It was January of 1857, and at the time the largest hotel in Washington DC was the fancy, opulent National Hotel. The hotel had originally been built in 1826, used as a meeting place for Confederate sympathizers during the Civil War and going on to become one of the most high-class, upscale hotels in the country. Many influential and respected politicians made up a good amount of the luxurious hotel’s clientele, and in 1857 the recently elected new 15th American president James Buchanan was lodging there during the lead-up to his inauguration ceremony, along with several Members of the Pennsylvania delegation and other prominent legislators and statesmen. It was a joyous time for Buchanan and his supporters, but a dark cloud would settle on the proceedings when Buchanan and scores of others staying at the hotel began falling ill with a mysterious illness that no one could explain, and which would go on to become a medical mystery that has remained unsolved to this day.
On January 25, 1857, Buchanan and his entourage of eight others enjoyed a sumptuous dinner at the hotel’s banquet hall before retiring for the night. Soon after this, Buchanan and the others were plagued by intense abdominal pain, nausea, vomiting, dehydration, swollen tongues, and uncontrollable sudden diarrhea. The various symptoms hit so suddenly and with such ferocity that the physician who had been at the banquet, who experienced the illness himself, was at a loss as to what had caused it. Other guests at the hotel also began to fall ill, until scores of people were getting seriously sick, with the number ballooning to an estimated 400 guests over the course of the month, all while doctors struggled to figure out what was going on.
The symptoms for the mysterious illness persisted for weeks, and although Buchanan was able to make a recovery and even make his inauguration in fairly good spirits others were not so lucky, and around three dozen victims would actually die from it. Among the numerous fatalities were Pennsylvania congressman David F. Robison, Representative John Montgomery of Pennsylvania, and Representative John Quitman of Mississippi, along with many others, including Major George McNeir, and even Buchanan’s own nephew Eliot Eskridge Lane, who had also served as the secretary to the president. In every case it was found that the mysterious disease seemed to have no real incubation period, with a sudden, rapid onset of symptoms that lasted unrelenting all the way up to death.
Once the story got out into the wild it became a news sensation, and the fact that it had hit mostly people in top levels of the government sparked all sorts of conspiracy theories. One of the main ideas was that political enemies of James Buchanan had orchestrated it all. After all, here was a new president with a soft spot for slavery and with decidedly Southern attitudes, so it was thought that radical abolitionists may have tried to poison him and his men, with anything else being collateral damage. In this case the terrorists had used some sort of untraceable poison or new type of disease to infect those at the banquet hall and bar, which were ground zero for the enigmatic outbreak. The theory supposed that the deadly agent had been distributed through the hotel’s water well, but critics of this idea were quick to point out that this well was only used for washing, and that drinking water was pumped in from some distance away.
Medical experts would chime in and although they didn’t know the exact answer, they had ideas. One was that this was all due to a now outdated concept known as miasma, the idea that putrid smells and stenches, in this case wafting up from the sewer systems nearby, were responsible for sickness. Of course this was a faulty idea and later replaced by germ theory, but at the time it was a major hypothesis. Food poisoning was mentioned, but there were plenty of people who had eaten the same food and not not gotten sick, and there was no traditional physical sign of food poisoning. Another idea was that this was arsenic poisoning or an outbreak of dysentery, but the symptoms did not completely line up, and this was based on circumstantial evidence. Other ideas were thrown out by the scientific community as well, such as in the year 1857, when Scientific American published a report blaming the mysterious sickness on what it called “light cholera.” The whole media circus and mystery was summed up in the Autobiography of William H. Seward, in which it is written:
One painful incident, however, cast a cloud over the opening of the new [Buchanan] Administration. Guests at one of the principal hotels were seized with sudden and alarming symptoms of disease, of which the nature and cause were unknown. Some died, many lingered long on beds of sickness, and could only be carried to their homes after weeks of suffering. None were exempt. Transient visitors, and habitues, Democrats, Republicans, and ‘Americans,’ Senators, Congressmen, and Judges, military and naval officers, and even the new President were attacked with more or less violence, by the ‘National Hotel disease.’ Physicians pronounced it to be poisoning, and there were various theories as to its origin. Some attributed it to criminal malice; others to leaden water-pipes and defective drainage. It was a pestilence that soon cleared the hotel of occupants; and the apprehensions it excited led many people to quit the city.
In the end it has never been determined just what afflicted these people or why. This was an era in which understanding of infections was incomplete, and few adequate autopsies were carried out. Even then, they simply did not know what they were looking for, and so the sickness of the National Hotel has gone on to become quite the historical oddity. What was going on here, and why should this ailment target such high class clientele in this swanky establishment? Was this some sort of assassination attempt, poisoning, or just the result of unsanitary conditions? No one really knows, they didn’t know then and we have no way of knowing now. For now the case of the mystery sickness of the National Hotel remains a mystery.