Millard Fillmore was a happy man during July… in 1850. President Zachary Taylor had passed away after serving just 16 months, the third shortest term in US history. Taylor’s death has been a subject of heated debate through the years, though a closer examination shows most of the consternation is fruitless….
On July 4, 1850 Taylor attended… a “national picnic” to celebrate laying the cornerstone of the Washington monument. Representatives from all over the country brought local delicacies to the ceremony which featured military bands, and plenty of dignitaries, including Taylor. Typically, the greater Washington DC area would have been abandoned by July, but the occasion kept the city full of citizens, despite the stifling heat wave of 1850 (global warming in the mid-19th century?) The 100 degree temperatures did not prevent Taylor from wearing his wool uniform to the ceremony, and witnesses said he consumed large amounts of cherries, green apples, iced water, and fresh cream. The festivities proved too much for ‘Old Rough n Ready’ and he was taken to the White House shortly after the cornerstone was laid. The President was racked with diarrhea, cramps, and dehydration for several days before dying on July 9.
Was Taylor poisoned?… Simply put, no. Taylor was a soldier most of his life and it had taken a toll on his body. Repeated bouts of dysentery through the years weakened his digestive system. The stifling heat that July forced Taylor to drink large amounts of water filled with bacteria (common for DC in the Summer months) – this mixed with the acidic apples and cherries proved too much for his old gut. Why would anyone want to kill such a popular figure? Slavery is the motive most commonly held in conspiratorial circles.
Historians often accuse Taylor of … abandoning the principles of the Whig party- he was the last President to own slaves while in office- his record shows he was no friend to slave owners. Taylor opposed many of his party’s economic programs, and he remained politically ambiguous throughout his time in office. He supported California and Colorado excluding slavery, opposed efforts to annex Cuba, and hinted that he might sign Henry Clay’s 1850 compromise bill. To make matters worse, he refused to publicly denounce the Wilmot Proviso (outlawing slavery in the Mexican Cession.) All of these were considered high crimes by Southern politicians of the day. Did one of them poison Taylor to benefit the slave holding agenda?
Taylor’s remains were exhumed in 1991… and the matter should be closed. His remains were remarkably well-preserved allowing proper samples to be collected and tested. He was not poisoned with arsenic and bacterial residue remained confirming the digestive diagnosis. Many remain unconvinced…a slave owning conspiracy? Mexican nationals avenging the defeat at Buena Vista? Cherries and Cream for everyone!