Did U.S. President Zachary Taylor die of eating cherries with milk on a warm day?

Dear Cecil:

While reading your first book I came across a reference to President Zachary Taylor dying of eating strawberries on a warm day. The only other reference I have heard to something like this was in the Book of Lists, which mentions someone having eaten cherries with milk on a warm day and dying. Everything else I have ever read to find out why this is has been mysteriously mute, though my mother, when I mentioned it (out of fear, because I love cherries), warned me against the practice. I cornered her on it, but all she could say was she had a vague memory of her mother warning her, and she had classed the information with such dubious practices as putting butter on a burn. Cecil, I appeal to you. You say a president died of this — what's the story?

Cecil replies:

Zachary Taylor was diagnosed with “cholera morbus,” a catchall term that included diarrhea and dysentery but not true cholera. Exactly what he had and how he got it is not known. It had been steamy in Washington and Taylor against popular advice had eaten raw foods like milk, green apples, and cherries (although maybe not strawberries, my assertion notwithstanding). Sanitation at the time stunk and food contamination was common. Dysentery, for example, was commonly spread by eating food tainted with infected human feces. Taylor’s demise may have been hastened by the moronic medical treatments of the day, e.g., bleeding and dosing with mercury compounds. Hygienic standards allegedly having improved, today you can eat your cherries without fear. But I’d wash them just the same.

Send questions to Cecil via cecil@straightdope.com.

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