Mystery Illness at the National Hotel

In 1826, the National Hotel was built in DC, standing proudly between the White House and the Capitol it was a favoured hotel for visiting politicians and other prominent members of society, partially for its convenient location but also its splendour and opulence. 

National Hotel around 1909
[Photo Credit, Library of Congress]

In 1857, James Buchanan was president elect in America, aiming to succeed Franklin Pierce. At this time slavery was a prominent issue, with the civil war beginning in 1861, and it was abolished in 1865 by Buchanan’s successor Abraham Lincoln. Hailing from Pennsylvania, Buchanan would stay at the National Hotel frequently. At his pre-inauguration party at the National Hotel, the guests retired to their respective rooms at around 10pm, and several members of the party began to feel unwell, the symptoms including sickness, stomach pains, dehydration, and swollen tongues. Due to the hotels location and luxury, many of the ill were “prominent legislators and statesmen” (timeline.com). 

James Buchanan
[Photo Credit, Library of Congress]

Fear began to spread around the people of Washington, as cholera outbreaks had devastated the US several times over the previous fifty-years. Arsenic was also a possible culprit as several of the symptoms were consistent, but doctors believed it not to be the cause. A new mystery disease was also discussed with great concern which only quietened when it was determined that the illness was confined to the National Hotel. As a result speculations and conspiracies ran rife that it was an assassination attempt on the president elect for his views on slavery – specifically being in favour of slavery. May of 1857 saw the Pittfield Sun run the headline: “The opinion is becoming very general that the sickness at the National Hotel in Washington, which commenced about the date of the presidential inauguration of James Buchanan, was the result of a deliberate and fiendish attempt to poison the President and his nearest friends!” (timeline.com).

As people returned to their homes across the US new cases being reported dropped dramatically and, whilst fear was still evident throughout the community, it seemed like that might be the end of it. Three-dozen are believed to have died as a direct result of the illness, with around four-hundred displaying symptoms, many of whom had long-term effects which ultimately contributed to their deaths. “Over a period of months, individual investigators as well as boards of health weighed each piece of evidence that came to light about the possible cause or causes of the mysterious illness,” (cupola.gettsburg.edu).

There was an unhelpful amount of yellow journalism surrounding the event, with reporters exaggerating the severity of the illness, and the number of people afflicted to sell more papers. This does mean it’s difficult for us to know now what true numbers might have been.  Seven-hundred was one of the many figures reported for those affected, but this is most likely an embellished figure.

Due to the passing of time, we will probably never know for sure what caused the illness, but it was most likely dysentery caused by poor sewage infrastructure inside the hotel – the building hadn’t been built as one structure, but had instead been extended several times and otherwise altered meaning the ventilation and other systems were not regular or logical. The winter before Buchanan’s pre-inauguration party had drastically inconsistent weather including some cold snaps that came and went suddenly, which caused multiple burst pipes in the hotel that perhaps created the perfect environment for the disease to develop.

Bacteria in the food served is another possibility as bacteria wasn’t understood at this time, and hygiene standards were likely very poor. It’s unknown if there’s a specific food or dish that was specially brought in that might have been the cause. There was a lot of illness caused by poor conditions at the time.

Buchanan died less than a decade after the end of his presidency. Whether or not he was fit to be president due to the illness has been questioned, and some of his more questionable decisions attributed to illness. He was also criticised for not leading the country, and instead passing off the responsibility and decision making relating to the Supreme Court. The National Hotel remained a popular hotel, although slowly fell out of favour due to newer and more extravagant hotels opening in the area. The building no longer stands, being largely destroyed in a fire in 1921, and razed in 1942.

What do you think was the cause?

References: boundarystones.weta.org  –  history.house.gov  –  timeline.com  –  cupola.gettsburg.edu

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