National Hotel disease
The National Hotel epidemic was a mysterious sickness which afflicted persons who stayed at the National Hotel in Washington, D.C. beginning in early January 1857. At the time, the hotel was the largest in the city. By some accounts, as many as 400 people became sick and nearly three dozen died.
The illness was considered by some medical experts to have originated from an attempt to poison hotel boarders. It affected mostly patrons of the hotel's dining room and not those who frequented the bar. It began to spread more noticeably by the middle of January 1857. New cases of the illness began to decrease in number by the end of January 1857 and continued to abate until the middle of February. When the numbers of guests increased for the presidential inauguration of March 4, 1857, the sickness returned again forcefully.
The National Hotel epidemic manifested itself as a persistent diarrhea, which was often accompanied by an intense colic. Victims experienced sudden prostration along with nausea. The tongues of patients generally indicated an inflammation of the mucous membranes of their stomachs. Sufferers often complained of recurrences of symptoms even after leaving the National Hotel. Aside from a sudden onset of diarrhea, which happened generally in the early morning, vomiting occurred after the diarrhea ceased.
Major George McNeir, 64, of Washington, D.C., dined at the National Hotel at the time of the first outbreak of the epidemic. Dr. Jas J. Waring was among the physicians who performed an autopsy on McNeir. He was the only person whose body was subjected to a post-mortem examination after dying from the sickness. Waring stated that there was no incubation period before the onset of McNeir's illness. He was affected by the time he went to bed following dinner and the symptoms never left him until his death.
The National Hotel epidemic's first occurrence coincided with the President-elect of the United States James Buchanan's first stay at the National Hotel. When Buchanan returned home to Wheatland, reports of new cases of the sickness stopped. Upon his return two weeks later the illness returned with intensity.
Buchanan was warned about eating and drinking at the National Hotel. He continued to reside there prior to moving into the White House in March 1857. However he did not eat or drink there before taking office as President of the United States.
Because of his illness, Buchanan was nearly unable to attend his own inauguration in March. In the next several weeks, he struggled to regain his health while making a number of major but catastrophic decisions: his reaction to the Supreme Court's ruling in the Dred Scott case; his handling of civil upheaval in the Kansas Territory, and his suppression of a perceived Mormon rebellion in Utah Territory.
Theories of origin
A physician quoted by the Philadelphia, Pennsylvania Times vocalized the poison theory. However, dissenters contended that poisoned water was improbable because the National Hotel's water tank was only used for washing. Drinking water was brought to the establishment from a distance. In an effort to eliminate rats from the National Hotel, arsenic was used. One of the poisoned rats was discovered in the water tank after guests became ill with the sickness.
The Mayor of Washington, D.C., together with a committee chosen by the board of health, submitted a report which denied that any mineral poisoning was ingested in the stomachs of victims of the epidemic. There was no evidence of inflammation of the intestines. The committee contended that the disease was transmitted by inhalation of a poisonous miasma which originated from the decomposition of vegetables and animals. They thought the infection entered the National Hotel from a sewer which was connected to the Sixth Street sewer.
A sewer builder noticed a sewer opening in the southwest corner of the National Hotel which connected with the sewer loading into the street. Through this opening there proceeded a constant fetid gas. The gas was coming in rapidly enough to extinguish a candle flame, according to this individual's estimation. The committee looked without finding evidence of water poisoning, food poisoning, or arsenic poisoning.
Among the three dozen or so deaths were several members of Congress:
- Representative John Montgomery of Pennsylvania, died April 1857
- Representative John Quitman of Mississippi, died July 1858 from the disease’s aftereffects
- Former Representative David Robison of Pennsylvania, died June 1859 of complications from the disease he’d contracted at the hotel
The National Hotel was built in the late 1820s. After other mishaps, including a fire in 1921, it was acquired in 1929 by the District of Columbia municipal government. It was demolished in 1942. The site is now occupied by the Newseum.
- "The Washington Epidemic", New York Daily Times, March 23, 1857, pg. 2.
- Redman, Brian Francis (2009). "What Would Millard Do?", Findings of the Friends of Millard Fillmore, pg. 53.
- "The Mysterious National Hotel Disease". Office of the Clerk, U.S. House of Representatives. Retrieved 2012-07-20.
- "The Washington Epidemic", New York Daily Times, April 3, 1857, pg. 5.
- National Hotel Epidemic, American Journal of Medical Sciences, January 1858, Volume 69, Issue 1, pg. 97.
- William P. MacKinnon (July 4, 1991). "Scandal and the Heat Did Zachary Taylor In; Buchanan's Complaint". New York Times.
- Columbia Historical Society of Washington, Vol. 57–59, 1961, pg. 120.
- "The Washington Epidemic-Report of the Committee of the Board of Health", New York Daily Times, March 25, 1857, pg. 2.
- Kent (2009-05-07). "Lost Washington: National Hotel". Washington Kaleidoscope. Retrieved 2011-01-20.