LOUISVILLE, Ky. -- The remains of Zachary Taylor were taken from his tomb Monday and carried in a flag-covered casket to a laboratory for tests to determine whether the 12th president of the United States died of poisoning.
Discovery of toxic levels of arsenic could force the rewriting of American history. If it is determined Taylor was willfully poisoned as suggested in a new book, it would mean that he -- and not Abraham Lincoln -- was the first U.S. chief executive assassinated.
Jefferson County Coroner Dr. Richard Greathouse Monday supervised the taking of samples from Taylor's remains in a search for evidence of arsenic poisoning.
The removal of the remains at the Zachary Taylor National Cemetery near Louisville was carried out under the eyes of the president's descendents and Clara Rising, a writer who is researching the book on Taylor.
Greathouse obtained permission for the removal after Rising's book suggested the possibility that someone put arsenic in fruit eaten by the 65-year-old president a few days before his death July 9, 1850, just 16 months after he took office.
But Elbert B. Smith, history professor emeritus of the University of Maryland and author of a recent book on Taylor, said he would be 'shocked and astounded' if forensic experts find that Taylor was poisoned.
He said Taylor died of gastroenteritis, which was compounded by malpractice on the part of his physicians.
Historians say Taylor had overtaxed himself on a hot Fourth of July celebration in 1850. He became increasingly ill after consuming large amounts of iced cherries and iced milk. Doctors, most historians agree, worsened his condition with odd concoctions and he died five days later.
'We'll try to get an answer as quick as we can,' Greathouse said. 'We'll need to find significant toxic levels. Whether we will is anybody's guess.'
William Maples, a forensic anthropologist at the University of Florida in Gainesville who specializes in skeletal remains, also attended Monday's removal of the remains. He said he believes Taylor's symptoms were consistent with arsenic poisoning.
Historian Betty Gist, a friend of Rising's, lives in the Taylor ancestral home near the cemetery and contends the reason given for Taylor's death 'doesn't add up.'
'Somebody as tough as Taylor doesn't eat a few little strawberries or cherries and keel over,' Gist said Monday.
Gist said Taylor, known as 'Old Rough and Ready' because of his heroics in the Mexican War, could have been killed because of his stance on slavery.
Even though he owned slaves, Taylor supported the admission of California and proposed the admission of the New Mexico territory as slave-free states and rejected any compromise with the South on the issue. When the South threatened secession, he said he would use military force to put down a rebellion.
Taylor died during the controversy, which was settled after Vice President Millard Fillmore succeeded to the presidency.
New Mexico was not admitted to the union until 1912.