoor fundraisers, the twelfth President of the United States was ravenously hungry. Despite being warned by his physician that over-indulgence was “imprudent,” Taylor hastily wolfed down a variety of raw vegetables — cucumbers, cabbage, and corn — then treated himself to a jug of iced milk and an enormous bowl of cherries.

An hour later, the President fell violently ill. 

His troubles began with nausea, and soon segued into severe bouts of diarrhea and vomiting. By the following morning, he’d developed a fever. Four doctors descended on the bed-ridden man, each offering various cure-alls: in rapid succession, Taylor was force-fed calomel (a mercury chloride solution meant to induce regurgitation), quinine (a fever reducer), and opium, none of which alleviated his ailments. Five days later, just 17 months into his Presidency, the 65-year-old uttered his last words — “I regret nothing, but am sorry I am about to leave my friends” — and passed away. 

The cause of Taylor’s death was listed as gastroenteritis, or “cholera morbus,” a term commonly ascribed to those who died from indeterminable causes in the 19th century. For nearly 150 years, this diagnosis went largely unexplored. Then, a retired professor named Clara Rising dug deeper into the medical records.

Taylor’s symptoms, she surmised, were exactly those exhibited by arsenic poisoning. And the possibility of an assassination wasn’t so unreasonable: with America on the brink of civil war, Taylor’s death had come just months before he was expected to veto several bills proposing the expansion of slavery. Plenty of Southerners had wished him dead. 

In her pursuit of the truth, Dr. Rising embarked on a long, strange journey, which involved convincing Taylor’s distant relatives, and the U.S. government, to exhume the rotting body of the long-dead President — all so modern technology could answer one critical question:

Was President Zachary Taylor murdered? ...

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