February 20, 1862: President Abraham Lincoln and Mary Todd Lincoln were grief stricken when 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 Herndon for 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 Taft brought 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. The White House drew its water from the Potomac River, along which thousands of soldiers and horses were camped. 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.
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 19th and early 20th centuries to eventually break the death spiral of sewage contaminated drinking water.