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The mysterious “National Hotel disease”: environmental disaster or assassination attempt?

About this time of year more than 150 years ago, in early January 1857, guests and political dignitaries began to descend upon Washington, D.C. in anticipation of the inauguration of the new President, James Buchanan. The National Hotel on Pennsylvania Avenue, just blocks from the White House, was the poshest and most fashionable hotel in the city, so many of the high rollers stayed there, including President-Elect Buchanan himself. As was typical among elites in the mid-19th century, there were a lot of lavish banquets and much alcohol was consumed (Buchanan could put away two or three bottles of rye at a sitting). This wasn’t unusual for the National Hotel.

This time, however, something was dreadfully wrong. Guests at the hotel began to get sick in droves. The illness started with terrible diarrhea, which then abruptly stopped and gave way to nausea and vomiting. The victims’ tongues swelled painfully in their mouths. While most people eventually recovered, a few of the victims died. One of them, a military officer named McNeir, was autopsied, and the doctors couldn’t be sure what caused his sudden illness.

national hotel

The National Hotel as it appeared about 1910. Today the site is occupied by a museum, right across from the National Gallery of Art.

One of the victims was Buchanan himself. Seized with bloody diarrhea, he was sick shortly after checking into the National Hotel, and was not yet totally on the mend by the time he left to back to Wheatland, his estate in Pennsylvania. At Wheatland he recovered. Strangely, as soon as he left, cases of the “National Hotel disease” abruptly stopped. However, Eskridge Lane, Buchanan’s nephew and secretary, died of the mysterious malady.

Some doctors saw the hand of conspirators in the disease, and suggested that persons unknown–but most likely radical abolitionists–had introduced arsenic into the water supply at the National Hotel in an attempt to poison President-Elect Buchanan. There was no evidence of this, but Washington in 1857 was a hotbed of radical politics, and rumors like this were bound to spread.

When news of the sickness–and the poison theory–got into the papers, Buchanan saw a political problem. The National Hotel was owned by a good friend of his and a long-time political supporter. Despite the horror that resulted from his first visit there, he decided to demonstrate that he wasn’t afraid, and allowed another banquet to be scheduled at the hotel in early March, the night before his inauguration. Buchanan attended the banquet…and the same thing happened. He was again taken ill with diarrhea and dysentery-like symptoms, and was so sick on March 4, the day of his inauguration, that he wasn’t sure if he could actually attend the ceremony. Eventually he did, giving a very turgid and long-winded inaugural address in which he wished everybody would just hurry up and forget about slavery and get on with their lives.

buchanan inauguration

This photo of Buchanan’s inauguration was taken on March 4, 1857, while the new President was still sick with whatever bug he caught at the National Hotel.

Was someone trying to poison Buchanan? I suppose it’s remotely possible, but I highly doubt it. For one thing, poison is not a very reliable weapon for a political assassination. Political leaders, even in 1857, generally had instant access to high-quality medical care. Chances were pretty good that even if a dose of poison could be delivered to him, it wouldn’t be fatal. And realistically, if someone was trying to poison Buchanan, why choose a means that would have the effect of wiping out dozens or even hundreds of other people? Terrorism as a political philosophy didn’t yet exist in 1857, at least not as we conceive of it today. I think a would-be assassin would have chosen both a more reliable and more accurate weapon than poison in a hotel water supply.

Second, the environmental reality of the National Hotel and its food and water system was horrendous. Washington in the 1850s, being built on a poorly-drained swamp, was already notoriously dirty and disease-ridden. During the illness, a decomposing rat was found floating in the attic water tank from which the National Hotel got its water. Pretty disgusting. Furthermore, the National Hotel shoveled its crap (pardon the expression) into an open sewer opening on the premises not far from where food was prepared. Gas from the sewer leaked into the hotel all day long. In the 1850s diseases were thought to be caused by “miasmas” rather than germs. This situation would be pretty conducive to creating mass outbreaks of food poisoning with no help by assassins.

Although the decomposing-rats-and-sewer-gas theory was generally accepted, the cause of “National Hotel disease” was never definitively proven. A total of 36 people died from it. Buchanan went on to be the worst President of the United States in its entire history. The National Hotel, after closing briefly for a clean-up (good idea!), reopened and regained its former popularity. It was finally torn down during World War II.

4 Comments

  1. This is very interesting. I don’t think I’ve ever heard this story before, though I did know that Buchanan had been sick at his inauguration.

  2. Audrey

    Rose O’Neal Greenhow, a leader in Washington society and renowned Confederate spy during the Civil War, in her propaganda piece entitled: “My Imprisonment And The First Year Of Abolition Rule At Washington” (London: Richard Bentley, Publisher In Ordinary To Her Majesty. 1863) wrote of the attempt on James Buchanan’s life. She blamed “Abolitionists”, as Southerners called anyone who criticized the system of slavery in any form; but Buchanan’s answer to her and his refusal to have the matter investigated, along with the obvious cover-up, suggests a more startling possibility: that the scheme came from within the Democrat party itself, set in motion by radical pro-slavery “fire-eaters”. At that time, the Democrat Party was dominated by the slave-owners. Buchanan, originally a Federalist and later a Democrat, was a Northerner and had been selected by the part because he had been in England as the American Minister to the Court of St. James in London during the presidency of Franklin Pierce, and therefore was not saddled with any political baggage, as Pierce and other possible candidates were. Buchanan was a Southern sympathizer, up to a point. One of the things he did not support was the so-called “filibuster” military expeditions outfitted and financially supported by wealthy Southern slave-owners sent over the border into South American, Cuba, Haiti and Chile for the purpose of forcibly acquiring territory in those countries for the purpose of adding slave-labor plantations. While he did not object openly to the War with Mexico for the same purpose, he did try to throw little legal roadblocks in their way. Noticeably, Vice President Breckinridge was a Southerner after their own heart, and did what he was told, and was predictably the Democrat choice for President the next time around. Buchanan’s death soon after election—but not before he was inaugurated—would have allowed the slave-owning power to have a president after their own heart and free reign.
    Rose Greenhow’s account follows:
    “There was one paper amongst them which I venture to assert will never be brought to light. It was a full and detailed account, so far as could be collected, of the appalling attempt of the Abolition party to poison President Buchanan, and the chiefs of the Democratic party, in Washington, at the National Hotel, a few days prior to the inauguration of President Buchanan.
    “This diabolical scheme was very near accomplishment, so far as regarded the life of President Buchanan, who was for a long time in a very critical condition, and it was only by the use of powerful stimulants that his constitution rallied from the effects of the poison. He told me that often during the day at this time he was obliged to drink several tumblers of unadulterated brandy, to keep himself from entire physical exhaustion.
    “This created great commotion in Washington, and various efforts were made to account for it in a natural way. One story was, that the rats, which were very troublesome, had been poisoned, and that they had fallen into the tanks which supplied the hotel with water. But the corporate authorities took the matter in hand, and instituted a very thorough examination; the tanks were all emptied of water, and no rats could be found; the sewers under and leading through the town were also opened, to see if any poisonous exhalations could come from them; and the corporation reported that there was no local cause for the epidemic. Everybody fled from the plague-stricken spot; and the hotel, which was one of the largest in the city, was closed.
    “At the same time, information of a very important character came to the knowledge of the authorities. A druggist of Philadelphia wrote to the Attorney-General (Caleb Cushing), at Washington, that, in his absence, an order had been received and filled by one of his subordinates for thirty pounds of arsenic, to be sent to Washington; that so unusual a quantity had excited his alarm; that, upon further enquiry, he learned that the express charge had been prepaid at Philadelphia for its transportation, which was likewise unusual. It was also found that the package had reached Washington by Adams & Co.’s Express, and had been called for and received by some unknown party. To show the pertinacity with which the plot was followed up, Congress had made an appropriation for a Major-Domo of the White House, with a salary of $1,200. The person who had charge of Mr. Buchanan’s rooms at the National was the applicant for the post, and was on the eve of receiving the appointment, when a gentleman from New York, arrived in post haste, in the night, roused up the private secretary of the President, and gave him information of importance. The applicant for the place of Major-Domo of the White House, after this, did not again present himself, but disappeared from the city.
    “Judge [Jeremiah S.] Black, the Attorney-General of the United States, under Mr. Buchanan, whose statements corroborated the above information, told me also that he had obtained a clue to the whole plot, but that Mr. Buchanan would not allow the affair to be pursued, because of the startling facts it would lay open to the world, and that he shrank from the terrible exposure.”

    • A thrilling story, but I’m afraid it’s utter rubbish. There was obviously no assassination plot. Nobody in their right mind would try to assassinate somebody like this. It was the dead rat in the cistern, or the sewer gas belching into the kitchen. Never ascribe to malice what can be adequately explained by sheer incompetence.

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