Zachary Taylor

Stacy Conradt
Stacy Conradt / Stacy Conradt

Every time we so much as touch a toe out of state, I’ve put cemeteries on our travel itinerary. From garden-like expanses to overgrown boot hills, whether they’re the final resting places of the well-known but not that important or the important but not that well-known, I love them all. After realizing that there are a lot of taphophiles out there, I’m finally putting my archive of interesting tombstones to good use.

When it comes to tragic presidents, Zachary Taylor is probably not the first one you think of. JFK likely springs to mind, probably Lincoln, maybe even Franklin Pierce, who lost all three of his sons when they were just children.

But Zachary Taylor had his own misfortune. He and his wife, Margaret, had five daughters and one son. Two of them died in childhood, both from malaria. Sarah Knox “Knoxie” Taylor was the second oldest and grew up to fall in love with Jefferson Davis, the man who would go on to become the President of the Confederate States of America. Though she met Davis when he was her father’s second-in-command at Fort Crawford during the Black Hawk War, Zachary and Margaret strongly opposed the marriage. They didn’t want Knoxie to have to live the hard military life of traveling from fort to fort with children in tow. Knowing how the Taylors felt, Davis decided to give up his military career to be with the love of his life. They got married on June 17, 1835, and traveled to Louisiana to see Davis’ older sister shortly thereafter. It was there that they both contracted—you guessed it—malaria. Davis recovered. Knoxie didn’t. She died on September 15, just short of their three-month anniversary.

Stacy Conradt

Once he recovered, the heartbroken Davis decided to resume his military career. But you have to wonder what would have happened with the Confederacy had the Davises not taken that trip to Louisiana, don’t you? One more interesting tidbit about Knoxie: When Davis remarried 10 years later, he took his second wife to Knoxie’s grave on their honeymoon.

But, back to Zachary Taylor himself. Though he had many military achievements under his belt, Old Rough and Ready may be most famous for the way he died: eating cherries. Well, that’s simplifying the matter. Here’s what happened: On July 4, 1850, President Taylor attended a fundraising event at the Washington Monument. He came home and helped himself to a snack of iced milk and raw fruit—likely cherries. He fell ill with stomach cramps almost immediately, and died just five days later. Many speculated that his system was shocked when he drank such cold milk on such a hot day, while others believed he had been poisoned. The latter theory was disproved nearly 150 years after his death: Taylor’s body was exhumed in 1991 and tested for arsenic levels. While there was indeed arsenic present, it was not enough to be fatal.

Stacy Conradt

In fact, what really happened is probably not so mysterious. Cholera, a gastrointestinal disease, was quite common at the time, especially during the warm summer months in Washington, D.C. Per everyone's favorite panic-inducer, WebMD, “[Cholera] is caused by eating food or drinking water contaminated with a bacterium called Vibrio cholerae.” For Zachary Taylor, life definitely wasn’t a bowl of cherries—just the opposite.

After a stint in the Congressional Cemetery in D.C., the 12th president was eventually moved to the family cemetery in Louisville, Kentucky. In the 1920s, the area around the Taylor family plot was turned into a national cemetery—Zachary Taylor National Cemetery, of course.

See all entries in our Grave Sightings series here.