Stacy Conradt
Stacy Conradt

Zachary Taylor

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.

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History
The Curse on Shakespeare's Grave
Ben Pruchnie, Getty Images
Ben Pruchnie, Getty Images

It's a pretty good practice to avoid incurring the wrath of the dead in general, but if there's a ghost you really don't want to upset, it's probably William Shakespeare's. Just think of the many inventive ways he killed people in his plays. That's why the curse on his grave at the Church of the Holy Trinity in Stratford-Upon-Avon should be taken seriously:

"Good friend for Jesus sake forbeare, To dig the dust enclosed here. Blessed be the man that spares these stones, And cursed be he that moves my bones."

It's thought that the warning was penned by Shakespeare himself. In his day, it was common for bodies to be exhumed for research purposes or even just to make room for more burials, and the Bard did not want that to happen to his remains. So far, his warning seems to have worked. Even when the grave received some repairs in 2008, workers said the stones would not actually be moved and the bones certainly would not be disturbed. 

It has recently been suggested that Shakespeare's remains be exhumed and studied using the same techniques that allowed us to learn more about King Richard III, so we may soon find out how effective that curse really is. Professor Francis Thackeray from the University of Witwatersrand in Johannesburg, who wants to exhume the bones, seems to be pushing his luck. "We could possibly get around [the curse] by at least exposing the bones and doing high-resolution, non-destructive laser surface scanning for forensic analyses without moving a single bone," he said. "Besides, Shakespeare said nothing about teeth in that epitaph."

Will it be enough to avoid the Bard's wrath? Only time will tell.

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politics
Grave Sightings: Hubert Humphrey
Stacy Conradt
Stacy Conradt

With the state of politics lately, it’s hard to imagine a generous act of kindness from one political rival to another. But if Hubert Humphrey and Richard Nixon were capable of burying the hatchet, there’s hope for anyone.

Humphrey, a senator from Minnesota, ran for president several times. In 1952, he lost the Democratic nomination to Adlai Stevenson. In 1960, of course, he faced a charismatic young senator from Massachusetts named Jack Kennedy. In 1968, Humphrey, who was vice president at the time, came closest to the presidency—but Nixon triumphed by a little more than 500,000 popular votes.


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Though he graciously admitted defeat and pledged to help the new president-elect, Humphrey wasn’t shy about criticizing Nixon. Just 10 months after Nixon took office, Humphrey stated that the administration had done “poorly—very poorly” overall, citing the increase in interest rates and the cost of living. Nixon and his team, Humphrey said, had “forgotten the people it said it would remember.” He was still making his opinions known four years after the election, turning his eye to Vietnam. “Had I been elected, we would now be out of that war,” he told the press on January 10, 1972.


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The Watergate scandal broke later that year, and Humphrey no doubt felt validated. He mounted another unsuccessful bid for the presidency in 1972, but lost the nomination to George McGovern. Humphrey briefly considered trying one more time in 1976, but ultimately nixed the idea. "It's ridiculous — and the one thing I don't need at this stage in my life is to be ridiculous," he said. The public didn’t know it at the time but the politician had been battling bladder cancer for several years. By August 1977, the situation had become terminal, and Humphrey was aware that his days were numbered.

When he knew he had just a few weeks left to live, Humphrey did something that would stun both Republicans and Democrats: He called former rival Richard Nixon and invited him to his upcoming funeral. He knew that Nixon had been depressed and isolated in his political exile, and despite the Watergate scandal and the historical bad blood, he wanted Nixon to have a place of honor at the ceremony. Humphrey knew his death would give the former president a plausible reason to return to Washington, and told Nixon to say he was there at the personal request of Hubert Humphrey if anyone questioned his motives.

Humphrey died on January 13, 1978—and when the funeral was held a few days later, Nixon did, indeed, attend. He stayed out of the Washington limelight, emerging right before the ceremony—to audible gasps. Humphrey’s gracious act must have been on Nixon’s mind when he listened to Vice President Walter Mondale sing the fallen senator’s praises: “He taught us all how to hope, and how to love, how to win and how to lose. He taught us how to live, and finally he taught us how to die.”

Nixon wasn’t the only former foe whom Humphrey had mended fences with. Barry Goldwater, who ran against Humphrey in 1964, had this to say:

“I served with him in the Senate, I ran against him in campaigns, I debated with him, I argued with him. But I don’t think I have ever enjoyed a friendship as much as the one that existed between the two of us. I know it may sound strange to people who see in Hubert a liberal and who see in me a conservative, that the two of us could ever get together; but I enjoyed more good laughs, more good advice, more sound counsel from him that I have from most anyone I have been associated with in this business of trying to be a senator.”

After the ceremony in D.C., Humphrey was buried at Lakewood Cemetery in Minneapolis. His wife, Muriel, joined him there when she died 20 years later.

Peruse all the entries in our Grave Sightings series here.

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