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.