Major General, 12th President Zachary Taylor.
(Fun Fact: Taylor had never cast a vote until he ran for the Office of President of the United States.)
On July 9, 1850, Orange-born Major General Zachary Taylor, 12th President of the United States of America died, a mere 16 months into his presidency. The Major General led a challenging life through his military career, being the first Free Soil president even though a slave owner, and the controversies of his birth and conspiracies around his death.
Taylor was born on November 24, 1784. He was the son of Lieutenant-Colonel Richard Taylor, an officer of the (American) Revolution and one of the first settlers of Louisville, Kentucky where Taylor was raised and lived until his 24th year of life. But wait - I did state he was “Orange-born.” His father had sold his property in Orange and was setting out for Kentucky with his pregnant wife, Sarah (Dabney Strother-Taylor) and their two children Constance and Hancock. The little family did not make it out of Orange when Zachary’s birth began. Three historic era properties claimed to be the site where Taylor was born. One plantation had a large stone with a bronze plaque, dedicated by the D.A.R., stating it was the birthplace of Taylor, however, Montebello’s claim secured the Virginia Historic Marker.
Taylor, along with his seven siblings, worked on the family plantation and received a rudimentary education. By 1800, his father owned 10,000 acres and 26 enslaved people. His family’s military lineage continued with Taylor who, following the death of his elder brother, received his first official commission in 1808 filling his brother’s position commanding a garrison at Fort Pickering (present day Memphis). On June 21, 1810 he married Margaret Mackall Smith, whom he affectionately called “Peggy.” (Portrait right. Live Auctioneers)
She “followed the drum” through his career and over the course of their marriage bore six children.
Taylor was called “Old Rough and Ready” by his soldiers because he shared the hardships of field duty with them. Stories of how he sat upon his horse Old Whitey in the heat of battle with bullets buzzing past his head are common. Taylor was awarded to major in 1812 due to gallantry while fighting the Native American allies of Great Britain. In 1832 during the Black Hawk War, he gained an important victory and was made a brigadier and commander of the U.S. forces in Florida.
His most notable military victories occurred in 1846. The first was defeating General Arista at Palo Alto. His forces of 2,300 managed to defeat a force of 6,000 and drive them across the Rio Grande at Resaca de la Palma. The second occurred on September 9th when Major General Taylor led 6,625 men and attacked Monterey which was defended by 10,000 Regulars. It took ten days until the city capitulated. The third was probably the most important. General Scott withdrew a portion of Taylor’s troops, leaving him with only 500 Regulars and 5,000 Volunteers to meet Santa Anna’s army of 21,000. These successes prompted his 1848 Whig Party nomination for the presidency over Henry Clay, Daniel Webster, and General Winfield Scott. It is interesting to note that until that election, Taylor had never cast a vote.
(Photograph of colored etching of Major General Zachary Taylor and his beloved horse Old Whitey. Long-term loan courtesy of Mrs. Helen Marie Taylor)
Pictured to the right is the Taylor Campaign's Presidential Campaign Snuff Box. (Long-term Loan from Frederick Stein, II)
Taylor had been known as an “Indian fighter” yet he also wanted to protect their lands from white
settlers and believed a military presence would reinforce coexistence. This complex outlook also followed into his presidency as a staunch supporter and defender of California’s admission to the Union as a free state. At that time in his life Taylor owned plantations in Louisiana and Kentucky and held enslaved peoples. Yet, he thrust his full support behind the controversial Wilmost Proviso that proposed banning slavery in the new territory acquired during the Mexican-American War.
Representatives of the Deep South were angered and Taylor met their threats of secession with anger. He promised to "lead the charge against any states that tried to leave the Union, thundering in February of 1850 to a group of southern leaders that anyone....'in rebellion against the Union, I will hang with less reluctance than I used in hanging deserters and spies in Mexico!" (Kaleena Fraga, "All That Is Interesting") In one short year, Taylor had gained many enemies who felt the Southern and slave-owning president had betrayed them.
Taylor was also about to restructure his Cabinet as several members committed financial improprieties but died suddenly before changes could be made.
(Portrait courtesy of the U.S. National Archives)
President Taylor had attended July 4th celebrations and after walking along the Potomac returned to the White House hot and tired. He drank a great deal of water and ate a variety of fruits; especially cherries. Over the next five days, Taylor suffered severe stomach pains and was diagnosed by his physicians as suffering from “cholera morbus.” He ingested slivers of ice for relief until his body began rejecting fluids. On the morning of July 9th, he called Peggy to his bedside instructing her not to weep, saying: “I have always done my duty, I am ready to die. My only regret is for the friends I leave behind me.”
Grand funeral pageant at New York July 23, 1850
The corpse of the deceased president was exhumed three times. He was first interred in the Public Vault of the Congressional Cemetery (July 13, 1850-October 25, 1850) while a burial site could be prepared. His body was exhumed and transported to the Taylor Family plot where his parents are buried, on the Taylor plantation known as 'Springfield' in Louisville, Kentucky.
The second exhumation took place on May 6, 1926 when both Taylor and his wife were transported to the newly created Zachary Taylor National Cemetery also in Louisville. The Commonwealth of Kentucky had placed a 50' monument in his honor near his grave which included a life-sized statue of Taylor.
In the 1920s, the Taylor family attempted to turn the Taylor burial grounds into a national
cemetery. Then Kentucky donated two lots for the project, turning the half-acre Taylor family cemetery into 16 acres (65,000 m). At that point, both Zachary and Peggy's remains were moved to the newly constructed Taylor mausoleum. The property was designed as the Zachary Taylor National Cemetery.
The third and final exhumation occurred to explore the conjecture that President Taylor had been poisoned with arsenic; a poison that can be evident in the bones, hair and fingernails for centuries after death. Other poisons dissipate much more quickly through soft tissues and would not be present in Taylor's remains. Other poisons could have been used, perhaps cyanide or a deadly mushroom common the area; both would have left no trace.
The poisoning theory was put forth by Florida historian Clara Rising who had researched his death for nearly 10 years. It was a daunting task but she was able to gain permission from Taylor's closest living relative, the Commonwealth of Kentucky's Coroner, and the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs. On June 17, 1991, 141 years after his death, Taylor's remains were again exhumed. Rising, recalling as she finally saw her subject, that Taylor was a man who "hated uniforms, a politician who refused to join a party, a man who always expressed his devotion to his country in terms of his own fiery independence..."
Rising's research noted that opportunity to poison Taylor would have presented itself easily as people could move freely throughout the White House. She wrote "it would have been a simple matter to poison his dinner. In those days, people were in and out of the White House like crazy. Taylor's wife complained that there were strangers wandering through her bedroom."
(Michael McLeod of The Sentinel Staff, "The Orlando Sentinel" July 30, 2020)
That's opportunity. What about motive? Rising was firmly convinced Taylor's enemies included political enemies such as Henry Clay, Daniel Webster and Vice President Fillmore. Why? Taylor had taken an unmovable stance to prevent slavery from expanding into the western territories and states and blocked passage of the harsher Fugitive Slave Laws (Compromise of 1850). Though shortly after his death California was admitted into the Union as a free state, the Fugitive Slave Law was pushed through. Rising also felt that the drunken celebrations on Capitol Hill just a couple of nights after Taylor's burial by one or more of those men noted just above was like dancing on Taylor's grave.
Samples of hair from various parts of Taylor's remains were taken as well as samples of his shroud. Taylor was not embalmed which was fortunate because arsenic was part of that chemical concoction. The samples were tested in three different labs in three different processes. The end results? There were trace amounts of arsenic, however, not enough to have been fatal even with the length of time factored into the equation.
Rising still felt he could have been poisoned by other means. “Right after his death,” Rising noted, “everything he had worked against came forward and was passed by both houses of Congress.” In Rising’s opinion, Zachary Taylor could have had an enormous impact on American history. Had he lived, he could have prevented, delayed, or “somehow solved the problems” that led to the Civil War, which broke out 10 years later." (Kaleena Fraga, July 27, 2020, "All That Is Interesting")
We will never know absolutely whether or not this relatively healthy president was merely unfortunate or murdered, but let us hope that his remains are left in peace.
Taylor furnishings on long-term loan from Mrs. Helen Marie Taylor's Collection at The James Madison Museum of Orange County Heritage.
President Taylor’s Bed & Traveling Desk. His American Chippendale Tall Clock is in the background.
Taylor’s Campeche Style Chair C. 1840s
Scott, W.W. “A History of Orange County Virginia.” (Richmond, VA - Everett Waddey Co. 1907) PP. 195-196.