He was arguably America's most obscure president, a thickset, plain-spoken man who managed to be overshadowed by his successor, the made-famous-by-trivia-games Millard Fillmore. In the 141 years since Zachary Taylor died in office, ostensibly from gorging himself on cherries and chilled buttermilk, not one appliance store has slashed prices in honor of his birthday. "He didn't have much of a career," says historian John Hope Franklin, referring to Taylor's 16-month term. His legacy faded fast; when he died, Taylor's Whig Party neglected to send condolences to Old Rough and Ready's widow. And then last week camera crews convened at his Louisville, Ky., grave. Suddenly the General Schwarzkopf of the Seminole and Mexican wars was a hot topic. In breakfast nooks and on car phones people were reminding each other of his anti-expansionist views on slavery and his arthritic hip. Mostly, though, they discussed the possibility that he had been murdered, perhaps even by - remember what your mother told you about watching out for those quiet ones? - Millard Fillmore.
Coming, as it did, during a relatively peaceful and sultry week in late spring, the exhumation of the 12th president fascinated Americans out of all proportion to its possible historical significance. If the experts in forensic anthropology (following story) find lethal levels of arsenic in Taylor's hair and bones, Lincoln will lose the distinction of being the first president assassinated. Beyond that, Taylor's alleged poisoning, assuming it was performed by pro-slavery forces, would only underscore what we already know about the enmity between North and South. "Suppose they find arsenic in his system," says Shelby Foote, the presiding spirit of last fall's PBS series "The Civil War," "where does that leave us? I don't think there's any point in engaging in what-might-have-beens." No, and few who followed the tale from Taylor's Crypt cared what it meant in terms of the Whigs and the slavery-limiting Wilmot Proviso. The lesson of last week was that there is nothing so irresistible as a mystery and few objects so compelling as a lead box sealed shut during the last century.
First with the urge to pry open Taylor's coffin was a silver-haired Southern woman named Clara Rising. A former humanities professor at the University of Florida at Gainesville and the author of a historical novel, "In the Season of the Wild Rose," Rising traces her intense interest in Taylor to a gathering of Civil War enthusiasts she attended in January 1990. Chatting there with Betty Gist, the owner of the Kentucky farm where Taylor lived as a young man, Rising began to realize how much the president's political foes had gained by his death. "They were dancing on his grave," she said last week, her voice ringing with contempt. Rising's strong feelings led her to the library and eventually to a Gainesville-based forensic pathologist, Dr. William Maples. She showed him contemporary accounts of Taylor's fiveday death agony, which had been ascribed to cholera morbus, a catchall phrase then used to describe a variety of intestinal illnesses. Maples said that it sounded more like "a classic case of arsenic poisoning."
One needn't be the county coroner to realize the cherry theory does sound a little shaky. "It is inconceivable," says Gist, "that this hearty, seasoned, toughened old warrior could eat some fruit and suddenly keel over." Why didn't someone suspect foul play sooner? After all, Taylor, though himself the owner of more than 100 slaves, opposed the expansion of slavery into the new territories of California and New Mexico. That position incurred the wrath of Southerners and their supporters, a group that included his own vice president, Fillmore. One reason suspicions weren't raised, says food historian Karen Hess, is that many people in the mid-19th century still believed that eating too much "chill food" - a category into which both fruit and milk fell - could cause death by upsetting the balance of the body's four "humors." But the main reason no one suspected assassination, says Elbert B. Smith, professor emeritus at the University of Maryland and the author of five books on the Taylor / Fillmore years, is that only a humanities scholar specializing in the Classic period - in other words, Clara Rising - could conceive of such a scenario. "Conspiracies and poisoning were very much part of the political process in ancient Rome and Greece," Smith says. "They were never part of the process in the United States of the 1850s."
Historians who have commented on Rising's research tend to suggest that her strong point is as a publicist for the book she is preparing on Taylor. "We're going to start exhuming bodies right and left," says C. Vann Woodward, regarded as the foremost historian of the American South. Woodward "can't attach any credibility to the motives ascribed to the chief figures involved in 'the killing'" of Taylor, though he would "recommend [exhumation] to any presidential biographer."
Rising does seem to relish the spotlight, but mostly because it affords her the chance to boost the man she always calls "Zachary" ("He accepted slavery because he was stuck with it") and say nasty things about people like Henry Clay ("When he heard Zachary died, he said, coldly, 'This will secure the passage of my compromise'"). Rising at one time tried to obtain samples of Taylor's hair from the Smithsonian's Division of Political History, which has locks from every president from Washington to James Buchanan. The Smithsonian, however, declined to provide the samples, partly because it couldn't say when they were taken. It also wanted to settle a separate controversy over whether Lincoln's hair and a bloodstain on his doctor's cuff, also in the possession of the museum, should be analyzed to see if he was genetically disposed to Marfan's syndrome (a disease of the connective tissue that causes elongation of the body and can lead to heart and eye problems). She also points out that she did not set off last week's publicity extravaganza. Working quickly and discreetly, she had secured written permission for the exhumation from a half dozen of the president's descendants and then through proper channels also obtained the cooperation of Richard Greathouse, the Jefferson County, Ky., coroner. It was the Department of Veterans Affairs in Washington, Rising believes, that leaked word of her exhumation request to the press and created what looked to some like a re-enactment of Geraldo's ill-fated dig into the "vaults" of Al Capone.
In fact, the process started about that auspiciously. As four gravediggers strained to lift the 1,200-pound marble top of the aboveground vault, they discovered a black walnut casket too rotten to move. Eight brass handles, and the musty remnants of silver cords and blue braiding, fell away at the slightest touch. The day, and Taylor's remains, were saved by a stillsturdy, if not entirely airtight, lead liner. Since the working space was too hot and cramped, Greathouse asked the workmen to place a canvas bag beneath the casket, which was then wrapped in a flag, wheeled out before some 150 spectators and taken to the county morgue for opening.
Rising saw Zachary a few minutes after the liner was opened with an electric saw. "It was a sacred moment," she says. Taylor, whose coffin had been placed on a hospital gurney, was wearing a white, pleated burial shroud, intact but beige-yellow with age. He had socks, gloves and, though his scalp had virtually vanished, a thick patch of hair. Greathouse, who has 16 years' experience at performing autopsies, noted that a hole in the lead liner above Taylor's chest had allowed air to come in and dry the remains completely, revealing a rather stubby-legged man with heavy brows and traces of arthritis. For Greathouse, it was a textbook case. "There was no odor, no bugs, nothing disagreeable at all," he said. Rising, despite the clinical surroundings and the presence of a crew videotaping the proceedings for historical purposes, says she was moved - not to tears but to "a very warm sort of feeling" that she had in some way expected. "I had at last met Zachary," she says. "And if someone had done him in, we were damn sure going to find out."
The test results should come back this week, but whether we will know the absolute truth about Taylor's final days seems less than certain. Arsenic, like other heavy-metal poisons, is a relatively easy substance to find in hair and bones, even many centuries after death. The fact that the president was not embalmed, at the request of his wife, Margaret, will also facilitate matters: 19th-century undertakers often relied on arsenic-laden potions. But some experts believe that Taylor's alleged enemies would need to have been terribly patient murderers, bent on killing the president at a slow but steady rate, for any evidence to have survived. "If it's an acute poisoning, one that happened all at once, there will be no way to tell," says Paul Sledzik, curator of anatomical collections at the National Museum of Health and Medicine, in Washington. The arsenic, he says, wouldn't have time to penetrate to the bone.
To Rising, of course, it's entirely conceivable that Zachary could arouse the kind of sustained passion necessary for a monthslong murder plot. As she points out, given the almost total lack of security in the White House in those days, any Tom, Dick, Millard or Henry could have walked right in at almost any time and tainted the larder. As for the less glorious theory, advanced by many mainstream historians, that Taylor died of the mercury and other poisons used in the medicines that treated cholera morbus - that doesn't interest her as much as the challenge of, sparking a Zachary Taylor Revival. Who would have thought she could pull it off, against greater odds than Old Rough and Ready faced in the famous (to her) Battle of Buena Vista? Perhaps Hollywood will call next - not just for the rights to her story, but to see if she can work a similar miracle for Hudson Hawk.
Men's are thicker and have heavier brow ridges. Older people have more tightly fitting skull bones.
The length of the long bone indicates overall height, muscle marks, such activities as spear hurling.
A woman's is wider and lower, and markings on one bone tell whether she was a mother.
The shape of the nasal passages can reveal race, as can prominent cheekbones (typical of Mongoloids) and the distance between eye sockets.
May contain bits of DNA that would reveal whether, for instance, Lincoln had Marfan's syndrome.