Greetings and salutations, fellow historio-medico aficionados, this is Kevin and welcome to CEPI Curiosities, a brand-new segment where we tackle the interesting and shocking of the history of medicine.
Whatever part of the political bench you sit on, it’s hard to avoid the early stages of the 2016 campaign on the news and in social media, so for our inaugural issue, why don’t we get Presidential?
To modern audiences, the only time Zachary Taylor’s name comes up is mostly trivia games or whenever someone is called upon to name all of the presidents. After a long career in military service (during the Mexican War he earned the nickname “Old Rough and Ready”) he had a largely unsung presidency, and he died in office on July 9, 1850, a mere fifteen months into his term. Contemporary doctors cited Taylor’s official cause of death as cholera morbus, a common diagnosis of the time for someone suffering from extreme abdominal cramps and diarrhea (The Historical Library of the College of Physicians has numerous 19th century works related to cholera morbus if you’d like to learn more). Reportedly Taylor succumbed to illness after an afternoon of cherries and iced milk in the blazing Washington sun. Following his death, his remains were eventually laid to rest at the Taylor family plantation in Louisville, KY (The site of his burial is now known as the Zachary Taylor National Cemetery).
However, historical novelist Clara Rising thought there was more to the story of Taylor’s death than a fateful altercation with contaminated food. While researching a book on the late President, Rising developed a more sinister cause of death: murder by arsenic poisoning.
Determined to get to the bottom of this, Rising managed to convince descendants of Taylor to agree to have his remains exhumed so they could be examined. On June 17, 1991, officials from the Louisville Medical Examiner’s Office disinterred Taylor’s body to test the late President for arsenic, even using a heavy saw to cut through Taylor’s metal sarcophagus in the process. After which they conducted a variety of tests, examining bone, hair, and teeth samples for the deadly metal.
Was Zachary Taylor murdered? Well if he was, according to medical examiners, it was not done with arsenic. According to Dr. Richard Greathouse, then Coroner of Jefferson County, KY, while Taylor’s remains contained trace amounts of lead, they were nowhere near the amounts needed to kill the President. Needless to say, Taylor’s remains were re-interred in Louisville and are still there to this day. Undeterred, Rising eventually self-published her work on the alleged murder of Taylor, The Taylor File: The Mysterious Death of a President, asserting her hypothesis and listing other poisons that may have been employed to dispatch “Old Rough and Ready.”