I find it comforting that conspiracy theorists have always been with us, and that they are not only a feature of our times. On July 4, 1850 Taylor had a busy day attending several Independence Day celebrations and a fund raising event for the Washington Monument. The day was hot and Taylor drank a lot of ice milk and ate a great deal of raw fruit. Unsurprisingly he came down with a gastric ailment thereafter. Physicians treated him with the best medicine of the time, which often weakened or finished off the poor patients subject to it: Taylor was dosed with ipecac, calomel, opium, and quinine at 40 grains per dose (approximately 2.6 grams), and bled and blistered. Several of Taylor’s cabinet members came down with similar symptoms. The 65 year old Taylor died on July 9, 1850.
In hindsight an analysis of Taylor’s death is pretty straightforward. The White House had a tainted water supply with raw sewage running into it. This probably killed three presidents: Harrison, Polk (who died shortly after his term in office) and Taylor. Cholera was the big killer in 19th century urban centers until sewers were installed, and Taylor likely died of some variant of that bacterial infection.
Taylor had opposed what became known as the Compromise of 1850, wanting to keep slavery out of the territories won from Mexico. Some abolitionists claimed, without any evidence, that pro-slavery advocates had poisoned the president. Although rumors abounded, no official investigation ever took place.
In the 1980s the late Clara Rising, a former University of Florida professor, became convinced that Taylor had been poisoned with arsenic. She obtained consent from a descendant of Taylor to have Taylor’s body exhumed to test for arsenic. Armed with that consent Rising convinced a Kentucky court in 1991 to order the exhumation of Taylor’s body from its resting place at the Zachary Taylor National Cemetery in Lousville, Kentucky. The tests were duly performed and came back negative for arsenic poisoning. Old Rough and Ready’s remains were returned to their resting place and conspiracy theorists attacked the results, hard-core conspiracy theorists being ever immune to concepts like facts and evidence.