Democracy Dies in Darkness

On Leadership

Presidential conspiracy theories, from Zachary Taylor to JFK

March 28, 2016 at 8:06 AM

(Backgrounds by Craig & Karl for The Washington Post; Photo by Amy King/The Washington Post)

Was Zachary Taylor assassinated? This was a question that swirled around the 12th U.S. president from the time of his death, in July of 1850, all the way up until 1991, when historical novelist Clara Rising convinced Taylor's descendants to exhume his body to test for arsenic poisoning.

The medical examination turned up no evidence of foul play, putting to rest nearly 150 years of rumors. But plenty of other presidential conspiracy theories have emerged over the country's history that even today keep the skeptics among us questioning.

In the newest episode of the Presidential podcast, Washington Post columnist Dana Milbank and University of Miami professor Joseph Uscinski discuss the history of conspiracy theory in the United States and the patterns of how it tends to emerge.

The podcast, which each week explores a different American president in chronological order, also delves further into the story and legacy of Taylor with historian and biographer Catherine Clinton.

Listen to the episode here:

In previous episodes of the Presidential podcast, we've explored topics like the transformational campaign of William Henry Harrison and the violent life of Andrew Jackson. The podcast is hosted by Lillian Cunningham, editor of The Washington Post's On Leadership section.

As listeners tune in each week, the podcast reveals the ways in which our collective sense of what's 'presidential' has evolved over the years and how each president—esteemed, loathed or nearly forgotten—has something to tell us about what it takes to hold the nation's highest office.

A new episode comes out every Sunday. Here's how to follow along:


Lillian Cunningham is the creator and host of the "Presidential" and "Constitutional" podcasts. She was previously a feature writer for and editor of The Washington Post's On Leadership section, for which she received two Emmy Awards for her interviews with leaders in politics, business and the arts.

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