Who or what killed President Zachary Taylor? — Mistakes Were Made

Zachary Taylor was the 12th President of the United States and the last slave holding person to be elected to the office. During Taylor’s Presidential tenure, slavery and the extension of it to western land was the hot button issue. California population was growing because of the gold rush and there was pressure to usher it into the union ASAP. Though Taylor was a slaveholder, Taylor was driven by a strong sense of nationalism because of his many years of military duty. Taylor believed no new states should be slave states. Taylor wanted California and New Mexico to draft their own constitutions (which likely would have excluded slavery) and skip the territorial phase. This stance outraged slavery advocates.

Some Southern leaders threatened succession. Henry Clay, who was a Senator, proposed a compromise to the slavery standstill. Under Clay’s compromise, California would be admitted as a free state, the slave trade would be abolished in Washington D.C., a strong fugitive slave law( The Fugitive Slave Act of 1850) and Utah and New Mexico established as territories. This compromise would never reach Taylor’s desk.

On July 4, 1850, Zachary Taylor attended a ceremony to lay the cornerstone of the future Washington monument. There were 3 hour’s worth of speeches in the D.C. heat that Taylor had to endure that day. When Taylor got back to the White House, to beat the heat he feasted on iced cherries, ice milk, green apples and raw vegetables comprising cabbage and cucumbers. Taylor reported queasiness that night, the next day the queasiness turned into violent stomach cramps. Over several days, Taylor became severely ill with an unknown digestive ailment. The white house doctor diagnosed the illness as cholera morbus. Cholera morbus was a flexible term for intestinal ailments in the mid-nineteenth century, it could describe anything from diarrhea to dysentery. Fever ensued, and Taylor’s chance of recovery was grim. On July 9, Taylor died of acute gastroenteritis, which was the “official” term they gave his illness.

Taylor was 65 years old when he passed and only a little over a year into his Presidential term. His Vice President Millard Fillmore would finish out the term. Soon after taking office, Fillmore would sign into law the 1850 Fugitive Slave Act. Rumors and speculation immediately followed Taylor’s death, and those rumors persisted for well over a century. Everyone wanted to know what exactly killed Taylor? They considered him a hero of the people and to die over milk, vegetables and fruit? The story didn’t add up for most people.

The Suspects

The Sewage System

There was an open sewage system and no waste disposal system in the 1850s in the U.S. not even in the White House. Every night White house staff had the “privilege” of carrying buckets of human waste seven blocks downstream. This was not the most sanitary way to dispose of waste, given they got their same drinking water from that river. Some believe it was these conditions that killed President Taylor and also William Henry Harrison ( William Henry Harrison and the shortest Presidential term in U.S. history).

Iced Milk

Iced Milk was considered a luxury in the mid-nineteenth century. At 12 cents per quart, it cost more than whisky! Refrigerators were not a common household appliance back then and refrigerated diary transport was an idea straight out of the Jetson’s. People took a big gamble on getting sick when consuming ice milk. Even worse, cattle back then grazed upon a weed called white snake root. White snake root contained a toxin called tremetol, which led to a sometimes fatal condition known as “milk sickness”. Symptoms of milk sickness included vomiting and severe intestinal pain. Abraham Lincoln’s mom, Nancy Hanks Lincoln, died of milk sickness. Hmm, vomiting, and severe intestinal pain sounds like we have a match! A good detective looks at all the culprits before deciding so lets carry on.


Cholera is an infection of the small intestine by strains of bacteria. Symptoms include watery diarrhea, vomiting, and muscle cramps. Cholera spreads by unsafe water and unsafe food that has been contaminated with human feces. Remember the White House sewage “system” described earlier? That sounds very unsafe in every which way. Those vegetables and fruits, Taylor was munching on? Taylor ate those raw, and the plants grew in the same region, the sewer “system” was near. Several members of Taylor’s cabinet had come down with a similar illness like Taylor, though they didn’t die. At the time of Taylor’s death and after, there was no known cholera outbreak. This also sounds like something that could have killed Taylor, but there is other evidence that refutes this fact.

Foul Play

Some people believe pro southerners who wanted the 1850 Compromise to go through poisoned Taylor. This belief continued until the late 1980s! In 1991, Taylor’s closest living relatives agreed to an exhumation of his body so they could test his remains for poison. The analysis of the body revealed no evidence of poisoning; arsenic levels were too low. There are some who still believe the arsenic testing of Taylor’s remains was flawed, and that poison assassinated him.


The medical care of the 1850s was well brutal. The care often worsened the medical condition of patients rather than ease their pain. Taylor’s doctors “treated” him with ipecac, calomel, opium and quinine at 40 grams per dose. The doctors also bled and blistered Taylor many times during their care. The doctors didn’t cause Taylor’s initial illness, but their care did nothing to help his recover. They impeded and hindered his recovery process.

The official analysis of Taylors remains concluded Taylor had contracted “cholera morbus, or acute gastroenteritis.” Just like the doctors stated all the way back in 1850. Now I’m not a doctor or a detective, but I have watched plenty of Law and Order and Grey’s Anatomy episodes. My guess is that the raw fruits and vegetables Taylor consumed that fateful day in 1850 were contaminated by the White House sewage “system” and thus led to Taylor’s untimely death. Taylor ate a healthy meal for the times and for today. After Taylor’s death, people started avoiding eating fruits and vegetables out of fear of catching what Taylor caught. The idea is crazy sounding today, but given the medical knowledge of the time, people were just trying to survive, just the same as they try to do today.

Originally published at https://mwmblog.com on February 17, 2020.

recovering Lawyer, History buff who wants to share my knowledge with the world . To teach them lessons from our past. see all of the stories on www.mwmblog.com

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