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1850

President Zachary Taylor dies unexpectedly

On this day in 1850, after only 16 months in office, President Zachary Taylor dies after a brief illness. The exact cause of his death is still disputed by some historians.

On a scorching Fourth of July in Washington, D.C., Taylor attended festivities at the newly dedicated grounds upon which the Washington Monument would be erected. According to several sources, Taylor gulped down a large quantity of cherries and iced milk and then returned to the White House, where he quenched his thirst with several glasses of water.

Outbreaks of cholera, a deadly disease caused by bacteria, occurred frequently during the summer months in hot, humid Washington during the 1800s, when sewage systems were primitive at best. The bacteria were mostly likely present in the water or iced milk Taylor drank, though other sources have claimed that Taylor died of gastroenteritis caused by the highly acidic cherries combined with fresh milk. Others suspected food poisoning or typhoid fever. It appears no one suggested foul play even though Taylor, a Mexican War hero, opposed secession and vowed to personally lead a military attack against any state that threatened to secede from the Union.

Taylor died on the evening of July 9, after four days of suffering from symptoms that included severe cramping, diarrhea, nausea and dehydration. His personal physicians concluded that he had succumbed to cholera morbus, a bacterial infection of the small intestine. His vice president, Millard Fillmore, was sworn in as the new president the next day.

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