On Tuesday, a Palestinian medical team cranked open the West Bank grave of former Palestinian leader Yasir Arafat, took samples of his remains, and handed the evidence over to European experts to determine whether Arafat was poisoned -- by Israel, the theory goes -- before his death in 2004. "This will bring closure," Arafat's widow observed, "We will know the truth about why he died."
But that answer won't come for at least another three months, according to Palestinian medical officials. And even then, the results could very well be inconclusive. Polonium-210, which a Swiss lab detected on Arafat's clothing this summer, decomposes quickly. And if the long history of exhuming world leaders is any guide, the macabre exercise rarely proves the conspiracy theorists right. Here are seven of the most famous examples.
In 2008, Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez announced a curious new project: a commission to exhume the remains of the 19th century military and political leader Simón Bolívar and determine whether the inspiration for Chávez's Bolivarian Revolution had really died from tuberculosis in 1830. Chávez's suspicion? Elites in Colombia and Venezuela had assassinated Bolívar to prevent him from uniting Latin America. "How the oligarchs fooled us," Chávez marveled, "how the historians who falsified history fooled us."
Chávez opened Bolívar's grave in 2010 with characteristic flair, displaying the independence icon's skeleton on national television. But the results of the investigation, unveiled in 2011, proved the Venezuelan leader wrong. Experts found toxins that may have contributed to Bolívar's death, but suggested they may have come from medicine. "We could not establish the death was by non-natural means or by intentional poisoning" Venezuela's vice president explained. Chávez was unmoved. "They killed Simon Bolívar," he insisted, even while admitting that he didn't "have proof" (the Venezuelan president is now building a mausoleum for his hero).
The circumstances surrounding the death in 1850 of Zachary Taylor -- one of eight U.S. presidents to die in office -- are admittedly bizarre. As the History Channel tells it, Taylor "gulped down a large quantity of cherries and iced milk" at an event associated with the construction of the Washington Monument and then chased it with "several glasses of water" after returning to the White House. He died several days later after suffering from a stomach ailment that his doctors suspected was a bacterial infection of the small intestine.
In the early 1990s, the author Clara Rising, convinced that Taylor had been poisoned because of his opposition to slavery, persuaded a coroner in Kentucky, where Taylor is buried, to exhume the former president's remains. But medical officials determined that Taylor died from any of "a myriad of natural diseases which could have produced the symptoms of gastroenteritis." Rising too had difficulty accepting the lack of evidence of foul play. "His political enemies benefited from his removal, whether they removed him or not," she declared.
LEO RAMIREZ/AFP/Getty Images