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Washington D.C.’s July 4th tragedy

For The Madera Tribune

Former U.S. President Zachary Taylor.


No one can deny that President Zachary Taylor’s life was filled with strange twists. He was late receiving word of his election to the presidency in 1848, because the official notification came with postage due, and he refused to pay. As a matter of fact, he didn’t even vote in that election. It wasn’t until he was 62 years of age that he cast his first and last ballot.

The real irony in Taylor’s life, however, had nothing to do with voting or the postal service. The most unusual twist among his days on earth focused on a controversy surrounding his death — a controversy that wasn’t settled until just a few years ago.

On July 4, 1850, President Taylor was attending the groundbreaking ceremonies for the Washington monument. It just so happened that someone passed him a bowl of cherries and milk on that warm afternoon, and he became ill. Five days later he was dead.

Immediately rumors began to spread that the President had been poisoned. Southerners distrusted him mightily over the slavery issue, and their criticism was so vitriolic that there were some who steadfastly maintained that “Old Rough and Ready” had been done in with a dose of arsenic.

They buried Taylor in Louisville, Kentucky, and as the years passed, the cloud of suspicion continued to linger. Finally in 1991, some historians convinced Taylor’s descendants that indeed the president might have suffered arsenic poisoning. As a result, the President’s remains were exhumed, and Kentucky’s medical examiner brought samples of hair and fingernail tissue to Oak Ridge National Laboratory for study.

Working night and day, the scientists at the laboratory measured the level of arsenic in the hair and fingernail samples and found it to have been insufficient to kill Taylor. They concluded that Taylor’s demise had come as a result of the July 4th celebration. You see, it was the cherries and sour milk rather than arsenic that did him in.

So Zachary Taylor was returned to his plot in Louisville and laid to rest for a second time. He had served his country once more by putting an end to rumors that he had been the victim of a well-planned conspiracy. In this case it was fiction that was stranger than truth.

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