Bill Kirby began his career with The Augusta Chronicle 40 years ago and has held just about every job in the newsroom. He and his wife Carla spend their spare time doting on their West Highland terriers, Lil' Bow Wow ("Buddy") and Snoop Dog. He writes several local columns each week, as well as YouTube videos on local history called "Kirby's Augusta." From 1998 until 2001 he was editor and publisher of The Columbia County News-Times. Over a 40-year newspaper career he has won more than 100 state, regional and national awards for reporting, editing, column writing, editorial writing, sports writing, business writing, investigative reporting, layout and design.
Posted July 9, 2010 05:47 pm - Updated July 12, 2010 10:34 am

Did someone kill the 12th president?

One-hundred and sixty years ago this weekend, the president of the United States up and died.

Some said the heat got to Zachary Taylor, who had spent July Fourth 1850 enduring a sweltering ceremony dedicating the Washington Monument.

Some said he got a fatal stomach disorder by trying to later cool off with a concoction of buttermilk and cherries (or cabbage or cucumbers.).

And some said he was assassinated, poisoned in a conspiracy of powerful Southern politicians furious at his obstruction to the expansion of slavery.

Some have even suggested a suspect – George Crawford, the former Georgia governor who was serving as U.S. secretary of war.

But is any of this true?

I doubt it, but it sure is curious.

Michael Parenti wrote a book called History as Mystery, which made a case that the 12th president of the United States was killed for a reason.

Perenti focused on the politics of the times, and wrote that Taylor – a Southern slave-holder -- surprised everyone when he suddenly began taking political stands against slavery expansion, threatening a compromise carefully crafted in Congress.

The solution? Get rid of the old war hero.

Millard Fillmore, the vice president who moved into the White House with Taylor’s death, was a New Yorker born near Canada. And while he might have favored the North, he was not known for taking strong political stands.

Growing interest in the poisoning theory finally prompted the well-publicized exhumation of President Taylor from a Kentucky grave.

But when they dug up “Old Rough and Ready” in 1991, they reportedly didn’t find any signs of arsenic poisoning.  It was more likely, modern medicos concluded, that he got some sort of infection from the unsanitary conditions of his times, or suffered a stomach ailment or received medical treatment that botched any hope for recovery.

So why would anyone suspect Crawford’s involvement in Taylor’s demise?

Probably because he was the only Deep South member of Taylor’s cabinet with the access that would bring.

Crawford had also killed someone before.

In 1828 he got the better of Thomas Burnside in a duel that sprang out of comments made about Crawford’s father.

That incident doesn’t seem to have hurt his reputation. Crawford later served in the Legislature and U.S. Congress. He was also Georgia’s governor – the only one ever born in Columbia County – in the 1840s.

Crawford died in 1872. His funeral was held at St. Paul's Church in downtown Augusta and he was buried in Summerville Cemetery.

Unlike the president on whose cabinet he served, I haven't heard that anyone tried to dig him up to see how he died.