Post-Mortem Publicity

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Blest be the man that spares these stones, And curst be he that moves my bones.

Such, I understand, is the inscription on the grave of William Shakespeare, and I would feel precisely the same way about my bones. And not only mine, but Zachary Taylor’s, which were rudely disturbed this June to satisfy the suspicions of a Florida author and onetime humanities professor named Clara Rising. While doing research for a book on “Old Rough and Ready,” our twelfth President, she began to find something out of joint about the official story that Taylor died of cholera morbus or acute gastroenteritis as a result of eating bacterially tainted cherries and cold milk on the hot Fourth of July of 1850.

Dr. Rising, who in an unusual combination holds a Ph.D. and has written a historical novel, grew convinced that Taylor was done in. The motive was slaveholders’ opposition to his insistence (though he was himself a Southerner and slave owner) that California and New Mexico, recently taken from Mexico, be allowed to enter the Union as free states. With Taylor out of the way, it was possible for “greedy, prancing politicians,” in her words, to work out a deal, the Compromise of 1850, that she believes only encouraged secession and Civil War.

The possible murder suspects were Sen. Henry Clay, a rival aspirant to the Presidency, Vice President Millard Fillmore, and “two Georgia politicians who physically threatened” Taylor. And the means—arsenic, easily obtainable and sprinkled into the fatal snack.

I wasn’t persuaded for a second. I’ll come back to my reasons later.

 

Rising persuaded Taylor’s heirs to permit the exhumation of the body from its crypt in Louisville, Kentucky, and a coroner’s analysis of enough bone and tissue samples to reveal the presence of arsenic, if there. She paid twelve hundred dollars out of her own pocket for the procedure. Apparently the money and the family’s consent is all it takes to root someone’s bones out of their last resting place.

While the forensic pathologists were doing their grisly work, I did note with a certain satisfaction that the episode had at least brought some American history back to the headlines for a brief hour. As a side effect it also surfaced a close friend, Professor Elbert B. Smith, whom I have known since we both were doctoral candidates at the University of Chicago quite some time ago. He has written a book on Taylor’s and Fillmore’s administrations. Called by the press, he made the very sensible comment that Taylor might well have been “poisoned” by the appalling medicines based on mercury, opium, and quinine with which his doctors dosed him, to say nothing of the bleeding and blistering to which he was subjected.

By the time I telephoned E.B., as he prefers to be known, the lab report was in. No arsenic, no nothing—and Dr. Rising has publicly professed herself satisfied. E.B. told me that he was glad too; we were already cynical enough about politicians without suspecting them of bumping off competitors. Besides, he argues, Rising and other historians are wrong in assuming that Taylor was blocking a compromise solution to the divisive questions surrounding slavery and California. The measures that finally passed embodied his very ideas on how to handle the crisis.

So that’s settled. But I learned recently that the body of Carl Weiss, the doctor who allegedly shot Huey Long and was then mowed down by Long’s bodyguards fifty-six years ago, is also going to be exhumed for examination. There are persons who believe that someone in Huey’s entourage shot him and that the guards either went berserk or by prearrangement gunned down a patsy on whom to pin the shooting. The idea is to check the position and angle of Weiss’s wounds for whatever light this might shed on his location at the crucial moment.

It sounds a bit farfetched to me. But my memory of Huey Long’s assassination is precisely the reason I never believed that anyone slipped some “leprous distillment” into Zachary Taylor’s dish. I was certain all the time.

Shooting is the American way. Especially, in the nineteenth century, the plantation owners’ way. If angry “Southrons” had wanted to get rid of Old Rough and Ready, the gun would have been the weapon of choice, used in the open. Poison is for, well, Empress Livia and the Borgias. Not technologically advanced or stand-up enough for our frontier folk. Actually, for almost any American up to now.