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.