Two weeks and a day after the party eleven-year-old Willie Lincoln was dead. Some said he died from bilious fever or a malarial infection; others (and they were more likely correct, considering the time of year and his symptoms) believed the third Lincoln son succumbed to typhoid fever, the invisible bacterial scourge transmitted by fecally contaminated water. For the past five years the President's household had drawn its water from the Potomac River—a supposed improvement over the local springs. But during the war, when Washington's normal population of 60,000 swelled with military personnel, profiteers, and patronage seekers to 200,000, the District's few sewage mains broke and drained into the river. When the army set up camps without latrine trenches along the banks of the Potomac, the contamination increased. Soon the Potomac had become a vast septic tank the lethal contents of which were piped back into the White House.
No one thought much about sanitation at the time. Public health and proper sewage disposal would not be connected until the late nineteenth century, though