How Digging Up a Dead President’s Corpse Inspired ‘The Simpsons’

A ‘90s conspiracy theory led to one of the series’ best episodes
How Digging Up a Dead President’s Corpse Inspired ‘The Simpsons’

The Simpsons has obviously had a number of great Lisa-centric episodes over the years, but one of the very best is Season Seven’s “Lisa the Iconoclast,” in which Springfield’s brainiest second grader exposes the truth behind town founder Jebediah Springfield. It turns out that he was not a noble, buffalo-taming hero after all, but rather a “vicious pirate” named “Hans Sprungfeld” who once tried to murder George Washington. 

Not surprisingly, the town of Springfield opts to turn a blind eye to this uncomfortable truth, forcing Lisa to search for further proof. So she urges town officials to exhume Jebediah’s body in order to see if it contains Sprungfeld’s prosthetic silver tongue (the original having been “bitten off by a Turk in a groghouse fight”).

We’ve talked before about how several Simpsons storylines have been based on true events, and “Lisa the Iconoclast,” it turns out, was actually inspired by real life U.S. history. And, no, we’re not just talking about how most American historical figures were really total dirtbags. According to The Simpsons’ showrunner at the time, Bill Oakely, the episode was specifically written in response to a news story from the early ‘90s involving President Zachary Taylor, and the woman who believed that “he’d been assassinated.”

Taylor, the 12th president of the United States, passed away after just 16 months in office. How? No one’s sure exactly. Apparently, he “gulped down a large quantity of cherries and iced milk” following a Fourth of July celebration, got diarrhea, and, just a few days later, died of what doctors at the time determined to be a “bacterial infection of the small intestine.”

Not content with the whole “death by cherries” explanation, in 1991, Clara Rising, a “retired University of Florida humanities professor” theorized that Taylor had been poisoned. Although historians “disagreed” with the theory, Rising was able to convince Taylor’s descendants to “authorize an exhumation.” No word on whether or not anybody picked up his skull and used it as a puppet. 


Tests analyzed Taylor’s fingernails, sideburns and pubic hair. (Let’s take a moment to salute the patriotic forensic scientist tasked with collecting a 141-year-old dead president’s pubic hair.) While the tests found no abnormal levels of arsenic, seemingly validating Rising’s critics, she remained unconvinced. “We may not have found arsenic, but by damn, I still think he was poisoned,” she told a reporter in 1993, pointing out that other poisons could have been used. 

Some folks in the press labeled her a “macabre crackpot,” and Oakley seemed similarly skeptical. “You can’t go exhuming presidents just because some old lady has an unpublished manuscript,” he said during the episode’s DVD commentary track, pointing out that “Lisa the Iconoclast” was just “that story retold but Lisa was the old lady.” 

Of course, in The Simpsons, Lisa ultimately turns out to be right. So who knows, perhaps we’ll need to dig up Taylor yet again at some point in the future. 

You (yes, you) should follow JM on Twitter (if it still exists by the time you’re reading this).


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