Zachary Taylor’s Body Taken From Crypt for Arsenic Tests
A coroner performed tests Monday on President Zachary Taylor’s remains to check the theory that he was poisoned nearly 141 years ago during the pre-Civil War struggle over slavery.
About 200 people stood silently as Taylor’s flag-draped coffin was removed from a crypt at Zachary Taylor National Cemetery and taken to the Jefferson County coroner’s office.
Coroner Richard Greathouse planned to conduct chemical tests on hair, nail and bone samples to detect any trace of arsenic, which author Clara Rising and a University of Florida forensic anthropologist suspect may have killed Taylor.
The coroner said he had not decided whether more sophisticated tests would be required. Dr. George Nichols, the state medical examiner, said a set of the samples would be sent to a second laboratory for independent tests. Results would be announced publicly in about two weeks, he said.
If Taylor was poisoned with arsenic, researchers should be able to find it, even though he died July 9, 1850, because the poison lingers in body tissue.
Taylor’s cause of death was listed as gastroenteritis after his sudden illness. But Rising, of Holder, Fla., contends that Taylor may have been killed for opposing the spread of slavery into the Southwest.
Rising persuaded Greathouse to conduct the analyses on Taylor’s remains and was on hand as the body was removed from the white marble crypt near Taylor’s boyhood home in Louisville. The forensic anthropologist who supports her theory, William Maples, was assisting in the examination.
Also at the cemetery was the 12th President’s great-great-great-grandson, Dabney Taylor, who said he had no opinion on the assassination theory.
“Rumors have been running through the family for years and years,” he said. “I’m just glad that somebody is finally going to do something about it.”
Taylor, who lives in Louisville, said stories passed down through his family held that, if his ancestor had been murdered, Sen. Henry Clay of Kentucky--known as “the Great Compromiser”--would be a prime suspect.
But Keith Melder, curator of the Smithsonian Institution’s Division of Political History in Washington, cast doubt on theories concerning Clay’s involvement in an assassination plot.
“It’s beyond belief that Henry Clay would do anything like that or conspire to do so,” Melder said, noting the Clay was known for his ability to negotiate and that he and Taylor were both Whig Party members.
Dr. Elbert B. Smith, a former University of Maryland history professor who recently wrote a book on Taylor, discounted Rising’s theory entirely.
Rising, who has researched her book on Taylor for 16 months, thinks that someone put arsenic in fruit that Taylor ate a few days before he died. She agreed to pay for the exhumation, which will cost at least $1,200.
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