November 1991 | Volume 42, Issue 7
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.
Consider the evidence. If we confine ourselves to Presidents, we know that four of them (Lincoin, Garfield, McKinley, and Kennedy) died by gunfire. A fifth, Reagan, was wounded but survived. However, that does not fully tell the tale of efforts to assassinate our Chief Executives. First, actual sitting Presidents. Back in 1835 a demented house painter named Richard Lawrence fired at Andrew Jackson with two pistols from less than thirteen feet away. Fortunately neither one discharged, and the would-be killer was lucky indeed that Jackson did not get his hands on him then and there. In 1950 two extremist advocates of Puerto Rican independence, Oscar Collazo and Griselio Torresola tried to shoot their way into Blair House, where President Harry Truman was then living during repairs to the Executive Mansion. They were killed by Secret Service men before reaching the front door. And within recent memory, in 1975, two women shot at President Gerald Ford within the space of eighteen days—Lynette (“Squeaky”) Fromme and Sara Jane Moore.
Past and potential Presidents are yet another category. In 1912 former President Theodore Roosevelt was in Milwaukee about to make a speech when a man named John Schrank shot him in the chest at almost point-blank range. Roosevelt was saved from death because the bullet hit his spectacle case and the folded copy of his fiftypage speech before lodging in muscle. Always the apostle of strenuousness, he characteristically insisted on finishing the speech before going off to the hospital.
In 1933 Giuseppe Zangara fired at President-elect Franklin D. Roosevelt, missing him but mortally wounding Chicago’s mayor, Anton Cermak, who was standing next to Roosevelt’s car.
That’s ten Presidents out of forty. And not a poisoner among the killers.
Moving out of the presidential spotlight, 1 did find a governor—Frank Steunenberg of Idaho—blown up in 1905 by dynamite, which was easily available in the state’s many mining regions. But that seems to be an exception. Bombs at the time were—well, the Russian way.
In the end I discovered one alleged and one genuine poisoning of unusual interest. The first involves President Warren G. Harding, who died in 1923 of a suspected heart attack or thrombosis following a case of ptomaine poisoning. The uncertainty is because his widow permitted no autopsy. Seven years after his death, in a book called The Strange Death of President Harding , one Gaston B. Means claimed that he had worked for Mrs. Harding as a private eye to check on Harding’s infidelity. He insisted that she poisoned her husband because she knew of the impending scandals in his administration and wanted to spare both of them the horror of impeachment. But Means, according to all reliable evidence garnered by Harding’s biographers, was a convicted felon, a con man, and a perjurer par excellence , whose credibility is zero. And I do hope that no one is waiting, shovel in hand, to take the matter further.
But what about the one genuine case? That involves George Wythe (1726-1806), a signer of the Declaration of Independence, a most distinguished Virginia jurist, the nation’s first professor of law, and the private law tutor of Thomas Jefferson, John Marshall, and Henry Clay. In his eightieth year Wythe was living at home in Richmond with two slaves whom he had freed: a woman named Lydia Broadnax and her partly white son, Michael Brown, who took care of him. Wythe provided for their support in his will and, what was more, left an income to be applied to educating Michael under the guardianship of Wythe’s old pupil and friend, Jefferson.
Also in the household was a grandnephew of Wythe, one George Sweney, who appears to have been a consummate villain and thief and who, unbeknownst to the old man, had forged checks in his name. Wythe had innocently willed Sweney some income and provided as well that if Michael died, Sweney should get Michael’s share of the estate. Sweney managed to find this out and on a May morning sprinkled arsenic into the morning coffee of Broadnax, Michael, and Wythe.
Michael, according to Sweney’s plan, perished. But Lydia survived, and Wythe lingered in agony long enough to realize what had happened and to disinherit his wicked and murderous relative.
It is a black tale, and in time was made more lurid by accusations that Michael was really the son of Wythe and Lydia. Fawn Brodie repeated these rumors as fact in her 1974 study of Thomas Jefferson’s alleged miscegenation with his slave Sally Hemings. Wythe’s latest biographers most indignantly deny the story and seem, to me, to offer some convincing refutation. But one way or another, George Wythe remains probably the most distinguished person I am aware of to die at a poisoner’s hand, a most unusual American fate.
And what happened to the outrageous Sweney? He was arrested and indicted for the double killing. But the evidence linking him to the poison came largely from Lydia, and Virginia did not permit the statements of “negroes” to be used against whites. So her testimony was withheld from the jury, which returned a not-guilty verdict, and Sweney went free.
Now that was the Southern way in 1806.