Sewer gas

Today’s post is just a very interesting tidbit I found when conducting research for a piece for #GRIT – about how, in the 19th century, the White House had a sewer gas problem so severe that Chester A. Arthur, the 21st US president, refused to move in there until it had been cleared up. According to Thomas Reeves’ biography, he stayed in the house of Senator John P. Jones, cofounder of the town of Santa Monica, California, until then. I found this detail in a review article by James Whorton, a medical historian at the University of Washington, published in the Western Journal of Medicine in 2001.

When President James Garfield was shot in 1881 and taken to the White House to be treated, his steady decline over the following weeks at last came to be blamed not on the assassin’s bullet still lodged in his back, but to the executive mansion’s obsolete plumbing system. A “well-known plumber” told a New York newspaper that “the real trouble” in Garfield’s case “is sewer gas,” while the Sanitary Committee of the Master Plumbers of New York offered to outfit the White House with sewer traps at no charge. Instead, the president was moved from Washington, DC, to his summer home in New Jersey, despite physicians’ fears that he could not survive the journey; he died in New Jersey less than two weeks later.

His successor, Chester Arthur, refused to move into the White House, having been made nervous by authoritative statements that, until its plumbing was reconstructed to eliminate sewer gas, “the White House will be behind our better class of tenement-houses.” Arthur even went so far as to lobby Congress to tear down the White House and erect a sewer gas-proof replica in its stead, but though the Senate approved $300,000 for the project, the House of Representatives would not concur, and the new President had to settle for a plumbing overhaul of the old building.