12. Zachary Taylor

Born to Run

Zachary Taylor was a war hero and president. But first and foremost, he was a Virginian, and so he gets that state's highest honor:

It's a highway road sign! And it marks the spot where Taylor was born. Maybe. Apparently the exact location of his birth is in dispute. We've all had that famous Virginia drinking debate, "Where was Zachary Taylor REALLY born?" It usually ends in violence, and so the state opted to end the bloodshed by putting a very definitive metal sign on a shoulderless road next to a private driveway. It was probably in response to a bribe, so that all that Zachary Taylor birthplace tourism money would get funneled to the Highway 33 corridor. You can't actually visit any house or tour any grounds, and there's not really a parking spot where you could safely pull over to take a picture. And I didn't see any construction site for the theme park, but I have to think it's at least in the planning stages.

Having acquired the stink of Virginia respectability, Taylor was moved as baby to Kentucky, where he grew up in that state's backwards plantation culture. But he shall never be remembered among the awful pantheon of presidents from Kentucky. Nay, he stands proudly at the side of John Tyler, and William Henry Harrison: A VIRGINIAN!

Coincidentally, there isn't a public Zachary Taylor home that you can visit, anywhere. He's buried in Louisville, but if you want to get technical, he spent at least part of his afterlife in the District of Columbia. In ye olde days, prominent people who kicked it in the District were stashed in the "public vault" at Congressional Cemetery, just down the street from Chris White World Headquarters, until their remains could be removed to their final resting place. So Taylor, William Henry Harrison and John Quincy Adams (and Dolley Madison!) all were tenants in this fine structure:

Swank, huh?

Zach Attack (September 22, 2011)

Zachary Taylor earned the monkier "Old Rough and Ready," not just for his slovenly appeal, but for an indifference to danger: he would join his men in the thick of battle, riding his horse and daring the enemy to take him out. In his illustrious 40-year career, he survived wars with the British, the Black Hawks, the Seminoles and the Mexicans.

But he lost the war with 19th-century produce. At a groundbreaking ceremony for the Washington Monument on an oppressively hot July 4, Z.T. chugged a pitcher of ice milk and chowed on some possibly tainted fruit. His bowels were rough, but not ready, and a few weeks later the meaty hand of Millard Fillmore was on the national tiller. As it turns out, death is just a bowl of cherries. HAH!

His body was shipped back home to Louisville and his family plantation, where (oddly enough) it has not enjoyed a very restful eternity. The original crypt was a tad on the plain side:

Now, hillside construction is great. The Earth acts like a thermos, keeping your hots hot and your colds cold. But in the 1920s, someone decided to pimp his crypt. The old structure was (presumably) converted to a walk-in beer fridge to accommodate shaken mourners, and Taylor was moved a short distance to this fine mini-mausoleum. When I visited, the windows were sweating from all the moisture getting inside, and there were lots of wasp corpses visible on the floor of the interior, because they had clearly built a nest somewhere on the structure.

Now, you're probably thinking that his corpse has rested there ever since, peacefully slumbering as a mildew-covered nest for hornet larvae. But you'd be wrong! In the early 1990s, someone got the notion that maybe Taylor was poisoned, perhaps by the president of the Millard Fillmore fan club. So Taylor was yanked from his crypt. Samples were taken, no poison was found, and Taylor was put back on the shelf.

He's due for another disturbance around 2050. Every 70 years or so, it's good to air out your dead presidents, whether they need it or not. I have to say, I liked the grave. The surrounding land -- once part of the Taylor estate -- has been converted into a veterans cemetery, so the general is fittingly surrounded by troops. There's a nice monument (a statue on a column) a few yards from the crypt. But the cemetery is also a fine example of history colliding with the present. It's surrounded on all sides by suburban Louisville. Little girls were playing on a swingset about 100 feet away, and some people had a basketball hoop setup so close to the wall that anyone practicing half-court shots might bounce it off the mausoleum. Good luck getting your ball back.

The bummer here is that you can't visit the home. It's still standing, but it's owned by descendants, and those bastards refuse to turn over their ancestral mansion to accommodate my hobbies. Some people are so selfish.

One fun Taylor fact: he had a daughter who was born in Vincennes, Indiana (which I visited later in the day), and later married one of Taylor's military underlings. That guy was Jefferson Davis. She died a few months into the marriage, but Zachary Taylor's son in law was the president of the Confederacy. Huh.

One man's quest to be the humblest person alive
Copyright 2013, Chris White