Malaria: The Evil Spirit of the White House The First Lady’s Illness, Part Two

a black and white picture of a hotel
The Elberon Hotel, New Jersey
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The White House was not a healthy home. The National Mall was built on low points in the tidal flats near several water sources: the Potomac River, the Anacostia River, and Tiber Creek. The creek was first made into a canal, then into a sewer draining much of downtown. It flowed out onto the Potomac Flats, within easy smelling distance of the White House, and secured the city’s reputation for swampiness and miasmas – highly unpleasant or unhealthy smells or vapors. The Anacostia River flowed too slowly to take away the effluent of the area, so it settled on the foul tidal flats for decades. (A myth grew that the National Mall was built on a swamp when, in fact, only part of the Mall was originally marshland or tidal plain.)

Kate King, a Cincinnati newspaper correspondent, wrote of the Executive Mansion’s reputation as an old, poorly ventilated house, “situated just where the river malaria can have full sway over its inmates.” She added that “the old enemy of mankind [malaria] found an easy victim in the enfeebled condition of the mistress of the house, who had sacrificed health, strength, and endurance to the demands of her position. . .to be tortured and tired out by the demands of society and the constant strain of being before the public.”

As Decoration Day (Memorial Day) 1881 passed, those in the White House seemed brighter and more hopeful. “Tuesday, 31. At last, on the 28th day of her illness, the Doctor says with emphasis, it is ended. She now needs only care and strength.” Lucretia Garfield’s appetite returned and her strength improved – and she became more involved in decisions about her children. On June 8, she finally put on a morning dress and sat up for several hours, the first time since the malaria began. Son Harry and the president made a chair of their hands and arms to carry Crete down to the dining room on June 12. Still weak and very thin, James and Lucretia decided that they would seek the cool sea air “to revive and restore” her to full health.

The seashore resort at Long Branch, NJ was familiar to President Garfield, a man who had always found the ocean comforting. They retreated to the Elberon Hotel in mid-June 1881, leaving the heat of Washington, DC and the malaria air of the tidal pools behind. The president returned on June 27 to complete government business. The first lady remained here until receiving a dire telegram on July 2.

Several important points can be made about Lucretia Garfield’s serious brush with death: The marital affection of the president and first lady, that some called an “affectionate partnership,” was highlighted in newspapers and received positive reactions by the public. People began to regard the first lady “as a woman of the grandest and noblest qualities of head and heart.”

And, Charles Guiteau postponed his assassination attempt of the President on June 18th when he saw Lucretia, thin and frail, clinging tenderly to her husband’s arms as they left Washington for Long Branch.

Malaria is a life-threatening disease caused by parasites that are transmitted to people through the bites of infected female Anopheles mosquitoes. There was a time when every state but Alaska had a malaria epidemic. George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, and Ulysses S. Grant all suffered from malaria. Early surveyors wrote of bad air, miasmas, and “musketoes.”

The mosquito-borne menace was so prevalent in Washington in the late 1800s that Dr. Albert Freeman Africanus King, a prominent physician, petitioned for a wire mosquito net as tall as the Washington monument to be erected over the nation’s capital. He was one of the first to make the connection between malaria and the mosquitoes buzzing around the marshy tidal flats.

Today, it is preventable and curable. Malaria was eliminated in the United States in 1952.


If you would like to read more on this subject, please see Malaria: The Biography of a Killer by Leon J. Warshaw, M.D., Rinehart & Co., NY, 1949.


Quoted excerpts with dates are from the Diary of James A. Garfield, Vol. IV, Brown & Williams, Michigan State University Press, 1981.

Dark Horse: The Surprise Election and Political Murder of President James A. Garfield by Kenneth D. Ackerman, Carroll & Graf Publishers, NY, 2003.

Lucretia: A Volume in the Presidential Wives Series, by John Shaw, Nova History Publications, NY, 2004.

James A Garfield National Historic Site

Last updated: May 27, 2021