THE STRANGE DEATH OF ZACHARY TAYLOR, Part Two

Originally posted by Tony Seybert on 09/19/06

(For the first part of THE STRANGE DEATH OF ZACHARY TAYLOR, click here.)

“The Strange Death of Zachary Taylor” is going to be a regular feature at Progressive Historians. I hope I can do it weekly for a few months. I think it’s a good topic because, like any worthwhile historical subject, the interested historian must develop a basic understanding of a number of topics to get a handle on the subject of the death of Zachary Taylor, and why some knowledgeable people have suggested that he might have been poisoned. And I hope to provide some informative essays on some of these subjects.

THE REAL QUESTION

Maybe Zachary Taylor was just an old guy who succumbed to food poisoning or some other ailment. Perhaps the timing of his death in the middle of the Secession Crisis of 1850 was just a coincidence. When all the information you have at hand is just a few bare facts from a high school text book, this seems like the most likely explanation. I know I had no reason to doubt it when I was a kid who was interested in history and read a lot, including almost everything I could get my hands on about the presidents.

But Taylor’s body was exhumed in 1991 and traces of arsenic were found in his remains. It was not a lethal dose, but it did provoke this question among a few interested people, including myself and Michael Parenti: “Why was there any arsenic in his system?”

Instead of asking, “Who poisoned Zachary Taylor?” it might be more proper to ask, “Why was there arsenic in Zachary Taylor’s remains?”

Was it normal for the people of Taylor’s time to have a little arsenic in their body tissue? (I don’t know.)

Was Zachary Taylor treated with medicine that contained arsenic? ( I don’t know this one either. Kudos to mirrim for persuasively suggesting this possibility.)

Was the arsenic in his system the result of exposure to arsenic in the environment, in the water, in the air, in wallpaper, etc.? (Beats me.)

Did Zachary Taylor take arsenic on purpose, as a stimulant? (Arsenic was used as a stimulant in Victorian England in the 1880s, but I have no idea if it was used in this manner in 1850s America. In any case, from what I know of Taylor, I find it highly unlikely he was an arsenic addict.)

Was Zachary Taylor assassinated through arsenic poisoning? (It’s not impossible.)

And if Taylor was poisoned, who did it, and why?

The last question is the one I spend the most time on, and I don’t claim to have come up with the “smoking gun,” any evidence that “proves” that Zachary Taylor was poisoned. I just find answering this question – Why would someone poison Zachary Taylor? – to be kind of fun, an exercise that touches on many of the things I have studied in the last few years while writing a master’s thesis on Southern history.

I have been writing down ideas for topics for future essays, and it’s been an enjoyable diversion, trying to come up with ways to explain Southern history – or, rather, my own experience with Southern history – in a way that might help people who aren’t Southern historians to understand why I find the topic of Zachary Taylor’s demise to be so compelling, and why I find the idea he was poisoned to be plausible, and why it warrants so much attention.

WHAT IT’S ABOUT

Because it’s about so much more than Zachary Taylor. It’s about the Mexican War, and slavery, and Southern history. It’s about Southern ideas of honor, and “manifest destiny,” and a great national debate. It’s about medicine. It’s about cosmetics. It’s about Fourth of July celebrations. It’s about Henry Clay, Daniel Webster, John Calhoun, Stephen Douglas and a cast of other mid-century figures. Like Abraham Lincoln, who campaigned for Taylor in Illinois in the 1848 election. Like Jefferson Davis, who was Taylor’s son-in-law for a brief time. (Taylor’s daughter, Sarah Knox Taylor, succumbed to malaria on Sept. 15, 1835, about three months after she and Davis were married.)

Maybe it’s about Ulysses S. Grant a little bit, too. Grant served under Taylor in Mexico. It is said that Grant patterned himself after Taylor. Gen. George G. Meade, who served with Grant in the Mexican War and in the Civil War, said, “He puts me in the mind of old Taylor and sometimes I fancy he models himself on old Zack.” And Grant’s writings are full of admiration for Taylor. (Which is largely irrelevant to this essay, but I am reading Jean Edward Smith’s Grant at present and it has a bunch of stuff about Grant and Taylor that I never heard of before. So I thought I’d throw it in. Good book, by the way.)

I think my props are pretty good. I wrote a master’s thesis on Mississippi newspapers from 1800 to 1865, and anyone can click on the link in the bibliography to see the online version of my thesis. Readers can judge for themselves whether I have any credibility on Southern history.

THE ZACHARY TAYLOR PROJECT

I also want to encourage anyone who wants to help out with the Zachary Taylor Project (as I’ve named it just now). I’ve moved to Palmdale in northern Los Angeles County, and started a new job as a copy editor at the Antelope Valley Press (a job I really like, by the way) and I don’t have access to a lot of the material that would help shed some light on some of the topics relating to Taylor’s death. I am asking for assistance from my fellow progressive historians. I especially would like to see some of the beginner historians step up and take some initiative to look at primary documents and try to master some of the pieces of this puzzle.

What I’d like to do in the next few weeks is find out how many people are interested, where they are located, what kind of materials they have access to, and exactly what they are interested in. Anybody who already has some ideas can get started. Anybody who is interested but not sure what to do can leave a message on this diary or e-mail me. In a week or so, when I get some free time and I know who is interested, I can come up with some kind of plan.

It may be hard to get access to some of the material, but it is not as hard as it sounds at first. Researchers who live in large cities or college towns may be able to get access to old newspapers on microfilm, and these are a great source for a lot of things, after you become acquainted with the limitations of newspapers. (Trust me, all sources have their limitations.) Several times during my travels through the South, I spent all damn day in the archives looking at newspapers, fascinated with one weird thing and another. And sometimes, I would spend all day looking at this weird crap and not find anything that ended up in my thesis. In the archives at the University of North Carolina, I found some 1860-1861 newspapers from all over the world, collected by a Southerner who went on a world tour. I found a newspaper from Shanghai called the North China Herald from June 1861, in English because it was published for the British community of north China. I looked in it to see if they had any perspectives on the American Civil War (it was dated two months after Fort Sumter) and there was no mention of anything in the U.S. or Europe or outside of China. The Taiping Rebellion was going on, and the Europeans in China were very worried about being killed by the Taiping rebels, a huge army led by a Chinese man who claimed to be the little brother of Jesus. The Taiping Rebellion lasted for around fifteen years, and it made the American Civil War look like a barroom brawl. So the North China Herald was full of scary news about massacres all over China and instructions to the English community on what they should do to protect themselves.

Which is a little off-topic. But it just goes to show you the kind of unexpected stuff you find when looking through the archives.

If anyone is interested in the Zachary Taylor Project, contact me. I’m especially interested in hearing from anyone who has access to Southern History collections in colleges and universities in the South. One excellent source would be the collection at LSU in Baton Rouge, where the Zachary Taylor papers (what few there are) are located.

What are we looking for to start out? Newspapers from 1846 to 1850 are a great start. Not necessarily from the South. Newspapers nationwide traded copies of their newspapers with other news establishments, and part of the agreement was the free use of anything in the traded newspapers. Stories were distributed with astonishing speed. (The Mexican War was a time of great change for the press, as the telegraph was starting to be used, and an early version of the Associated Press had been established by several New York newspapers pooling their resources to make war coverage more efficient.) So the events of the summer of 1850 should be fairly well-covered in 1850 newspapers all over the country. I am hoping that we can find some coverage of Zachary Taylor’s illness, maybe even something about what the doctors used for treatment. This might give us a few clues that we can use to look a little closer into mirrim’s suggestion that many medicines of Taylor’s time contained arsenic.

That’s just an example. Here’s another example: Is there any evidence that Millard Fillmore was abolitionist-leaning? I find this very doubtful. But I must admit I don’t know that much about Fillmore. I just know that he is a conservative duck who has a very low IQ and no sense of humor but, thanks to affirmative action, he has his own comic strip. (Just kidding.) I have always heard that Fillmore was rather sympathetic to the South. You wouldn’t need to look at newspapers or primary sources for this. It’s probably available in whatever Fillmore biographies there might be, or any comprehensive history of the Secession Crisis or Taylor’s presidency.

I’m hoping that this exercise can generate some useful material, but I also think it can help beginner historians to understand a little better what historians do. It’s an awful lot of searching among primary documents and trying to figure out what your data means. You don’t always find what you think you’re going to find (unless you’re a conservative historian) and often you find a lot of stuff you never even thought about.

Next: An Essay on Southern History in general

But first, a few words on:

THE SLAVE POWER CONSPIRACY

In the comments to the previous diary on Zachary Taylor, several objections to the idea of a deliberate poisoning were raised. Some of the critics are valid and some of them have partaken more than a little from the fountain of logical fallacies. Hopefully, with a little help from my friends, we can look into some of these topics and evaluate the assassination hypothesis with a few more of the facts. Even if we find some pretty good evidence that Taylor died from natural causes or from 19th-century medical practices (or whatever), we can still learn a lot about the period just by examining why some people find it entirely plausible that he was assassinated.

Most of that will be in the future.

Right now, though, I want to say a few words on a subject that I hope to examine in more detail in the future. I’ll cal it the problem of the Slave Power Conspiracy, a phrase sometimes used in the historiography of the era. You don’t see it used much because historians shy away from it like they shy away from stuff like the controversial aspects of the JFK assassination and the Bush family’s involvement with the Nazis.

The Slave Power Conspiracy is a nebulous concept, but the gist of it is this: powerful men in the South, slave owners – members of the aristocracy – acted behind the scenes to promote the interests of their class. The most extreme version of the scenario speculates that they wanted to encourage secession because they would be more powerful in an independent South. They would be able to expand slavery to Mexico, Central America and Cuba, conquering and annexing these areas as they went, without the abolitionist North standing in the way of their conquests as they had in the 1830s and 1840s, greatly hindering the annexation of Texas, for example.

Or something like that.

Preposterous, you say?

In the early 1850s, an adventurer from Tennessee named William Walker, at the head of a private army recruited in California, invaded Baja California and even took over the town of La Paz for a time. A few months later, the remnants of this army marched into San Diego, a few steps ahead of pursuing Mexican troops. Walker and his men were arrested and tried for violating the Neutrality Act, but were found not guilty.

A few years later, Walker led another army, this time to Nicaragua, where he took sides in that country’s civil conflict. He was more successful in this venture, and was even president of Nicaragua for a while before he was run out of the isthmus by a coalition army of Central American nations. He attempted several more invasions before he was captured and executed by the government of Honduras.

It wasn’t just William Walker. These invaders were called filibusters, and it was all the rage in the late 1840s and 1850s. There were two invasions of Cuba and numerous excursions into northern Mexico and the Yucatan. Although some of these expeditions left from New York City and San Francisco, most of them departed from the South, especially New Orleans. And most of the recruiting was done in the South, and the trail of the organizing and funding often led suspiciously close to the biggest men of the South. (They usually covered their tracks pretty well, but John Quitman, governor of Mississippi at the time, had to resign because his involvement with the filibusters led to his prosecution on federal charges.)

(See Manifest Destiny’s Underworld: Filibustering in Antebellum America, by Robert E. May, for more information on filibustering.)

It’s not proof that there was a conspiracy, by any means, but the filibusters are one of a bunch of factors that make it impossible for me to dismiss the Slave Power Conspiracy.

Now, back to Zachary Taylor. If Zachary Taylor was poisoned, the Slave Power Conspiracy – whatever the heck it is – would be a prime suspect. Several people suggested that the secessionists would have wanted Zachary Taylor alive because he was so adamantly opposed to secession that it would have unified the South and made a successful secession effort more likely (or something). Therefore, they wouldn’t have killed Taylor.

I really can’t even make any sense of this, to be honest. If these secessionists specifically wanted war, then it almost makes sense. But I have never heard anyone suggest that the Slave Power Conspiracy specifically wanted war. They wanted out of the union.

But I’m not really sure what this cabal wanted, because I’m not sure it ever existed. A very small, vocal select few preached secession in 1850, and some of them probably wanted it. For many prominent Southerners, though, the secessionist talk was a bluff, a kind of extortion to make sure they got cooperation from Northerners who wanted to avoid war at all costs. What most of them most likely wanted, what the Compromise of 1850 was all about, was the expansion of slavery into the territories. This was the sticking point for Taylor. He wanted to keep slavery in its 1850 boundaries. It was a common belief that, kept within its boundaries of 1850, slavery would die out on its own, without the bloody civil war that was starting to seem more and more likely with each passing year. Now, we can argue about whether this is true or not, but it is important to realize that many people believed it, North and South, in the 1850s.

As the Secession Crisis wore on in 1850, it became pretty clear that the Omnibus Bill was not going to pass if it were put before Congress as a single bill. (The Omnibus Bill was the series of legislative compromises that was put together to keep the Union intact. For the North, California was admitted as a free state and the slave trade (but not slavery) was ended in the capital. For the South, the Fugitive Slave Act was strengthened and the question of slavery in the territories acquired from Mexico was left open. There’s more to it than that, but I’m writing this from memory. I’m just trying to give an idea of the purpose of the Omnibus bill.) Henry Clay, one of the most prominent architects of the bill, hoped that it would be passed as a set.

It was going to be a very near thing. The influence of the president could be crucial. Especially if the bill was broken up into its component parts, the president would have the power to veto the bills he didn’t like. It looked increasingly likely, in July 1850, that this was exactly how it was going to play out.

Taylor died at the right moment. Someone suggested that the new president Millard Fillmore was an even worse choice because he was abolitionist-leaning. I have never heard that Fillmore was abolitionist-leaning. Maybe it’s true, but I’d sure like to see somebody confirm this with a few details before I accept it. In any case, Fillmore did not interfere with the bills that resulted from the break-up of the Omnibus Bill, whereas Taylor had explicitly said he would.

I also suggested that the hypothetical poisoners might not have had any complex, political machinations in mind. It could have been simple revenge against a man who some viewed as a traitor to the South. (I have seen some of the stuff written about Taylor in 1850 Mississippi newspapers. Some of it is in my thesis.) We don’t have to look any further than the assassination of Abraham Lincoln to find a Southern conspiracy to kill a sitting president for no other reason than revenge. No tinfoil hat is needed to suggest that somebody might want to kill a president merely for revenge.

Yes, it is not implausible that Taylor died from natural causes. But there are many reasons to believe that purposeful assassination is a possible scenario. I am not sure why some people are so averse to me asking these questions. I find it to be a diverting hobby that touches on many interesting subjects that I would probably never have considered if I had not started examining this subject. Many other people are intrigued by the possibilities. And I certainly enjoy hearing sensible dissent.

If you find it ironclad that Zachary Taylor died from eating cherries and iced milk on a hot day with symptoms exactly like arsenic poisoning, and you know that those nice Southerners (like Preston Brooks and Nathan Bedford Forrest and John Wilkes Booth) would never do anything like that, then good for you! The rest of us will be having a blast!

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