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? –Dan Shick, San Francisco

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 against popular advice Taylor 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.


Increasing numbers of white boys are learning to mouth exculpatory platitudes in order to lessen any felt guilt or implied responsibility for many of our social ills. Now Cecil Adams jumps on the bandwagon with a brilliant gambit. His incomplete syllogism in July 29th’s Straight Dope posits the following premises: (a) Viruses killed off 90 percent of our American Indians. (b) Because the Indians were dead, the Spanish introduced black slavery to the Americas. Cecil’s gift to a future guilt-free society is the obvious but unspoken conclusion to his premises: Therefore, white American males are not responsible for the historical grievances of the Indians or blacks. We can even throw in the implicit premise that Columbus was actually not such a bad guy. Oh Cecil, you clever mutt. I disagree, though, because in reality Columbus was a swine. [Two single-spaced pages of foaming rant deleted.] –Joe Higgs Perez, Chicago

You hear from some real knuckleheads in this business. Mr. Perez thinks that in mentioning the conquistadors’ role in the slave trade I am letting Anglos off the hook. This is an absurd reading of my remarks. I singled out the conquistadors because the precontact population of the New World south of the Rio Grande, most of which came under Spanish and Portuguese rule, was many times higher than in the north. It is reasonable to ask why Europeans found it necessary to import slaves rather than use seemingly abundant local labor. Catastrophic disease among the natives is an obvious answer. In the Anglo-dominated north, which was thinly populated to start with, the slave trade was less of a puzzle. It ought not to be, but apparently is, necessary to mention that it was just as evil.

Mr. Perez has also combed my past columns looking for, and in his view finding, disparaging remarks I made about minorities. Readers familiar with my work can judge for themselves whether or not I am a racist.

Your snide, humanly insensitive “answer” to the question about Cuba and the presence there of the Guantanamo naval base [June 17] typifies the worst aspects of the American ego: ignorant, insular, and [etc]. –Robert Kimbrough, Madison, Wisconsin

Bob, you won’t believe this, but you truly are making me reassess my attitudes. I don’t honestly think I am racist, sexist, etc. But on reflection I do think leftists, as a class, are jerks.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): illustration/Slug Signorino.