31 Days of History: 9 July

On this day, 9 July 1850 (159 years ago today) the 12th President of the United States, Zachary Taylor, died after a short illness. The exact cause of his death is unclear, and still disputed by some historians with nothing much else to do.

The 12th POTUS, Zachary Taylor

Taylor was known by the affectionate nickname "Old Rough and Ready". He had a 40-year military career in the U.S. Army, serving in the War of 1812, Black Hawk War, and Second Seminole War before achieving fame leading U.S. troops to victory at several critical battles of the Mexican-American War--all of this before he entered politics in 1848. Taylor was the first US President never to have held previously elected office!

General Rough & Ready

On a scorching Fourth of July in Washington, D.C., Taylor attended festivities at the newly dedicated grounds upon which the Washington Monument would be erected. According to several sources, Taylor gulped down a large quantity of cucumbers, cherries and iced milk and then returned to the White House, where he quenched his thirst with several glasses of water. While at the festivities, he also sampled several dishes presented to him by well-wishing citizens of DC.

ZT's official White House Portrait

Taylor died on the evening of July 9, after four days of suffering from symptoms that included severe cramping, diarrhea, nausea and dehydration. His personal physicians concluded that he had succumbed to cholera morbus, a bacterial infection of the small intestine.

Outbreaks of cholera, a deadly disease caused by bacteria, occurred frequently during the summer months in hot, humid Washington during the 1800s, when sewage systems were primitive at best. The bacteria were most likely present in the water or iced milk Taylor drank, though other sources have claimed that Taylor died of gastroenteritis. Others suspected food poisoning or typhoid fever. For the conspiracy theorists among us, there is the suggestion of foul play. Taylor adamantly opposed the spread of slavery and vowed to personally lead a military attack against any state that threatened to secede from the Union. (To further muddy the water, it should be noted that he was opposed to the "spread of slavery", not slavery itself. Taylor was from Virginia and he and his family had owned slaves for many years).

In the late 1980s, author Clara Rising theorized that Taylor was murdered by poison and was able to convince Taylor's closest living relative and the Coroner of Jefferson County, Kentucky, to order an exhumation. On 17 July 1991, Taylor's remains were exhumed and transported to the Office of the Kentucky Chief Medical Examiner, where radiological studies were conducted and samples of hair, fingernail and other tissues were removed. The remains were then returned to the cemetery and received appropriate honors at reinterment. Analysis conducted revealed no discernible levels of poison.

His vice president, Millard Fillmore, was sworn in as the new president the next day. He was the second Vice President to assume the presidency upon the death of a sitting president--the first being when was John Tyler was sworn in after the death of the 9th President William Henry Harrison.

The always distinguished Millard Fillmore

Here's a couple of brief pieces of Zachary Taylor trivia:
Taylor and his wife Margaret had six children (which might explain the look on her face).

One of Taylor's daughters, Sarah Knox Taylor married Jefferson Davis, the future President of the Confederate States of America.

Their only son, Richard, would become a lieutenant general in the Confederate Army who served with distinction throughout Northern Virginia and the southern campaign.

First Lady Margaret Taylor (top) with her son Richard (left) and son-in-law Jefferson Davis (right)

As a soldier always moving from location to location, Taylor never established an official place of residence and never registered to vote-He didn't even vote in his own election.

Taylor kept his favorite horse from the Army--"Old Whitey"--on the White House grounds and would give visitors a couple of white hairs from his famous horse as mementos.
Zachary Taylor and Old Whitey

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