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Zachary Taylor Did Not Die of Arsenic Poisoning, Tests Indicate

June 27, 1991|ERIC HARRISON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

CHICAGO — As murder mysteries go, the tale of former President Zachary Taylor ended Wednesday considerably less gripping than anything Raymond Chandler wrote.

Anticlimactic might be a better description.

"It is my opinion that President Zachary Taylor was not poisoned by arsenic," Dr. George Nichols, the Kentucky medical examiner, said at a press conference in Louisville.

Case closed.

Amid great media attention and hoopla, Taylor's body was exhumed June 17 from its limestone mausoleum at the National Cemetery in Louisville and examined to test an author's theory that the 12th President was murdered, perhaps because of his opposition to the extension of slavery to Western states.

Clara Rising, a historical novelist writing a book about Taylor, noted that Taylor's symptoms matched those of arsenic poisoning.

Nichols said Wednesday, though, that while it is impossible to determine with certainty what killed Taylor, "it is my opinion that Zachary Taylor died of one of a myriad of natural diseases which would have produced the symptoms of gastroenteritis."

Taylor was stricken with stomach cramps July 4, 1850, and died five days later, less than a year and a half after assuming office.

Had Taylor not died in 1850, Rising believes--and historians concede--he might have altered the course of history, perhaps delaying or even preventing the Civil War.

"We have the truth and that's what we were after," Rising told the Associated Press from her Florida home. "I have very strange feelings about it. I think I would have been sad if arsenic had been found because then we would know his life had been ended by his enemies."

The cause of his death had never been an issue of concern or discussion among Taylor descendants, said Anne LeBourgeois of Chicago, Taylor's great-great-great-great-granddaughter. "Nobody ever brought it up," she said. "It was not a question at all."

But the family decided to allow the body to be exhumed for the sake of history, she said.

LeBourgeois, who manages an Ann Taylor store in Chicago--"pure coincidence," she said--was one of a handful of descendants who traveled to Louisville to be on hand when the crypt was opened.

Hair, fingernails and bone scrapings from Taylor's body were analyzed for arsenic, which doctors said would still be detectable in the samples even after so much time has passed.

Nichols said Wednesday that arsenic was found in low levels, but he noted that small amounts of arsenic are found in nature. If Taylor had died of poisoning, he said, the amounts found would have been 200 to as many as thousands of times higher.

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