A Brief History
On July 9, 1850, US President Zachary Taylor died after consuming mass quantities of fresh fruit and iced milk at a July 4th fund raising and holiday celebration. Taylor, the only President to hail from Louisiana, suffered severe abdominal distress and fever for 5 days before he died, becoming the second President to die in office (after William Henry Harrison) and leaving Vice President Millard Fillmore to finish his term as President (1850-1853).
Taylor represented the Whig Party, and Fillmore became the last Whig to ascend to the Presidency. Curiously, Fillmore did not appoint a Vice President while he was President.
Zach Taylor was born in Virginia and moved to Kentucky where his family owned plantations and slaves. Taylor went into the Army and proceeded with a stellar military career, fighting in the War of 1812 and in several Indian Wars. At one point, Captain Taylor was promoted to Brevet (temporary) Major, possibly the first ever Brevet promotion in US Army history. Taylor fought in the Mexican-American War of 1846-1848 and achieved the rank of Major General. Leading victorious units in several battles during the Mexican-American War led to renown and fame for Taylor, and he was treated as a hero, compared to Washington and Andrew Jackson.
Along the way with his many military posts and campaigns, Taylor married and raised a family, and in 1824 resettled in Louisiana. A plantation owner, Taylor was prosperous and owned over 200 slaves. Riding his fame from the Mexican-American War into politics, Taylor joined the Whig Party, although he had no previous political experience or even public opinions. As a slave holder, people assumed he was for the expansion of slavery into the Western territories, but in reality he was against such an expansion of slavery, though only because he believed the slave economy model of plantations was not viable out West. Taylor was also a staunch preservationist of the Union and did not support secession.
Elected to the Presidency in 1848, Taylor took office in 1849 and only served a year and a half before he fell ill at a fundraiser for the new Washington Monument. Doctors called his malady “cholera morbus” as they did not really know what the problem was. Whatever his actual condition, it was not the disease “cholera.”
Taylor’s short tenure in office was unremarkable, and is not generally considered to have been particularly significant. Had he lived, the crisis over slavery may have made Taylor’s story quite different. Zachary Taylor was not formally educated and is said to have had minimal command of proper English and grammar, but his intelligence seems to have made up for this shortcoming, gaining success in business and in the military.
Of course, when a President dies and the cause is not well known and apparent, conspiracy theories will develop! Taylor’s death is no exception, and various postulations that he may have been poisoned for some reason or another have been put forward, but never verified. In 1991 Taylor’s body was exhumed and tested for poison (mainly arsenic) and was found to have non-damaging low levels of the poison, just normal background amounts. This seeming exoneration of the pro-slavery activists that allegedly killed the President was not accepted by all conspiracy theorists, who claim the scientific methodology of those testing his corpse in 1991 was flawed. The modern interpretation of the study of Zachary Taylor’s death concludes that it cannot be proven nor disproven that he was poisoned.
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For more information, please see…
Rising, Clara. The Taylor File: The Mysterious Death of a President. Xlibris, 2007.
Various. Obituary Addresses Delivered on the Occasion of the Death of Zachary Taylor, President of the United States, in the Senate and House of Representatives, July 10, 1850. [Washington – 1850]. Leopold Classic Library, 2017.