Death in the White House - Zachary Taylor

Zachary Taylor
12th President 1849 – 1850

President Taylor served in stormy times. Taylor had a notable military career and was the first President not previously elected to any other public office. The issue of slavery in new territories was foremost during his 16 months in office. He encouraged California and New Mexico to bypass the territorial stage and apply for statehood. This allowed them to settle the slavery issue in their state constitutions. Southerners were furious, since neither state constitution was likely to permit slavery. In February 1850, President Taylor held a heated conference with southern leaders who threatened secession. He told them that if it was necessary to enforce the laws, he personally would lead the Army. Persons "taken in rebellion against the Union, he would hang ... with less reluctance than he had hanged deserters and spies in Mexico." He never wavered.

On July 4, 1850, Taylor fell ill after participating in ceremonies at the Washington Monument. After returning to the White House he ate a large quantity of iced milk and cherries, one of which may have been contaminated. He died five days later on July 9, 1850. Taylor's funeral was held on July 12 and his funeral hearse was drawn by eight white horses followed by a procession of family, friends, and dignitaries. More than 100,000 people lined the funeral route to see the hero laid to rest. He left behind a country sharply divided. Originally buried at the Congressional Cemetery in Washington D.C., Taylor's final resting place is in Louisville. Rumors of Taylor having been poisoned circulated up until modern times. In 1991 his remains were exhumed and examined. Samples of hair and fingernail tissue were brought to Oak Ridge National Laboratory for study. The examiner announced that the arsenic levels in the samples were several hundred times less than needed for the President to have been poisoned with arsenic.

Funeral Procession
The Daily National Intelligencer, a Washington newspaper, reported on the funeral services and procession. The body lay in the East Room of the White House and there the last ceremonies of the church were performed. President Fillmore sat at the foot of the bier with the constitutional advisers of the President. In the southern portion of the room were the distinguished Chiefs of the Army and the Navy, including the General-in-Chief of the Army, Winfield Scott, with his staff; Naval Commanders; Officers of the Marine Corps; the Major General of the Militia, with his aides, and Officers of the Engineer Corps. On the opposite side sat the immediate relatives of the deceased: Col. Taylor, his brother, Dr. Wood, Col. Bliss, the Hon. Jefferson Davis, and others.

"The Catafalque, or moving bier, which bore the mortal remains of the late President, was drawn by eight white horses, splendidly caparisoned, each led by an attendant groom in white turban and corresponding dress. The car, large and elevated covered with black, and hung round with festoons of white silk, was surmounted by a canopy, above which was seen the American Eagle, deeply shrouded, in fact almost hidden, in black crape. The coffin occupied a conspicuous position, and was fully exposed to view. But all eyes were drawn even from this solemn sight to one still more calculated to touch the feelings of a promiscuous assemblage; it was the General's favorite horse, the far-famed "Old Whitey," so well known to every soldier who served under the brave old man through the perilous and glorious Mexican campaigns. He is a well-made animal, of some fifteen and a half hands in height, in fine condition, and, as it seemed, with a military air. On the saddle were the holders and inverted spurs. Poor fellow! He stepped proudly; but how would his pride have been quelled, could he have known that he now accompanied his beloved master for the last time! Yes, Whitey! You are surrounded by soldiers, as you were wont to be; the cannon thunder in your ear; that is a familiar sound; and near you is he whose heart never quailed and whose sword was never turned back from the fight; but, alas! He has met, at last, a foe he could not conquer, and the hand that so often patted your neck and reached you a morning token of his loving care, is cold in death and will caress you no more! ..."

At the Congressional Burying Grounds, the artillery was posted, the troops drawn up in double line, and the coffin, preceded by the clergy and attended by the Pall-Bearers, passed through the center gate. The receiving vault, "which had been tastefully decorated with festoons of black," was guarded to keep the crowd back. His remains were then transported by train back to his home in Louisville, Kentucky. The train departed on October 25, 1850, with "Old Whitey" along for the ride. There, they remained in the family vault until he and his wife were moved to their final resting place on May 6, 1926, in the mausoleum at Zachary Taylor National Cemetery, Louisville, Kentucky. He remained there undisturbed until June 17, 1991, when his body was brought out of the crypt for the exhumation.