When the news came that President Zachary...


When the news came that President Zachary Taylor had, in fact, not been poisoned by arsenic, I called my best sources on the history of embalming practices, Edward and Gail Johnson, who are funeral directors in Chicago.

It was from the Johnsons that I first learned about the perils that embalming techniques posed for crime detection in the 19th century. Because the embalming solutions commonly used then were poisons, the procedure made it all too easy to disguise a crime.

Arsenic, one of the more notorious poisons, was a popular embalming fluid in this country through the end of the 19th century.

It was popular for a reason: It was extremely effective at preserving bodies.

A few people raised questions about this potential problem when President Taylor's remains were exhumed.

But according to one of his biographers, Taylor was not embalmed. Moreover, at the time of Taylor's death in 1850, embalming was rare in this country, as it still is in most parts of the world.

Even if Taylor had been embalmed, in all likelihood the only remains left to examine after 141 years would be nails, bone or hair.

As the Johnsons point out, any arsenic present in these harder tissues would have been in the body before death. These were precisely the kinds of tissues tested by the Kentucky medical examiners -- and in which they found only tiny amounts of arsenic that would normally be present in any body.

Around the turn of the century, Michigan became the first state to outlaw arsenic as an embalming fluid. Other states eventually followed. (Even today, laws on embalming vary from state to state, with some states prohibiting chemicals that others will allow.)

But even by the time of Taylor's death, arsenic had been forbidden in France, and the story behind that edict is an interesting one. The Johnsons caution that they have never been able to document all aspects of the tale, although they say they have heard it repeated so much that it must be largely true.

It seems that a member of the French aristocracy grew tired of his mistress and broke off the relationship. Meanwhile, his jealous wife decided to poison him -- which she did.

After his death, his family accused the mistress of the crime, and she was put on trial. Naturally, such a case drew a lot of publicity, and as the trial wore on, the unfortunate woman appeared to be doomed.

One person who followed the accounts of the trial with great interest was Jean Gannal, a prominent chemist who had embalmed the body. Realizing that the woman was in danger of being unjustly condemned, he went to the trial and asked permission to address the court.

Permission was granted, and Gannal then testified that, in his opinion, the arsenic detected in the body tissues examined in preparation for the trial were there because of the fluid he had used in embalming the body.

With that information before the court, the prosecution could not continue its case, and the woman was freed.

In the uproar that followed her release, the government outlawed arsenic for embalming, as well as for a number of other uses, such as the preservation of grain. Later, other poisonous chemicals were outlawed as well.

Send your comments and questions about death and dying to Sara Engram, Mortal Matters, The Evening Sun, P.O. Box 1377, Baltimore, Md. 21278.

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