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Historical Highlights

The Mysterious National Hotel Disease

June 24, 1859
The Mysterious National Hotel Disease Image courtesy of the Library of Congress The National Hotel in Washington, D.C.
On this date, David F. Robison of Pennsylvania died at his Chambersburg, Pennsylvania, home of complications from the mysterious National Hotel Disease, contracted more than two years earlier at the time of President James Buchanan’s inauguration. By some accounts, nearly three dozen people died from the affliction and as many as 400 more were sickened. The National (located on the site of the present-day Newseum) was one of the city’s most popular and plush hotels, serving a clientele of influential politicians, particularly southern Members of Congress. Buchanan, a former Representative from Pennsylvania once described as a “northern man with southern principles” and possessing anti-abolitionist convictions, chose the National as his pre-inauguration lodgings. The President-elect and several Members of the Pennsylvania delegation—including Robison, set to retire from Congress of March 3—were among the scores of hotel guests who fell ill (though Buchanan made a quick recovery). Rumors, fed by sensationalized newspaper coverage, soon emerged that victims had been poisoned by arsenic, the result of a botched assassination attempt on Buchanan by radical abolitionists. “From every quarter of the country come in denunciations of what is styled—not without warrant,” blared the New York Times, “the determination on the part of interested parties to stifle inquiry and hoodwink suspicion concerning what has every appearance of being the most gigantic and startling crime of the age.” Medical experts now believe the disease outbreak to have been caused by dysentery because of the hotel’s primitive sewage system. In an age when scientists and doctors knew little about bacterial infections and how to treat them, dysentery was a dangerous affliction. The National Hotel Disease claimed two other victims in the House—John G. Montgomery of Pennsylvania, who lingered until April 1857, and John Quitman of Mississippi who died the following summer from after-effects.

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