When Kerry Walters first sat down to write “Outbreak in Washington, D.C.: The 1857 Mystery of the National Hotel Disease” he had no way to know that upon its release the country would be in the throes of a similar episode of paranoia surrounding a public health scree to the one he was documenting in his book. Now, it’s Ebola dominating headlines and putting a nation on alert. Then, it was the National Hotel disease that enthralled the country and nearly took the life of the-President-elect James Buchanan. The book, which is scheduled to be released in a week, tells the story of antebellum-era Washington from both a national and local perspective. Incredibly, more than 150 years later, much of the analysis still rings true on both fronts.
In a breezy 87 pages, Walters, a professor at Gettysburg College, describes how the National Hotel, which stood on the site that is now the Newseum, became ground zero for a nasty unknown disease that claimed the lives of a few dozen, including a handful of elected officials. And the climate surrounding the panic that ensued might as well have been ripped from today’s headlines.
“The public response to the malady is a good case study of how easy it is for panic to spread. It’s also yet another example of how eager people are to embrace rumors of conspiracy, often hanging on to suspicions of foul play long after it becomes clear that such suspicions simply aren’t supported by the facts,” he writes in the introduction. “Fueled by rumor, innuendo, half-truths, partisanship and incendiary journalism, distress of the origins and scope of the National Hotel disease awakened both panic and cloak-and-dagger excitement that, for a while, terrified and titillated the American public,”
Where the book becomes most interesting is in its description of the city proper. For those that aren’t familiar, D.C. was basically a progressive cesspool, where people of all walks of life practiced all manner of vice. Wild and weird. More broadly, this city is still going through the same motions it did before the Civil War began. It was almost haunting to read about. “Washington, he wrote, is a ‘paradise of paradoxes…a great, little, splendid, mean, extravagant, poverty-stricken barrack,'” Walters writes, quoting journalist George William Bagby. Obviously, not much has changed.
And even then, gentrification was an ever-present issue. “Hovels that were homes to day laborers and free blacks often stood cheek to jowl with fine mansions and townhouses, creating an annoying eyesore for Washington’s well-heeled elite and a startling panorama of contrast for visitors. Partly in an effort to remedy this physical mixing of the classes, real estate prices spiked sharply in the capital in the decade before the Civil War. Lots that had cost a mere four pennies per square foot in the 1840s went for a full thirty cents per square foot by the mid-1850s. Proper Washingtonians, not to mention government officials, wanted distance between themselves and the riffraff,” Walters writes.
And when it came to law enforcement, the similarities continue. Now, obviously, indentured servitude is not what we do and technically we are all free people. But the psychological shackles that have kept so many people of color in positions of disadvantage often make it feel like not much has changed. Hence the need to hold public meetings just so residents can make it clear that police officers are treating them like animals. And yes, it often still divides along racial lines.
“In many respects, the free blacks were little better off than the slaves. Washington’s black laws, a set of regulations designed expressly for freedmen, were onerous. Blacks, slave or free, had to be off the streets by 10 p.m. In order to live in the city, free blacks had to provide proof of their freedom, possess letters of character written by white people and pay a hefty cash bond up front. Permission from an official magistrate was required for public gatherings of freedmen,” he writes about life then. “White-on-black crime typically went uninvestigated, as did black-on-black assaults.”
If you were black, your existed was only validated in the eyes of the law by a white person. We’ve seen this movie before, in 2014.
The book goes on to describe the culture of scare and the scientific theories about what led to the National Hotel disease, which remained a mystery. Back then, the dumping of open sewage that passed for trash disposal at the hotel created a cholera-like epidemic. Gross. But even Walters was surprised at how little difference there was between then and now while researching for the book, particularly regarding the gridlock on Capitol Hill.
“I have to admit I was kind of shocked when I saw that a lot of the same kinds of structures that led to this really huge gap between the haves and the have nots in early 19th century Washington are still around,” Walters said Thursday by phone. “The hygiene might be a little bit better in Washington, although my guess is that the more money you have, the better the hygiene is, the better the medical opportunities are.”
As for the public health hysteria, he doesn’t expect it to change anytime soon.
“I think that we’re even more prone to panic. Because the means of communication are so much more sophisticated and we’re so much more manipulable,” Walters said. “And we still like scandal.”