Speakeasy Science

Poison, Politics and Paranoia

On July 4, 1850, U.S. President Zachary Taylor attended an Independence Day celebration where he ate well – snacking on fresh cherries and creamy milk, sampling a variety of treats pressed on him by enthusiastic well-wishers. Five days later, Taylor was dead of a severe attack of gastroenteritis.

And for decades afterward, suspicions lingered that one of those so-called well-wishers had been an assassin, had mixed arsenic into a slice of pie or dish of ice cream. A high dose of the metallic poison arsenic can also bring on severe nausea and painful stomach cramps.

Finally, in 1991, one of Taylor’s descendants agreed to have his body removed from its resting place – a mausoleum in a cemetery in Louisville, Kentucky – and tested for arsenic. The poison, thanks to its durable metallic nature, can be found in remains (notably hair and dried tissue) for hundreds of years after death.

But, in Taylor’s body? Not a trace of arsenic poisoning. Oh, there was a little arsenic in there but we all have a little, evidence of basic background exposure to a natural element. The conclusion was that, just as his 19th century doctors had suspected, he’d probably picked up a bacterial infection from eating cherries and milk that had sat too long in the sun.

Yes, for all those suspicions, the president had simply eaten bad food. He should have been watching his cherries not worrying about his enemies.

The Taylor case makes an excellent context for another claim of political poisoning of a U.S. President from recent first lady Laura Bush. In her newly released book, Spoken from the Heart, Mrs. Bush has suggested that her husband, former President George W. Bush, herself, and members of his delegation were poisoned at a dinner held during the 2007 G8 economic summit in Germany.

As with the Taylor case, in fact, doctors thought differently, concluding the Americans had picked up a virus while traveling. The U.S. Secret Service admitted to checking for possible poisons, but only as a matter of routine. And the affronted hotel where the dinner was served, issued a statement last week calling Mrs. Bush’s claim a publicity stunt to sell books.

It is true that the story has gotten more media coverage than most aspects of the book; I counted more than 80 news stories myself. And it’s also, unfortunately true, that it’s even thinner a tale than that spun around Zachary Taylor’s death. There’s not even a suggestion of what the poison might be – or why assassins would chose a toxin clearly didn’t work very well. Or if anyone else became ill, which Mrs. Bush admits she didn’t bother to check.

But if she’d been aiming for publicity only, I’d like to believe that she would have spun something more convincing. If we can wonder about Zachary Taylor’s death for 130 years, the Bushes are entitled to indulge themselves in a little assassination paranoia over a virus in Germany.

Presidents tend to become consumed with their own importance, after all. And politics can be poisonous.

Comments

  1. #1 Michelle
    May 11, 2010

    My instinct, upon reading that excerpt from Mrs. Bush’s book, was that it was simply a case of poor risk analysis as is typical of the human race. Kind of like the high percentage of people who are afraid of flying but think nothing of getting in a car, even though you’re far more likely to be injured or killed in an auto accident than a plane crash. President, First Lady or plain old citizen, you’re far more likely to be the victim of a viral or even bacterial pathogen than you are to be the victim of a poison-based assassination plot. Or any assassination plot, I’d hazard a guess. ;)

  2. #2 Schlupp
    May 15, 2010

    Why is it “unfortunate” that the Germans did very likely not try to kill the American president?

  3. #3 Deborah Blum
    May 15, 2010

    I could have put that better, obviously. I meant that it was too bad that she’d bothered to spin a story with so little credibility, that it was a thinner tale even than the idea that Taylor was poisoned during the Independence Day celebration.

  4. #4 Xenobiologista
    May 19, 2010

    You’d think the US president getting food poisoning would make him more sympathetic and likely to pledge more funding for infectious diseases research domestically and medical aid and clean water supplies in developing countries… For instance, FDR having polio probably helped give the disease a lot of publicity in the American consciousness.

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