It may seem strange, but there is very strong evidence that the White House killed a number of presidents in the mid-nineteenth century. The deaths of Zachary Taylor, William Henry Harrison, and James K. Polk are all linked to something in the White House – although many believed that some presidents were poisoned by their enemies. William Bodkin explains all…

A poster of Zachary Taylor, circa 1847. He is one the presidents the White House may have helped to killed...

A poster of Zachary Taylor, circa 1847. He is one the presidents the White House may have helped to killed...

President of the United States is often considered the most stressful job in the world.  We watch fascinated as Presidents prematurely age before our eyes, greying under the challenges of the office.  Presidential campaigns have become a microcosm of the actual job, with the conventional wisdom being that any candidate who wilts under the pressures of a campaign could never withstand the rigors of the presidency.  But there was a time, not so long ago, when it was not just the stress of the job that was figuratively killing the Presidents.  In fact, living in the White House was, in all likelihood, literally killing them.

Between 1840 and 1850, living in the White House proved fatal for three of the four Presidents who served.  William Henry Harrison, elected in 1840, died after his first month in office.  James K. Polk, elected in 1844, died three months after he left the White House.  Zachary Taylor, elected in 1848, died about a year into his term, in 1850.  The only occupant of the Oval Office during that period to survive was John Tyler, who succeeded to the Presidency on Harrison’s death.  What killed these Presidents?  Historical legend tells us that William Henry Harrison “got too cold and died” and that Zachary Taylor “got too hot and died.”  But the truth, thanks to recent research, indicates that Harrison, Taylor, and Polk may have died from similar strains of bacteria that were coursing through the White House water supply.

Conspiracies and Legends

On July 9, 1850, President Zachary Taylor, Old Rough and Ready, former general and hero of the Mexican-American War, succumbed to what doctors called at the time “cholera morbus,” or, in today’s terms, gastroenteritis.  On July 4, 1850, President Taylor sat out on the National Mall for Independence Day festivities, including the laying of the cornerstone for the Washington Monument.  Taylor, legend has it, indulged freely in refreshments that day, including a bowl of fresh cherries and iced milk.  Taylor fell ill shortly after returning to the White House, suffering severe abdominal cramps.  The presidential doctors treated Taylor with no success.  Five days later, he was dead.

Taylor’s death shocked the nation.  Rumors began circulating immediately concerning his possible assassination.  The rumors arose for a good reason.  Taylor, a Southerner, opposed the growth of slavery in the United States despite being a slave owner himself.  While President, Taylor had worked to prevent the expansion of slavery into the newly acquired California and Utah territories, then under the control of the federal government.  Taylor prodded those future states, which he knew would draft state constitutions banning slavery, to finish those constitutions so that they could be admitted to the Union as free states.

Taylor’s position infuriated his southern supporters, including Jefferson Davis, who had been married to Taylor’s late daughter, Knox.  Davis, who would go on to be the first and only President of the Confederate States of America, had campaigned vigorously throughout the South for Taylor, assuring Southerners that Taylor would be friendly to their interests.  But in truth, no one really knew Taylor’s views.  A career military man, Taylor hewed to the time honored tradition of taking no public positions on political issues.  Taylor believed it was improper for him to take political positions because he had sworn to serve the Commander-in-Chief, without regard to person or party.  Indeed, he had never even voted in a Presidential election before running himself.

Tensions between Taylor and the South grew when Henry Clay proposed his Great Compromise of 1850, which offered something for every interest.  The slave trade would be abolished in the District of Columbia, but the Fugitive Slave Law would be strengthened.  The bill also carved out new territories in New Mexico and Utah.  The Compromise would allow the people of the territories to decide whether those territories would be slave or free by popular vote, circumventing Taylor’s effort to have slavery banned in their state constitutions.  But Taylor blocked passage of the compromise, even threatening in one exchange to hang the Secessionists if they chose to carry out their threats.

More speculation

Speculation on the true cause of Taylor’s death only increased throughout the years, particularly after his former son-in-law, Davis, who had been at Taylor’s bedside when he died, became President of the Confederacy.  The wondering reached a fever pitch in the late twentieth century, when a University of Florida professor, Clara Rising, persuaded Taylor’s closest living relative to agree to an exhumation of his body for a new forensic examination.  Rising, who was researching her book The Taylor File: The Mysterious Death of a President, had become convinced that Taylor was poisoned.  But the team of Kentucky medical examiners assembled to examine the corpse concluded that Taylor was not poisoned, but had died of natural causes, i.e. something akin to gastroenteritis, and that his illness was undoubtedly exacerbated by the conditions of the day.

But what caused Taylor’s fatal illness?  Was it the cherries and milk, or something more insidious?   While the culprit lurked in the White House when Zachary Taylor died, it was not at the President’s bedside, but rather, in the pipes.

During the first half of the nineteenth century, Washington D.C. had no sewer system.  It was not built until 1871.  The website of the DC Water and Sewage company notes that by 1850, most of the streets along Pennsylvania Avenue had spring or well water piped in, creating the need for a sanitary sewage process. Sewage was discharged into the nearest body of water.  With literally nowhere to go, the sewage seeped into the ground, forming a fetid marsh.  Perhaps even more shocking, the White House water supply itself was just seven blocks downstream from a depository for “night soil,” a euphemism for human feces collected from cesspools and outhouses.  This depository, which likely contaminated the White House’s water supply, would have been a breeding ground for salmonella bacteria and the gastroenteritis that typically accompanies it.  Ironically, the night soil deposited a few blocks from the White House had been brought there by the federal government.

Something in the water

It should come as no surprise, then, that Zachary Taylor succumbed to what was essentially an acute form of gastroenteritis.  The cause of Taylor’s gastroenteritis was probably salmonella bacteria, not cherries and iced milk.  James K. Polk, too, reported frequently in his diary that he suffered from explosive diarrhea while in the White House.  For example, Polk’s diary entry for Thursday, June 29, 1848 noted that “before sun-rise” that morning he was taken with a “violent diarrhea” accompanied by “severe pain,” which rendered him unable to move.  Polk, a noted workaholic, spent nearly his entire administration tethered to the White House.  After leaving office, weakened by years of gastric poisoning, Polk succumbed, reportedly like Taylor, to “cholera morbis”, a mere three months after leaving the Oval Office.

The White House is also a leading suspect in the death of William Henry Harrison. History has generally accepted that Harrison died of pneumonia after giving what remains the longest inaugural address on record, in a freezing rain without benefit of hat or coat.  However, Harrison’s gastrointestinal tract may have been a veritable playground for the bacteria in the White House water.

Harrison suffered from indigestion most of his life.  The standard treatment then was to use carbonated alkali, a base, to neutralize the gastric acid.  Unfortunately, in neutralizing the gastric acid, Harrison removed his natural defense to harmful bacteria.  As a result, it might have taken far less than the usual concentration of salmonella to cause gastroenteritis.  In addition, Harrison was treated during his final illness with opium, standard at the time, which slowed the ability of his body to get rid of bacteria, allowing them more time to get into his bloodstream.  It has been noted, that, as Harrison lay dying, he had a sinking pulse and cold, blue extremities, which is consistent with septic shock.  Did Harrison die of pneumonia?  Possibly.  But the strong likelihood is that pneumonia was secondary to gastroenteritis.

Neither was this phenomena limited to the mid-nineteenth century Presidents.  In 1803, Thomas Jefferson mentioned in a letter to his good friend, fellow founder Dr. Benjamin Rush that “after all my life having enjoyed the benefit of well formed organs of digestion and deportation,” he was taken, “two years ago,” after moving into the White House, “with the diarrhea, after having dined moderately on fish.  Jefferson noted he had never had it before.  The problem plagued him for the rest of his life.  Early reports of Jefferson’s even death stated that he had died because of dehydration from diarrhea.

Presidents after Zachary Taylor fared better, once D.C. built its sewer system.  The second accidental President, Millard Fillmore, lived another twenty years after succeeding Zachary Taylor.  But what about the myths surrounding these early Presidential deaths?  They were created, in part, by a lack of medical and scientific understanding of what really killed these men.  With the benefit of modern science we can turn a critical eye on these myths. But we should not forget that myth-making can serve an important purpose past simple deception.  In the case of Zachary Taylor, it provided a simple explanation for his unexpected death.  Suspicion or accusations of foul play would have further inflamed the sides of the slavery question that in another decade erupted into Civil War, perhaps even starting that war before Lincoln’s Presidency.  In Harrison’s case, that overcoat explanation helped the country get over the shock of the first President dying in office and permitted John Tyler to establish the precedent that the Vice-President became President upon the death of a President.  In sum, these nineteenth century myths helped the still new Republic march on to its ever brighter future.

What did you think of today’s article? Do you think it was the water that killed several Presidents? Let us know below…

Finally, William's previous pieces have been on George Washington (link here), John Adams (link here), Thomas Jefferson (link here), James Madison (link here), James Monroe (link here), John Quincy Adams (link here), Andrew Jackson (link here), Martin Van Buren (link here), William Henry Harrison (link here), John Tyler (link here), and James K. Polk (link here).


  • Catherine Clinton, “Zachary Taylor,” essay in “To The Best of My Ability:” The American Presidents, James M. McPherson, ed. (Dorling Kindersley, 2000)
  • Letter, Thomas Jefferson to Benjamin Rush, February 28, 1803
  • Milo Milton Quaife, ed., “Diary of James K. Polk During His Presidency, 1845-1849” (A.C. McClurg & Co., 1910)
  • Jane McHugh and Philip A. Mackowiak, “What Really Killed William Henry Harrison?” New York Times, March 31, 2014
  • Clara Rising, “The Taylor File: The Mysterious Death of a President” (Xlibris 2007)

James K. Polk, eleventh US President, has gone down in history as the man who finished the westward expansion of America through a great plan to acquire California and Oregon. And even more remarkably, he achieved this very rapidly.

But, did he really have a grand strategy to expand America and achieve a number of great measures? Or did events just play their course? William Bodkin returns to the site and explains the legend of James K. Polk.

A portrait of James K. Polk.

A portrait of James K. Polk.

What if the one thing America remembered about a President was false?  James K. Polk, who seemingly came from nowhere to become America’s eleventh President, is remembered for the four “great measures” of his Administration: (1) obtaining California and its neighboring territories following the Mexican War; (2) negotiating the purchase of the Oregon territories from Great Britain; (3) lowering the nation’s tariff on imported goods to promote free trade; and (4) establishing an independent treasury to put an end to the nation’s money problems.  Polk is celebrated for stating, at the outset of his Administration, that he would accomplish these goals in four short years.

Polk’s bold prediction and follow through led another President, Harry Truman, to describe him as the ideal Chief Executive.  Truman famously opined that Polk knew what he wanted to do, did it, and then left.  Unfortunately, while these are unquestionably Polk’s accomplishments, there is little to no evidence that he predicted them.  Instead, the prediction seems to have been created after the fact by one of Polk’s top advisors, historian George Bancroft.


The President From Nowhere

How did Polk become President?  In 1844, John Tyler was winding down William Henry Harrison’s term of office.  Tyler, in becoming President on Harrison’s death, alienated the two dominant political parties in America, the Democrats and the Whigs.  Tyler had angered the Democrats prior to becoming President, when, although a Democrat, he agreed to run with Harrison on the Whig ticket.  When he became President, Tyler governed mostly as a Democrat, angering the Whigs.

Waiting in the wings for the Democrats was Martin Van Buren, yearning to avenge his loss to Harrison.  Van Buren, however, before even receiving the nomination, stumbled on one of the key issues of the day, admitting Texas to the Union.  Texas had declared its independence from Mexico in 1836, seeking to join the United States.  Tyler, in one of the last acts of his Presidency, pushed to admit Texas, but failed.

The presumed Presidential nominees, though, both opposed admitting Texas. Henry Clay, for the Whigs, opposed Texas because it would be admitted as a slave state.  Van Buren, in a political calculation that backfired, claimed he opposed admitting Texas because he didn’t want to insult Mexico.  In truth, Van Buren believed that supporting Texas’s admission into the Union would cost him his traditional, staunchly abolitionist Northeast electoral base.  The gamble failed.  It cost Van Buren the support of the political powerhouse who had actually propelled him to the Presidency: Andrew Jackson.

Jackson favored admitting Texas.  Furious over Van Buren’s position, Jackson summoned Polk, his Tennessee protégé, to The Hermitage.  Polk, still reeling from a run of bad political luck, had been eyeing the Vice-Presidency.  A former Congressman, he had been Speaker of the House of Representatives from 1835-39, largely through Jackson’s support.  He left the Speaker’s chair to become Governor of Tennessee, but served only one term before being ousted in 1841.  In 1843, Polk tried and failed to win back the governor’s mansion.

At his estate, Jackson made his views plain.  Van Buren’s Texas position must be fatal to him.   The nominee would be an “annexation man,” preferably from what was then the American Southwest, meaning, Tennessee.  Polk was the best candidate.  As usual, Jackson got want he wanted.  At the Democrats’ Baltimore convention, Van Buren’s support eroded and the Democrats turned to Polk who narrowly won election over Clay. 


‘Thigh-Slapping” Predictions

Polk, once in office, resolved that despite Jackson’s support, he would himself be President of the United States.  According to Polk’s Secretary of the Navy and Ambassador to Great Britain, historian George Bancroft, Polk set his goals early on.  Bancroft said that in a meeting with Polk during the early days of the Administration, the President “raised his hand high in the air,” brought it down “with great force on his thigh,” and declared the “four great measures” of his administration.  First, with Texas on the road to statehood, the question of Oregon would be settled with Great Britain.  Second, with Oregon and Texas secure, California and its adjacent areas would round out the continent.  Third, the tariff, which was crippling the Southern states economically, would be made less protective and more revenue based.  Fourth, an independent national Treasury, immune from the banking schemes of recent years, would be established. 

Bancroft’s tale is problematic in two respects.  First, such a display was uncharacteristic of Polk.  Polk has been described as peculiarly simple.  He was a straightforward man and not particularly outspoken.  Polk was a workaholic, with few friendships other than his wife, no children, and no interests other than politics.  By most accounts, he was phlegmatic in disposition at best, and unlikely to engage in any dramatic exclamation.

The second problem with this story is that it comes from Bancroft.  While a superb historian, Bancroft is unfortunately a dubious source. He served in Polk’s administration, wholeheartedly endorsed its expansionist policies, and burned to write Polk’s official biography.  Polk rejected Bancroft as administration historian, instead seeking to have his former Secretary of War, William Marcy, do the job. Marcy had been in Washington for the entire administration; whereas Bancroft had left for London in 1846.  Despite this, Bancroft remained loyal to Polk.  By the late 1880s, Bancroft was the only remaining living member of Polk’s cabinet.

This is significant because during the 1880s, a number of historians dismissed Polk as being controlled by events round him and having been bullied into his expansionist policies.  The young historian and future President Theodore Roosevelt took this view, finding Polk’s administration not to be particularly capable.  Other historians viewed the Mexican War as having led to the Civil War, and condemned Polk for it.

Bancroft was offended by these assessments.  By the late 1880s, despite Polk’s previous opposition, Bancroft resolved to write a biography of Polk.  The earliest known mention of the “thigh-slapping” conversation is in an unpublished manuscript located in Bancroft’s papers titled “Biographical Sketch of James K. Polk,” apparently written in the late 1880s.  Historian James Schouler, in his “History of the United States of America, Under the Constitution,” first published the story.  Schouler noted that Bancroft had relayed the anecdote to him in a February 1887 letter.  After its initial publication, the “thigh-slapping” story was re-published, gradually taking on a life of its own.

Recent scholarship, however, indicates that Bancroft might have manufactured the incident.  On August 5, 1844, Bancroft wrote an admiring letter to Polk where he inventoried all of the administration’s accomplishments, including the annexation of Texas, the post-war purchase of New Mexico and California, the establishment of the Treasury and the overthrow of the protective tariff.  Bancroft wrote to Polk that these accomplishments “formed a series of measures, the like of which can hardly ever be crowded into one administration of four years & which in the eyes of posterity will single yours out among the administrations of the century.”

Did Bancroft help the “eyes of posterity” look more favorably toward James K. Polk?  It seems likely.  However, an historian, when examining primary sources, can never truly know the intent of historical actors and what motivated their writings.  Despite seeming evidence to the contrary, the ”thigh-slapping” story could have happened as Bancroft said it did.  History, it has been said, is written by the victors.  There are times though, when the person who writes the history determines the identity of the victor and the extent of the victory.


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Finally, William's previous pieces have been on George Washington (link here), John Adams (link here), Thomas Jefferson (link here), James Madison (link here), James Monroe (link here), John Quincy Adams (link here), Andrew Jackson (link here), Martin Van Buren (link here), William Henry Harrison (link here), and John Tyler (link here).



  • Anthony Berger, “2014 Presidential Rankings, No. 7: James K. Polk,”
  • Walter R. Borneman, “Polk: The Man Who Transformed the Presidency and America,” Random House, 2008.
  • Tom Chaffin, “Met His Every Goal? James K. Polk and the Legends of Manifest Destiny,” University of Tennessee Press, 2014.
  • Milo Milton Quaife, editor, “Diary of James K. Polk during His Presidency, 1845-1849.” A.C. McClurg & Co., Chicago, 1910.
  • Sean Wilentz, “The Rise of American Democracy: Jefferson to Lincoln,” WW Norton and Company, 2005.
  • Jules Witcover, “Party of the People, A History of the Democrats,” Random House, 2003.