Saturday, March 13, 2010

The Death of Zachary Taylor

Prompted by a comment left by Frances Hunter, I've consulted some sources about the medical treatment administered to President Zachary Taylor before his death on July 9, 1850.

The onset of the illness is pretty well known. On Thursday July 4, 1850, Taylor sat outside for three hours or more listening to speeches and ceremonies at the uncompleted Washington Monument. The day was a brutal one, even by Washington standards. One source recorded the temperature as 92 degrees, and the humidity was “crushing.” A Washington correspondent noted “that numerous people fainted and that several horses dropped dead in the streets from sunstroke.” Taylor was 65 years of age may have been coming down with something even before the ceremonies started. John C. Waugh reports that Taylor “complained of dizziness and headache” as he arrived at the Monument.

Taylor apparently sat in the shade most of the time, but also spent some time in the blazing direct sunlight. Although he was in the sun for only part of the time, Taylor may have suffered from mild sunstroke and was almost certainly dehydrated.

When he returned to the White House, he (in the words of Elbert B. Smith) “ate raw fruit, probably cherries, and, reportedly, various raw vegetables as well, which he washed down with large quantities of iced milk.” By early evening, he was feeling unwell and sent his regrets that he was unable to attend a dinner party. Soon after he was seized with a violent attack of “cramps, indigestion, diarrhea and vomiting.” At first the president, who had a history of intestinal disorders, was not concerned. “But by midnight he was much worse.”

It is unclear when physicians were first called. John C. Waugh and Elbert B. Smith indicate that the president was treated quickly, apparently on Friday July 5. Mark J. Stegmaier states that “a physician was finally called in to attend him” only on the afternoon of Saturday July 6. Whenever the doctors arrived, they diagnosed “cholera morbus”, probably acute gastroenteritis, and prescribed "calomel (a mercury compound) and opium.”

Whether as a result of medical treatment or not, the president at first rallied somewhat. Although he canceled appointments on the morning of Friday July 5, by that afternoon he was feeling somewhat better, capable of signing documents relating to the Clayton-Bulwer Treaty and writing a few letters while resting on a sofa.

Then, at about 3:00 p.m that afternoon. Taylor endured a confrontational visit by Alexander Stephens and Robert Toombs, who angrily castigated the president over his position on the ongoing slavery crisis. Among other things, they told the president that his position endangered the Union, and they threatened to have the president censured over the Galphin Affair if he did not change his course. At that point the president was reportedly strong enough to defy his visitors and issue his own warning against threats of disunion:
Gentlemen, . . . if ever the flag of disunion is raised within the borders of these United States while I occupy the Chair, I will plant the stars and stripes alongside of it, and with my own hand strike it down, if not a soul comes to my aid south of Mason and Dixon's line.

There is some reason to wonder whether the stress of the Stephens-Toombs visit contributed to the president's subsequent relapse. Taylor was unable to sleep the night of July 5 – July 6 and became progressively more ill on Saturday July 6. By that afternoon (if not earlier), a doctor or doctors were called and administered “massive” doses of quinine and calomel. At some point, they added "[b]leeding and blisters" to their treatments.

Despite or because of these remedies, the president's condition became progressively worse. By Monday July 8, Taylor was feverish and delusional and recognized that death was near.

By Tuesday July 9, the president's life was clearly in the balance. During the course of the afternoon, his conditioned worsened, then rallied briefly. However, he then suffered a relapse that all present apparently recognized as final. The doctors ceased treatment and declared he was in God's hands. Death came at 10:35 that night.

Before midnight, there was a knock on Millard Fillmore's door at the Willard Hotel.


  1. Anonymous3:36 PM

    Great post! I think Taylor is a very interesting figure. I was surprised to learn of the elite background he came from in Louisville, given his "rough and ready" persona. Is there a good biography of him?

  2. Unfortunately, I have not read a biography of Taylor. The closest I have come is Elbert Smith's The Presidencies of Zachary Taylor and Millard Fillmore. Of course, most histories of the period and of the Compromise of 1850 will also include background on him.


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