Podcast Episode 349: The National Hotel Disease


In 1857 guests at Washington D.C.’s National Hotel began to come down with a mysterious illness. One of them was James Buchanan, who was preparing to assume the presidency of the United States. In this week’s episode of the Futility Closet podcast we’ll describe the deadly outbreak and the many theories that were offered to explain it.

We’ll also contemplate timpani and puzzle over an Old West astronaut.


The words overnervousnesses and overnumerousnesses are vertically compact.

Harvard mathematician George Birkhoff reduced the principle underlying beauty to a formula.

Sources for our feature on the National Hotel Disease:

Kerry Walters, Outbreak in Washington, D.C.: The 1857 Mystery of the National Hotel Disease, 2014.

George Alfred Townsend, Washington, Outside and Inside, 1874.

Ruth D. Reichard, “A ‘National Distemper’: The National Hotel Sickness of 1857, Public Health and Sanitation, and the Limits of Rationality,” Journal of Planning History 15:3 (August 2016), 175-190.

Brian D. Crane, “Filth, Garbage, and Rubbish: Refuse Disposal, Sanitary Reform, and Nineteenth-Century Yard Deposits in Washington, D. C.,” Historical Archaeology 34:1 (2000), 20-38.

Homer T. Rosenberger, “Inauguration of President Buchanan a Century Ago,” Records of the Columbia Historical Society 57/59 (1957/1959), 96-122.

H.J. Forrest, “The National Hotel Epidemic of 1857,” Medical Annals of the District of Columbia 16:3 (1947), 132-134.

Isaac O. Barnes, “The National Hotel Disease — Letter to Dr. D.H. Storer,” New Hampshire Journal of Medicine 7:8 (August 1857), 238-243.

“The National Hotel Disease,” Scientific American 12:46 (July 25, 1857), 365.

“The ‘Hotel Endemic’ at Washington,” Peninsular Journal of Medicine 5:1 (July 1857), 31-34.

“National Hotel Disease,” New York Journal of Medicine 3:1 (July 1857), 90-92.

“Chemical Opinions of the National Hotel Disease,” Scientific American 12:37 (May 23, 1857), 296.

“National Hotel Disease,” Scientific American 12:36 (May 16, 1857), 286.

Philip Bump, “Concerns About Members of Congress Being Poisoned Date to 1857 — and D.C.’s National Hotel,” Washington Post, Jan. 14, 2015.

Clinton Yates, “Book on National Hotel Disease Shows Not Much Has Changed in D.C. Since 1850s,” Washington Post, Oct. 15, 2014.

Scott McCabe, “Congressman Dies From D.C. Hotel Affliction,” Washington Examiner, July 17, 2012.

“National Hotel Disease,” [New York] Sun, Nov. 14, 1916.

“The National Hotel Disease,” Shepherdstown [W.Va.] Register, April 10, 1858

“National Hotel Disease,” [Washington, D.C.] Evening Star, June 16, 1857.

“Another Victim of the National Hotel Disease,” New York Times, May 16, 1857.

“The National Hotel Disease,” New York Times, May 15, 1857.

“The ‘National Hotel’ Poison,” Holmes County [Ohio] Republican, May 14, 1857.

“The National Hotel Disease,” New York Times, May 8, 1857.

“The National Hotel Disease — Fatal Cases,” National Era, May 7, 1857.

“The Health of President Buchanan,” [Ebensburg, Pa.] Democrat and Sentinel, May 6, 1857.

“The Washington Mystery,” New York Times, May 5, 1857.

“The National Hotel Mystery,” New York Times, May 2, 1857.

“Death of Hon. John G. Montgomery,” [Bloomsburg, Pa.] Star of the North, April 29, 1857.

“The Washington Epidemic,” Times, April 11, 1857.

“Effects of the National Hotel Disease,” New York Times, April 4, 1857.

“Sickness at the National Hotel,” [Wilmington, N.C.] Tri-Weekly Commercial, March 31, 1857.

“The Washington Epidemic — Report of the Committee of the Board of Health,” New York Times, March 25, 1857.

Ludwig Deppisch, “The National Hotel Disease,” The Grog Ration 4:1 (January-February 2009), 1-5.

“Historical Highlights: The Mysterious National Hotel Disease,” United States House of Representatives (accessed June 23, 2021).

Andrew Glass, “National Hotel Disease Claims Many Victims, June 24, 1859,” Politico, June 24, 2010.

Listener mail:

“Feyenoord Keeper Treijtel Shoots Seagull Out of the Sky,” De Dag van Toen (accessed June 14, 2021).

“Eddy Treijtel over doodgeschoten meeuw: ‘Iedereen heeft het gezien, behalve ik,'” [Dutch], Rijnmond, Nov. 15, 2020.

“Span’s Mother Struck by Line Drive,” Associated Press, March 31, 2010.

Judge Morton Krase, “Take Me Out to the Courtroom: The Legal Battle for Ownership of Barry Bonds’ Historic 73rd Home Run Baseball,” Philadelphia Lawyer 67:1 (Spring 2004).

“Popov v. Hayashi,” Wikipedia (accessed June 25, 2021).

“Timpani,” Wikipedia (accessed June 14, 2021).

“Timpani,” Merriam-Webster (accessed June 14, 2021).

This week’s lateral thinking puzzle was contributed by listener Peter Le Pard.

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Many thanks to Doug Ross for the music in this episode.

If you have any questions or comments you can reach us at podcast@futilitycloset.com. Thanks for listening!