Digging Up Zach

updated 07/01/1991 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 07/01/1991 AT 01:00 AM EDT

EVEN "OLD ROUGH AND READY," AS war hero Zachary Taylor was known, could hardly have been prepared for the bizarre twist of events that has turned his death into a historical whodunit 141 years after the fact. Last week, under gloomy skies, the remains of America's 12th President were removed from their crypt at Zachary Taylor National Cemetery in Louisville, Ky.—just to answer a curious novelist's question: Did Taylor die of natural causes, or was he murdered?

Historians blame Taylor's death, at age 65 on July 9,1850, on an intestinal disorder brought on by overlarge helpings of cherries and ice milk after a steamy Fourth of July celebration. Bui Clara Rising, author of In the Season of the Wild Rose, a 1986 historical novel about a Confederate general, has sketched a darker scenario. She suspects someone put arsenic in his food. If she's right, Taylor, not Abraham Lincoln, would go down in history as the first American President to be assassinated.

A spunky mother of four and grandmother of six, Rising, 57, picked up hints of foul play last year after beginning research on a historical novel about Taylor. "The more I read about his death, the stranger it sounded," she says. "Zachary Taylor had survived the Seminole and Black Hawk wars. He had fought the British and the Mexicans. Lord, he had suffered through more than a hot day in Washington and a stomachache." His symptoms, she noted, were consistent with arsenic poisoning. And she theorized that his support for bringing California and New Mexico into the union as free states could have given proslavery fanatics a motive to do him in.

To exhume Taylor's body, Rising first had to gain permission from some of his descendants. "Clara presented a good case," says Helene Rufty, 29, a great-great-great-great-granddaughter from Winston-Salem. With the relatives' okay, Rising submitted her research to Jefferson County, Ky., coroner Dr. Richard Greathouse, who signed the exhumation order. "I realized I have a possible homicide," he says.

Historians remain skeptical. "She doesn't have a shred of evidence pointing to any single murderer," says Elbert Smith, author of The Presidencies of Zachary Taylor and Millard Fillmore. Smith and other historians suggest that the real culprits may have been Taylor's physicians, who unintentionally worsened his condition with potions containing quinine, mercury and opium.

But Rising expects to have the last word when hair, nail and bone samples collected at the coroner's office are analyzed this week. And after Taylor's remains were returned to their resting place accompanied by a military honor guard, she was fatigued but satisfied. "What held me together was that I was doing it for Zachary," Rising says. "Whatever the outcome, we will have the truth."

DAVID GROGAN
CIVIA TAMARKIN in Louisville

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