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The indisputable fact is this: Zachary Taylor, the twelfth president of the United States, died on July 9, 1850. The official version tells us that he died from being exposed to the July sun for too long and then eating cucumbers, cherries and/or iced milk. Some people say he was poisoned. You wouldn't know, from the mainstream sources, that the evidence of arsenic poisoning is pretty strong.

This diary is the latest entry in the Relevant History series, and the story I am about to tell is relevant for two reasons. First, it shows how silly stories can become accepted facts through relentless repetition even though they don't make any sense, a process we have seen successfully practiced by the right-wing propaganda machine over and over. Second, the most likely reason why Taylor was poisoned will be discussed, as well as why it is always dangerous to misunderestimate the treachery of your enemies, especially when you are trying to do the right thing.

(More below the fold)

I have titled this diary "The Strange Death of Zachary Taylor" because it fits so well, but it is also the name of Chapter Six of Michael Parenti's book "History as Mystery," the source of most of my information for most of this diary. "History as Mystery," published in 1999, talks about a lot more than just Zachary Taylor. He talks about the political agenda that affects the way history is taught and the meddling that goes on that shapes what we know. He mentions Lynne Cheney's attack on national standards for teaching because these standards deviated from her rosy (and demonstrably false) vision of a kindly, paternal America where never was heard a discouraging word. Parenti is still around and still writing and lecturing. According to he Web site, he debated Christopher Hitchens a few weeks ago. I hope Parenti tore him a new one.

Some of you may remember that way back in 1991, the body of Zachary Taylor was exhumed, and his fingernails and hair were examined for any evidence that he was poisoned. The mainstream media, as lazy then as it is now, announced that medical examiners said there was no evidence of poisoning. (This was bullshit.)

They also announced that Taylor's remains contained trace amounts of arsenic, but not enough to kill him. Case closed. Move on. Toads are exploding, brides are running away and Paris Hilton's burger ad is upsetting the wingnuts. (Or whatever the equivalent was in 1991.)

Getting back to Paris Hilton, er, I mean Zachary Taylor. I remember thinking, "Why was there any arsenic in his system?" None of the news stories even attempted to answer that.

Whereas I dropped the subject, Michael Parenti began investigating the investigation, getting what little paperwork was available, talking to people who did the forensics, talking to other medical experts. And Parenti found out that the idea that there was no evidence of poisoning was misleading at best. His findings appeared in "History as Mystery" in 1991.

We'll return to that, but first let's discuss why someone would want to kill Zachary Taylor in 1850. To most Americans of the early 21st century, Taylor is an obscure figure at best. He died after less than a year and a half in office, with no notable accomplishments for his presidency. He had gained notoriety as one of the heroes of the Mexican War of 1846 to 1848, where the United States doubled in size by wresting California and the New Mexico Territory from our neighbor to the south. Taylor's role in this successful war was significant, as the general in charge in the earliest part of the war in northern Mexico. And the resulting struggle over what to do about the new territory as it related to slavery would be the most compelling catalyst for somebody to try to poison Taylor.

The Whigs, seeking a sure-fire winner for the election of 1848, courted Taylor, who agreed to be their candidate, even though he had never declared a party affiliation, nor had he ever voted in a presidential election. He defeated Lewis Cass, a Democrat from Michigan who was viewed as too old and too much of a slippery politician by many voters. Taylor took office in March 1849.

As a slaveholder, with plantations in several locations in the South, it was reasonable for many Southerners to look to Taylor to represent Southern interests. As a non-politician, the Whig leadership thought Taylor would be wise enough to defer to the experienced politicians, and Taylor was expected to be happy to be a cipher. Neither of these assumptions was based on anything more than wishful thinking.

Conflict and tension erupted over the question of the new territories. Abolitionists wanted to restrict the expansion of slavery for purely moral reasons. Northerners thinking of settling in the new territories did not want to compete with slavery, and the slave-owning South, naturally, wanted the right to take their slaves into the new areas, even if they weren't really suitable for the types of agriculture that exploited slave labor. The resulting fracas became known as the Secession Crisis of 1850 as many Southern states threatened secession and several of these states went so far as to hold conventions to discuss separation from the Union.

Taylor was expected to be a strong defender of southern rights. But, despite being a slaveholder, Taylor actually opposed the expansion of slavery into the new territories. He felt that slavery was a "social and political evil," challenging the views of most wealthy slave owners that slavery was a good thing, for whites and blacks alike. (This whole can of worms, 101 ways to justify slavery, is part of my master's thesis, and we are not going to get into it at this time. Some of the stuff I study drains my soul of all energy at times.)

In January 1850, trying to ward off the Secession Crisis, congressional leaders led by the legendary Henry Clay came up with a number of provisions that became known as the Compromise of 1850. This bill hoped to placate both North and South with a number of compromises that were supposed to make everyone happy. It suggested a stronger fugitive slave act, the admission of California as a free state, and stated there would be no restrictions against slavery in the territories, along with other provisions.

Taylor opposed the bill adamantly, mostly because he felt slavery should be forbidden in the new territories. As secessionist threats multiplied, Taylor offered to personally lead troops against secession efforts and said he would execute disunionists "with less reluctance than I hanged spies and deserters in Mexico." Clay's bill seemed to be facing oblivion. The country was almost as close to civil war in 1850 as it would be in 1861.

Then came the July 4 holiday. Taylor attended various festivities, allegedly spending too much time in the hot sun and then eating too much, which gave him a rather vague illness that killed him five days later. Clay's omnibus bill passed and the nation stayed together. Extremist secessionists bitched and moaned that they hadn't gotten enough out of the bill (even though they had made out like bandits, they continuously played the victim just like modern Republicans) but the Compromise took the wind out of secessionist sails as most Southerners realized they had done quite well, especially with the Fugitive Slave Law that basically said "fuck you" to the rights of the Northern states.

Parenti effectively demolishes the traditional viewpoint of Taylor's death. Taylor did not spend "two hours in the broiling sun," as some sources imply. Parenti claims that the National Intelligencer reported a broad awning for the guests. And Senator Foote spoke of how healthy the president looked "under the canopy."

And what did he eat that might have killed him? Various sources list cherries, cabbage, milk, bread, raw fruit, raw vegetables and/or cucumbers. Parenti points out that none of the sources ever offer up any original primary sources for their information. And how in the world could any of this cause death anyway? Paretni's point is that some original source emphasized the hot sun and the dangerous combination of cherries  and milk on a hot day, and historians have repeated it for 150 years.

There is a lot more to Parenti's analysis on every topic I am examining and I suggest that everyone should read "History As Mystery." The Zachary Taylor chapter is only about twenty pages.

Was Taylor poisoned? Symptoms included severe cramps, nausea, diarrhea, vomiting, fever, severe pain on the side of his chest and raging thirst. The symptoms were very much like an illness Taylor experienced in New York the year before, when there was no indication that he had been exposed to the sun for a long period of time or eaten too many cucumbers, cherries along with too much iced milk. The president died on July 9 and the cause of death was either attributed to "cholera morbus" or "gastroenteritis," two terms that don't seem to mean very much beyond "his tummy hurt."

Taylor may have been aware that he had been poisoned. Newspapers at the time reported that he made this statement the day before he died:

I should not be surprised if this were to terminate in my death. I did not expect to encounter what has beset me since my elevation to the Presidency. God knows I have endeavored to fulfill what I conceived to be an honest duty. But I have been mistaken. My motives have been misconstrued, and my feelings most grossly outraged.

Let's get back to the trace amounts of arsenic found in Taylor's system. Symptoms of arsenic poisoning include: severe cramps, nausea, diarrhea, vomiting, fever, abdominal pains and raging thirst. If we compare that to Taylor's symptoms, we find an exact match. The report of the examination made after the 1991 exhumation includes this statement:

The symptoms and duration of Zachary Taylor's disorder are historically and medically compatible with acute arsenic poisoning and many natural diseases.

As Parenti points out, the report does not mention any of these other "natural diseases." When the medical examiner was more closely questioned by Parenti, he evaded the question several times and Parenti's description of the conversation reads like a White House press gaggle, with the examiner fulfilling the role of Scott McClellan. Parenti concluded that some forms of food poisoning have some of these symptoms, but they rarely result in death. The bottom line is that arsenic poisoning is the only malady that fits Taylor's symptoms.

So, what about the report's findings that the amount of arsenic in Taylor's body - though higher than levels in modern Americans who are exposed to various forms of arsenic contamination - was not high enough to be a fatal dosage? Parenti discovered that the researchers had examined the levels of arsenic in a whole hair when they should have been looking for concentrated amounts of arsenic in a cross-section of the hair from near the scalp. It seems likely that the levels of arsenic would have been much higher if proper procedures had been followed.

Parenti goes into a lot of detail about the scientific aspects of the Zachary Taylor case. He also demolishes a number of lame justifications offered by people who just don't want the old version to be challenged. For example, both the New York Times and the Washington Post claimed that the arsenic probably came from embalming fluid. Parenti points out that Taylor was not embalmed, at the request of his wife.

There is a lot more to the case, but I have laid out the most important points, to the best of my ability. And I believe Zachary Taylor was assassinated. Why does it matter, after all these years? Why are they still covering it up, and why is the compliant media still covering for Taylor's murderers?

Well, I don't know exactly who killed Zachary Taylor, but a Southerner, or a Southern conspiracy, seems like the most likely culprit. And look at how bitterly Southerners fight to control the past? They have worked tirelessly to portray the Southern cause as a noble one that was merely defending a glorious way of life, minimizing and even ignoring the role of slavery. The slaves were happy and taken care of. It was a good system for everyone. The selfish and jealous Northerners messed it up, but only because they had more men and resources. And I'm not going to say too much about the "Birth of a Nation" version of Reconstruction that was taught in Northern schools for a hundred years and is still taught in many areas.

The idea that Zachary Taylor was poisoned seems to be very disturbing to many people. If Taylor was assassinated, then we have been lied to for 155 years. What else have they lied about? And if enough people hear about it, and look into it, will they start asking more and more questions that are not easy to answer honestly? When people are asking the wrong questions, it's best to call them crazy or paranoid ...

... or unpatriotic.

Originally posted to Hoosier X on Sun May 29, 2005 at 10:52 AM PDT.


Who killed Zachary Taylor?

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Comment Preferences

  •  Red Cherries (4.00)
    What, then, is the White House kitchen staff to do with 2 tons of cherries already ordered for this summers Rose Garden picnics?
  •  Very interesting... (4.00)
    ...and I'm not disputing your conclusions, but there is one thing you may want to look into.  During the 19th century, arsenic was used cosmetically...I believe that people thought it was good for the skin.  Or I'm crazy.  ;-)  

    Arrogant lips are unsuited to a fool-- how much worse lying lips to a ruler - Proverbs 17:7

    by Barbara Morrill on Sun May 29, 2005 at 11:07:17 AM PDT

    •  Arsenic (4.00)
      in controlled doses, was also used in the Victorian era as a stimulant, as was strychnine. I have never heard that it was used as early as 1850 in England or in the US.

      Parenti tackles a lot of arguments about how Taylor may have gotten accidently dosed with arsenic. He does not specifically tackle this one. But Taylor was well-known for being sloppy and unconcerned about his appearance. I find it highly unlikely that he used arsenic on his skin. I could be wrong.

      The real point is just how badly the exhumation was handled, and how badly the examination was interpreted and how little attention had been given to the possibility that Taylor might have been poisoned.

      I didn't plan for my diary to be the last word on the subject. That would take a lot more time than I have, and Parenti has done a heck of a lot of work on this, more than i care to put into a kos diary. I just want people to know about it and to look into it. (And be ready for as many bullshit evasions as they can throw at you.)

      America: It's a good IDEA for a country ...

      by Tony Seybert on Sun May 29, 2005 at 11:18:35 AM PDT

      [ Parent ]

      •  Don't misunderstand (none)
        I wasn't disputing your conclusions and I thought you presented a very good case.  I don't remember where I heard or read about arsenic as a cosmetic...just one of those random bits that our brain store...but I thought it was worth mentioning.  

        Arrogant lips are unsuited to a fool-- how much worse lying lips to a ruler - Proverbs 17:7

        by Barbara Morrill on Sun May 29, 2005 at 11:45:53 AM PDT

        [ Parent ]

        •  Thank you for mentioning (4.00)
          arsenic as a cosmetic. And I realize you weren't questioning my conclusions. I was just trying to be thorough and to respond to your point about arsenic as a cosmetic.

          (And perhaps being a conspiracy theorist has made me a little defensive. But I think i have good reasons, lots of them, for ALWAYS questioning the official version. I mean, for god's sake, look at the official version of the shooting of Huey Long. It makes no sense in about a million different ways.)

          America: It's a good IDEA for a country ...

          by Tony Seybert on Sun May 29, 2005 at 12:06:08 PM PDT

          [ Parent ]

      •  Arsenic (none)
        Arsenic was also used extensively as a preservative for corpses being prepared for burial, to the point where many Civil War-era cemeteries are practically Superfund sites.

        It would have been surprising if his corpse hadn't had excessive (by modern standards) amounts of Arsenic in it.

  •  I am NOT endorsing this theory, (4.00)
    but when I was doing research for my dissertation on nativism (anti-immigrant and usually anti-Catholic feeling very common in the antebellum period, e.g., the "Know Nothings,") I came across a writer who claimed that Zachary Taylor had been poisoned by the Jesuits!
    •  The Know-Nothings (none)
      In the mid-1850s, the Know-Nothings were surprisingly strong in the South. With the collapse of the Whigs in the early 1850s, Southerners who didn't want to join the Democrats - and they could not join the Republicans! - joined the Know-Nothings, also known as the American Party. (The Know-Nothings and the American Party are not quite the same thing, but they were very closely associated at the time.) In the South, the Know-Nothings tried to play down the anti-immigrant, anti-Catholic rhetoric a lot of the time. However, they did  come right out and say, "Look, if secession comes - as the radical Southern democrats seem to want - then the following Civil War will be fought with northern armies made up of lots of immigrants! So beware!" (and this was actually true, in part.)

      The American party candidate for president in 1856 was Millard Fillmore - Taylor's vice president - and he got a larger percentage of the popular vote (21.6) in 1856 that Ross Perot did in 1992 (18.9).  Fillmore even got 8 electoral votes.

      It's just like the Know-Nothings to say the Jesuits killed Taylor. Do they give a reason, whether it makes any sense or not? I'm curious.

      America: It's a good IDEA for a country ...

      by Tony Seybert on Sun May 29, 2005 at 11:40:38 AM PDT

      [ Parent ]

      •  And HP. (none)
        I know you know all this. I was just tossing off a little more info on the Know-Nothings for anybody who wanders onto this diary. And maybe showing off a little. I read most of a book on the Know-Nothings in the SOuth and didn't use much of it in my thesis.


        America: It's a good IDEA for a country ...

        by Tony Seybert on Sun May 29, 2005 at 11:44:18 AM PDT

        [ Parent ]

      •  No reason given, iirc (4.00)
        Poisoning Taylor was just one in a list of Jesuit crimes. The nativists I looked at were (barely) northern (Philadelphia), and they actually ran the county from the mid 1840s to mid 1850s. The national Know Nothing movement didn't have the real conviction behind it that urban parties (Philadelphia, but also NYC, Boston, Baltimore, and even New Orleans) brought to it in the previous decade. Remember, the famine immigrants brought with them seemingly new and horrific social ills. It was standard practice among nativists to blame the growing sectional tensions on the Jesuits, who wanted to foment discord in republican America on behalf of their monarch, the Pope.
      •  Southern appeal not surprising at all (none)
        Much of the Know Nothing appeal was anti immigrant. Know Nothingism was not sectional: in many ways it was coastal. The major trigger was the Irish famine. Within a very few years (1847-1853) destitute, illiterate, Gaelic speaking Catholic Irish flooded into coastal towns. Folks think of Boston but they travelled all along the coast looking for jobs, mostly where the railroads were hiring (it was dangerous work with dynamite.) I don't know the 1850 numbers but by 1860 the percent of Irish born in Mobile had jumped to ~ 18%. Savannah was even higher. New York even higher than that. Samual FB Morse (telegraph inventor) ran for mayor of NYC as a Know Nothing on an anti Irish ticket.
        K-N platform:
        ·a 21-year residency period before immigrants could become citizens and vote;
        ·a limitation on political office holding to native-born Americans, and
        ·restrictions on liquor sales.
        Ironically those same Irish got conscripted into the Civil War five or six years later on both sides. In the South bounty hunters shot them if they didn't join the CSA army. (if you owned 20 slaves you were exempt.) North they weren't shot iirc but I'm not sure.
        Know Nothings claimed immigration was a threat to slavery. I wonder if that made some immigrants pro slavery to prove they were 'real Americans.'
  •  He looked too fit to die of indigestion (4.00)
    Image Hosted by

    Image Hosted by

    Image Hosted by; an oasis of truth.

    by Shockwave on Sun May 29, 2005 at 11:21:25 AM PDT

  •  I'm With Jagger + Richards on This One! (4.00)
    It was you & me, baby. Though how we pulled it off, I have not a clue.

    What I'd really like to know more about, though, is how the official story got established.  The rewriting of the Civil War--a much more massive effort--was dealt with in a book, Race and Reunion: The Civil War in American Memory by David W. Blight, that won a shit-load of awards.

  •  Motives for biasing the investigation (4.00)
    What would be the motives in biasing the 1991 investigation?

    And why did they go to the trouble to exhume the body if they were going to whitewash the issue?

    And who is "they" who did the investigation and for what purpose?

    The revolution starts now--in your own back yard, in your own home town

    by TarheelDem on Sun May 29, 2005 at 11:38:48 AM PDT

    •  A writer asked for the exhumation (4.00)
      Her name is Clara Rising. She was writing a book about Taylor and became kind of suspicious that the slavocracy killed him because they preferred to have a dough-face like Millard Fillmore as president. She got permission from Taylor's heirs to dig up Zack.

      As for the motives for a 1991 "cover-up," she was attacked before any results were released. NY Times editorial accused her of having a "cavalier contempt for the dead." The New Republic called it a "sacrilege" and a "grisly exercise." Charles Krauthammer said that all conspiracy theories were dangerous because they undermined "constitutional transitions of power" for the American political system. (This is all documented in Parenti's book. I didn't do any of this research myself.)

      I have encountered this kind of resistance before. It's automatic in some cases. When ever anyone start asking the wrong questions, there is an automatic wall of denial, and I've seen this among some of my colleagues who are moderate to liberal and are usually open-minded on many subjects. There is an automatic resistance to any conspiracy theory, even when the official version is lame, lame, lame.

      America: It's a good IDEA for a country ...

      by Tony Seybert on Sun May 29, 2005 at 11:57:13 AM PDT

      [ Parent ]

      •  NOT 'Conspiracy Theory' (4.00)
        We need to keep things straight here. There is a phenomena known as "conpspiracism," which is a manifestation of countersubversive thought.

        "Countersubversive thought" is essentially a system of defense mechanisms to avoid, if not pre-emptively destroy critical (i.e. potentially subversive) examination of the status quo. The modern prototype for this was the theocratic/aristocratic attack on the French Revolution, which gave us the mythical "Illuminati Conspiracy."  (However, countersubversive thought not only generates conspiracy theories, it also plays the other side--as we'll see in a minute.)

        This sort of conspiricism seeks to explain away the faults of the status quo as the manufactured illusions of a small but very powerful shadowy cult.  A manifestation of conspiricism is what historically has been referred to as a conspiracy theory.  These are generally not actually theories in an sort of scientific sense (including history as a science here), but are much more like the "Intelligent Design" fraud--lacking in just the sort of specificty tied to central premises that real theories need.

        OTOH, we have theories about relatively limited conspiracies, which are tied into known social movements or forces, either directly or as predictable splinter groups and offshoots.  Anyone with half a brain knows that conspiracies of this sort are omnipresent, though most are relatively benign--fixing municipal trash contracts and the like.  Some of them are not so benign--Enron & Co, for example--and some are terribly lethal.  

        Given that those in power are better situated to cover their tracks, it's only natural that some of the most serious conspiracies of this sort are perpetrated by status quote insiders, who are all to happy to employ countersubversive thought to ridicule those who would try to hold them accountable.  And this takes the form of demonizing people as "conspiracy theorists," simply for wanting to do the same sort of research that DAs and history grad students do all the time.

        But these are actually the exact opposite of "conspiracy theories" as the term has traditionally been used. They are not deployed for ideological reasons, they are not open-ended, they do not defend the status quo, and they are not meant to substitute for other explanations of larger social forces. (Whoever killed Zachary Taylor, we aren't blaming them for the Civil War. It was more than a small conspiracy involved in starting that bloodbath.)

        In short, this is just another example of rightwing projection. They are the great conspiracy theorists (see, for example "the liberal media"), but when we try to put forward a very limited, specific, and factually grounded argument about hidden hanky-panky, they immediately explode at us, calling us "conspiracy theorists."

        Well, we know that they're going to do it. But we shouldn't do it to ourselves.

  •  Very interesting, Tony (4.00)
    Thanks.  It's easy for me to believe he was poisoned.  The cherries and milk sure is fishy.  eeww.  Cherries, milk and fish.  Now that would kill you.

    Two people voted for Clinton!  What is going on around here?? ;)

    (BTW, Oswald didn't kill anybody.)

    Please sign Congressman John Conyers' letter asking the President to come clean about Iraq.

    by OLinda on Sun May 29, 2005 at 11:51:20 AM PDT

  •  Very interesting (4.00)
    I remember the exhumation.  I'm supposedly a descendant of Taylor's so I paid a bit of attention to this story when it happened.  I was surprised when poisoning came up negative just because I figured they were pretty sure of what they would find if they went to the trouble to perform it.

    Speaking the truth in times of universal deceit is a revolutionary act. - Orwell

    by TracieLynn on Sun May 29, 2005 at 12:08:28 PM PDT

  •  Very interesting account. (none)
    Thank you for presenting this information/theory.  Come to think of it, there is a high probability that Napoleon was poisoned, likely with arsenic, as opposed to dying of stomach cancer, true?  In Napoleon's case, there was little of the consumption and wasting away one would think of if the cause were truly cancer.  Arsenic builds up over time - so could someone have dosed Taylor with small amounts of arsenic over a year or two that gradually built to a lethal amount?
  •  Mu (none)
    These kinds of arguments really annoy me because they rest on two assumptions: 1. All things are knowable; 2. All things are knowable through reason (and often specious reasoning).

    As far a the first, I don't claim to know what caused Taylor's death, and I seriously doubt it will ever be determined. Lots of questions don't have answers and never will have.

    As to the second, I'll cite one piece of reasoning (which may have occurred due to limited diary space, or may exist in your original sources - again, something I don't claim to know):

    "Parenti concluded that some forms of food poisoning have some of these symptoms, but they rarely result in death. The bottom line is that arsenic poisoning is the only malady that fits Taylor's symptoms."

    How one gets from "food poisoning rarely results in death" to "arsenic poisoning is the only" is simply beyond me. Rare things do happen - that's why they're called "rare" and not "impossible".

    Maybe Taylor was poisoned, and maybe there's good reason to believe he was, but reason will never lead to anything more than admitting the possibility. It ain't proof.

    We all go a little mad sometimes - Norman Bates

    by badger on Sun May 29, 2005 at 02:12:40 PM PDT

    •  Sorry you're annoyed (none)
      that I'm letting people know about the existence of what I think is very strong evidence that Zachary Taylor was poisoned. The weakness in the reasoning, which I consider minor stacked up against everything else, was provided in my account. I am not trying to cover up anything. I have put forward everything I know about and presented it to the readers. If you have something substantial to bring forward to cast doubt on this conclusion, bring it forward.

      What annoys me is naysayers who bring in straw man arguments and then harp on that without really saying anything substantial. Where in the world did I say or imply "All things are knowable" or "All things are knowable through evidence or reasoning." I read something about Zachary Taylor that I found compelling and I summarized and wrote it up as best i could for the Kos audience. Some people find it compelling as well. You don't. But apparently you had to find some way to denigrate my efforts, so you hauled in this thesis that I think "all things are knowable." I don't mind that you disagree. Several people brought up possible explanations for arsenic in Taylor's corpse, and I disagree with thse examples. But you didn't have a real response, just a bunch of whining about what you find "annoying." If it annoys you that someone is attempting to let Kossacks know that there is some evidence for a different version of history, then don't read my history diaries.


      America: It's a good IDEA for a country ...

      by Tony Seybert on Sun May 29, 2005 at 04:39:06 PM PDT

      [ Parent ]

      •  Sorry you took it personally (none)
        You did give a balanced presentation - it's people like Parenti I'd take issue with.

        I've always thought a good rule was that "extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence" I don't see any extraordinary evidence here. That rule certainly isn't guaranteed to produce the truth every time, but for most of us, who aren't experts on evolution, whether or not a plane really hit the Pentagon, or Taylor's cause of death, it's seems like a pretty good rule.

        The common thread that runs through those three examples is claims the experts are covering up, only the author(s) has/have the real truth, and the dependence on highly technical chains of causality that in some cases (definitely the first two, can't say in the case of Parenti)  ignore and obfuscate contrary data, or misstate real data, or leap to conclusions (as in the case I cited).

        If I want an alternative reading of history, I'd prefer to go to people like Zinn, Hofstadter or even Chomsky, who tend to rely more on evidence that's more readily available and less subject to speculative interpretation of the basic facts than arguments like this one. It's still relatively easy to argue with their conclusions, but their basic facts tend to be more solid.

        If you don't mind that I disagree, then I find it hard to see why you think I'm denigrating your efforts. I happen to think the method of argument Parenti uses looks suspect and very similar to methodologies that produce invalid results nearly every time (more in the area of science than history, I'll grant). You seem to see it differently.

        We all go a little mad sometimes - Norman Bates

        by badger on Sun May 29, 2005 at 05:40:31 PM PDT

        [ Parent ]

        •  I'm not clear on why (none)
          you take effort with Parenti and not with me. Have you read Parenti? In your first post, you admit you haven't, but now you are saying that Parenti's facts are "less solid" than material used by Zinn, Chomsky, etc. I'm not sure how you can say that if you haven't read Parenti. I said several times there was a lot more to Parenti's work on Taylor, and I find your methodology for denigrating Parenti to be very shallow.

          You can see that there are problems with the way Taylor's death has been treated? You can see that it is misleading to say, as many MSM oulets did in 1991, that the exhumations proved Taylor wasn't poisoned? You can see that there are other problems in other areas?

          To you, it doesn't prove Taylor was poisoned. And you are right, none of it "proves" anything. But the whole case put together provokes a lot of legitimate questions, and some people just find these questions "annoying." Sorry for "annoying" you with these questions.  

          America: It's a good IDEA for a country ...

          by Tony Seybert on Sun May 29, 2005 at 08:49:50 PM PDT

          [ Parent ]

          •  I know I'm being a jerk about this. (none)
            I'm just in that kind of a mood. And it seems like you are too, badger.

            America: It's a good IDEA for a country ...

            by Tony Seybert on Sun May 29, 2005 at 08:55:15 PM PDT

            [ Parent ]

          •  I know I'm being a jerk about this. (none)
            I'm just in that kind of a mood. And it seems like you are too, badger.

            America: It's a good IDEA for a country ...

            by Tony Seybert on Sun May 29, 2005 at 08:55:33 PM PDT

            [ Parent ]

          •  No problem (none)
            I don't think your being a jerk - you have every right to defend what you think is correct.

            No, I haven't read Parenti, but I suspect you did a good job summarizing his method. So for example, he found the tests performed in error not by performing another test, but by raising objections to the test methods. He arrived at the conclusion of arsenic poisoning by ruling out all of the causes he or others could propose, not on the basis of some positive evidence demonstrating arsenic poisoning.

            In the extreme, building a case of this kind is similar to the GOP's Schiavo case - Frist diagnoses via videotape, experts who turn out to be questionable examine Schiavo and pronounce she's not in a persistent vegatative state, questionable witnesses assert she's done some intentional things or insinuate her husband has a motive to want her dead.

            But on the other side there's positive evidence, like a CAT scan of her brain, a number of detailed reputable expert evaluations, simply the length of time elapsed.

            I could imagine ways, given 1850s sanitation and hot weather, that Taylor contracted food poisoning (I've had food poisoning twice and have no problem believing it could be fatal, which in fact it sometimes is). I could imagine ways other than a conspiracy of Southerners that could lead to actual arsenic poisoning (jealous mistress, angry wife, gay lover, even suicide based on threats of being outed or just depression, and a host of other scenarios, many difficult to discover). There could be a host of other factors that have been overlooked or Parenti is completely unaware of. In all those cases, as the cliche goes, absence of evidence isn't evidence of absence.

            If Parenti's chain of reasoning depends (just for the sake of example) on 5 assertions that are each 80% probable, the likelihood of him being completely correct is less than 1 in 3.

            About the only thing that's really certain is that a) Taylor died and b) he was ill with a particular constellation of symptoms at the time. There really isn't any proof even of a causal relation between b and a. He might have coincidentally suffered a massive coronary, blew an aneurysm, or had a stroke for all I know of the quality of 1850s autopsies (if one was even performed).

            None of that is proof that Parenti is wrong or that he's right either. It sounds like he raises interesting questions and possibilities. But simply based on the methodology as described, it doesn't rise beyond the level of interesting in my view.

            There are all kinds of assertions that some particular historical fact is in error, and sometimes they even become accepted as correct, but that's generally on the basis of some positive evidence which makes the case.

            Maybe I'm just overly skeptical.

            We all go a little mad sometimes - Norman Bates

            by badger on Sun May 29, 2005 at 11:09:03 PM PDT

            [ Parent ]

  •  The stand-up comic George Wallace addressed this.. (none)
    .....a few years ago. In his stand-up routine "People do stupid things", he noted the (then-forthcoming) exhumation and investigation into the poisoning theory and said, "So what if he was? What are they going to do? Dig up the guy they thought gave him the poison and throw his ass into jail"!?

    "We should pay attention to that man behind the curtain"

    by Ed Tracey on Sun May 29, 2005 at 05:38:15 PM PDT

  •  Strange Customs (none)
    When my dad was a small boy in San Francisco, ca 1930's, he was forbidden to eat cherries with cold milk.  He was told it was certain death.  He might not "believe" it still, but he gets nervous if he sees someone doing so.
    •  Hey, WI Deadhead, (none)
      I have heard that the myth about the deadly effect of cherries and milk derives directly from the conventional wisdom of how Taylor died. The story got out that Taylor died from the lethal combination of cherries and milk, and it became a well-circulated bit of folk wisdom.

      I cannot recall where I heard that, (It was not in Parenti). Thanks for providing an example of this rumor circulating.

      America: It's a good IDEA for a country ...

      by Tony Seybert on Sun May 29, 2005 at 08:53:55 PM PDT

      [ Parent ]

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