Zachary Taylor, the nation’s 12th president, was among the least politically experienced men to occupy the White House, and is still considered among our worst chief executives ever.
But he excelled on the battlefield as a fearless soldier who fought in and led major battles spanning the War of 1812, the Indian Wars and the Mexican War.
Jealous fellow generals mocked the Kentuckian’s lack of book learning and polish. But that didn’t matter after he triumphed over a Mexican force three times the size of the small command Taylor led in the Battle of Buena Vista near Monterrey in northern Mexico in February 1847. Standing on his horse, Taylor dodged a cannon ball shot between his legs, and went on to capture Monterrey City despite its apparent impregnability.
Before long, Taylor was being pushed forward as a candidate for the 1848 presidential election, though he’d never before voted or disclosed his political views. At the Whig Convention held at the old Chinese Museum building at Ninth and Sansom Streets in Philadelphia, Taylor won the nomination, and from there the general election.
It would be a short presidency. On July 4, 1850, a typically hot and humid summer day in the capital, Taylor went to a celebration to dedicate land that would hold the new Washington Monument. He enjoyed a cooling snack of fresh cherries and iced milk, and took a stroll later along the Potomac River.
That evening, he experienced abdominal cramps, diarrhea and then a fever. The next night, his worried physician administered opium, as well as mercury chloride, or “calomel,” used as a laxative, a disinfectant, and to treat syphilis until the early 20th century. It also was used in Philadelphia during a major outbreak of yellow fever.
But it didn’t help the president, who on July 8 declared: “I should not be surprised if this were to terminate in my death.”
The next day the doctors started bleeding therapy and skin blistering. But Taylor, age 65, died on July 9. The diagnosis was cholera morbus, what we would call today acute gastroenteritis, not the modern understanding of cholera.
Some suspected assassination, perhaps by poisoning. What actually took down this previously robust military man?
Arsenic poisoning, one leading theory for President Zachary Taylor’s sudden illness and rapid death, was ruled out by hair analysis many years later. In fact, Taylor’s case suggests salmonella or some similar bacteria, possibly from contaminated water used to wash the cherries he had eaten, or to make ice used to chill the unpasteurized milk he drank.
As it turned out, he had company in his sad fate.
A decade before, President William Henry Harrison died after just 31 days in office, also taken down by a sudden and fatal illness. After Taylor’s death, it was discovered that the water supply of Washington was contaminated by sewage that flowed into a marsh not far from the White House. The marsh provided an environment for salmonella bacteria and other organisms capable of causing typhoid fever and paratyphoid fever. There was no typhoid vaccine protection or antibiotic treatments as there are today.
Whatever the source of infection, the hot weather and Washington’s open, fly-infested sewers undoubtedly aggravated the situation. And Taylor’s fate was probably sealed by his doctor’s ill-conceived “treatments” of bleeding and calomel, a purgative, which worsened diarrhea and vomiting.
During Taylor’s short presidency, the greatest issue he faced was the extension of slavery into the newly acquired Mexican territories. By 1848, Taylor had come to oppose the creation of new slave states, and in December 1849 he proposed immediate statehood for California, whose new constitution explicitly prohibited slavery. Southerners in Congress, who feared a permanent Senate majority of free states, fought back bitterly. Two months after Taylor’s death, Congress adopted the Compromise of 1850: To appease the South, the fugitive slave law requiring Northerners to return runaway slaves to owners was made stronger, but the north gained a new free state, California. Though the slave trade was abolished in Washington, D.C, slavery remained legal. And Texas, a slave state, lost land that later became territories that could determine their own status, but Congress compensated Texas with $10 million to pay its debt.
Some scholars have revised history’s negative view of Taylor, opining that he was more a forgettable president than a failed one.
Allan B. Schwartz, M.D., is a professor of medicine in the division of nephrology and hypertension at Drexel University College of Medicine.