February 20, 1862: President Abraham Lincoln and Mary Todd Lincoln were grief strickenwhen their eleven-year-old son, Willie, died from typhoid fever, which may have been due to polluted drinking water delivered to the White House. His full name was William Wallace Lincoln but his parents called him Willie.
“Willie and his younger brother Tad were considered “notorious hellions”during the period they lived in Springfield. They’re recorded by Abraham’s law partner William Herndonfor turning their law office upside down; pulling the books off the shelves while their father appeared oblivious to their behavior.
Upon their father’s election as President both Willie and Tad moved into the White House and it became their new playground. At the request of Mrs. Lincoln, Julia Taftbrought her younger brothers, 12-year-old “Bud” and 8-year-old “Holly” to the White House and they became playmates of Willie and Tad.
Willie and Tad both became ill in early 1862, and although Tad recovered, Willie’s condition fluctuated from day to day. The most likely cause of the illness was typhoid fever, which was usually contracted by consumption of fecally contaminated food/water…Gradually Willie weakened, and both parents spent much time at his bedside. Finally, on Thursday, February 20, 1862, at 5:00 p.m., Willie died. Abraham said, ‘My poor boy. He was too good for this earth. God has called him home. I know that he is much better off in heaven, but then we loved him so. It is hard, hard to have him die!’”
Willie was only 11 years old when he died.
Thanks to Morris A. Pierce who provided me detailed information on the history of water supplied to the District of Columbia. “Water from a spring in nearby Franklin Square had been piped to the President’s House in 1833, and was the primary drinking water source as late as 1904. Unfortunately for the Lincolns, a unit of Union soldiers was encamped on Franklin Square, which was almost certainly the source of the typhoid.”
Commentary: Typhoid fever caused by contaminated water killed by the hundreds of thousands every year. The suffering of the parents of children was great and avoidable. It would take Louis Pasteur, the germ theory of disease, Dr. John Snow, public health professionals and the sanitary engineers of the late 19thand early 20thcenturies to eventually break the death spiral of sewage contaminated drinking water.