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Monday, June 1, 2020

Sinking into the Grave: the 19th Century's Tuberculosis Epidemic

A French illustration of a young consumptive from Le Journal Illustré, No. 34, October 2-9, 1864. Library of Congress.
In the 19th century, waves of epidemics such as cholera, smallpox, and the measles came and went, but tuberculosisthen known as consumptionremained ever-present. 

The infectious disease had plagued human kind for thousands of years. In the 1800s, tuberculosis reached epidemic proportions killing "one out of every seven people in the United States and Europe." (Centers for Disease Control) 

The disease was thought to be hereditary, unavoidable, and possibly caused by "bad air." The slow process with which people suffered and died was often characterized as "sinking into the grave." Its' true cause, a contagious bacteriumMycobacterium tuberculosiswas not discovered until 1882. Advancements in treatment followed with diagnostic skin tests, chest radiographs (x-rays), and in 1921, a vaccine for use in humans. 

One of the earliest known deaths from consumption in Lake County was English immigrant Ann Daggitt, the 13-year old daughter of Moraine Township settler, Robert Daggitt. Ann died of "quick consumption" in February 1845. Her father, a carpenter by trade, made his daughter's coffin and buried her on the family's homestead in today's Highland Park. Ann was the first burial in what became the Daggitt/Grace Cemetery.

That same year Elizabeth Boyd McKay of Waukegan died of consumption. Elizabeth was the wife of Scottish immigrant James McKay (1808-1887). In 1841, the couple and their 1-year old son moved from Chicago to Waukegan (then known as Little Fort). The family gained in prestige as James became influential in the city's growth by building hotels and taverns, and his election to public office. (see my post on James McKay). 

When Elizabeth became ill she returned to Chicago, perhaps to be near family. She took residence at the Sauganash Hotel where the town's finest accommodations were available. It is unknown how long she suffered from consumption, but generally it was a slow death taking many months. 
Elizabeth Boyd McKay's death notice published in the Little Fort Porcupine, August 6, 1845. 
Newspaper Collection, Bess Bower Dunn Museum.
In the spring of 1850, young married couple Olive and William H. Gipson died in Waukegan from the dreaded disease. Both were born in Maine and had recently settled in Waukegan where William worked as a merchant. 

The 1850 mortality census lists William as having been ill with consumption for 150 days before his death. For a time, he may have continued to work at his business, unwittingly infecting customers and neighbors just by speaking to them and releasing droplets of the TB bacteria into the air. 

While caring for her husband, Olive contracted the disease. She died 30 days from the start of her symptoms. William died a month later at age 35.

The U.S. Federal Census of 1850 included a "mortality schedule" with a list of individuals who had died within the previous year. The 1850 mortality schedule for Waukegan included Olive and William H. Gipson (shown here).

The classic appearance of a consumptive included flushed cheeks, pale skin and red lips (due to a constant low grade fever), shiny eyes, a chronic cough, and spitting up of blood. Victims also suffered from chills, fatigue, and loss of appetite. The person wasted away and was virtually "consumed" by the disease. 

Without a cure, people tried a variety of remedies including fresh air, vinegar massages, cod liver oil, and inhaling hemlock or turpentine. (Centers for Disease Control). Others found a way to make money off those who suffered by selling tonics that falsely claimed a "cure" for ailments including consumption. 
An advertisement for one of the many tonic "cures" for consumption, circa 1890.
Advertisement Collection (2013.0.97), Bess Bower Dunn Museum.
From a letter by Edwin P. Messer (1838-1915) of Libertyville dated April 19, 1860, we learn of the death of a young friend. Messer wrote to William Minto of Loon Lake (Antioch Twp.): "I suppose you have heard of the death of Mary Abbott she died about the middle of March."

Though Messer did not mention the cause of death, through genealogical research I found that Mary had died of consumption after being ill for three months. She was 18 years old.

1860 mortality schedule listing "Maria E. Abbott" dying of consumption in March 1860 in Waukegan. 
Mary E. Abbott was born on the family farm near Millburn in September 1841 to William Abbott and Elizabeth F. Barry Abbott. 

Messer's letter indicates that he and William Minto (1837-1919) were acquainted with Mary. Since Messer did not live near Minto and Abbott in the Millburn/Loon Lake area, I wondered how the three became acquainted. From correspondence in the museum's Minto Family Collection I knew that Minto and Messer had attended the Waukegan Academy together. I suspected that Mary Abbott might also be connected to them through the Academy. 

Waukegan Academy on Genesee Street. Printed in the Waukegan Daily Gazette, March 22, 1915.
The Academy operated from 1846 to 1869.
As the first institution of higher learning in Lake County and with abolitionist-leanings, the Waukegan Academy attracted male and female students from throughout Lake County and also Wisconsin, New York and Australia. (see my post on the Waukegan Academy). 

A review of Academy catalogues confirmed that Mary Abbott attended in 1857 along with Edwin P. Messer and his twin brother Erwin B.
Waukegan Academy Catalogue for 1857, listing students Mary E. Abbott (top right) and Edwin P. Messer (bottom right).
School Collection, Bess Bower Dunn Museum. 
Young adults, such as Mary Abbott, were particularly susceptible to consumption, although anyone could contract the disease. In the following decades, another group would suffer from the disease at high ratesUnion veterans of the Civil War.

Historian Brian Matthew Jordan noted that Union soldiers returned to their homes "prematurely broken down." Their bodies were "atrophied by years spent exposed to the elements and disease in unsanitary army camps." This led to veterans succumbing to consumption, and heart and kidney diseases at much higher rates than the general population. 
Union veterans at the dedication of the Civil War monument in Waukegan, August 1899.
Civil War Collection (64.39.2), Bess Bower Dunn Museum.
William Monaghan (1841-1871) of Wauconda mustered-in with Company B, 96th Illinois Infantry on September 5, 1862. He was the son of Irish immigrants, Eliza and James Monaghan, who came to Lake County in 1837 and settled on property within today's Singing Hills Forest Preserve. 

William was considered "an excellent soldier" and served with the 96th Illinois until the end of the war. The regimental history noted him as being 6 foot 4 inches tall and having "a powerful frame," which made it all the more difficult for his family to accept his death from consumption not long after the Civil War. 

By the late 1800s, the best cure for TB was thought to be fresh air and good nutrition. The growing realization that TB was likely an infectious disease led to isolating patients in hospitals and sanitoriums. With improvements in socioeconomic conditions, nutrition and living standards, public health initiatives, and the use of sanitoriums, a path to controlling the disease was on the horizon. 
Lake Breeze Sanitorium was established for TB sufferers in 1909 on a 16-acre parcel
east of Green Bay Road on Grand Avenue in Waukegan. 
Tuberculosis Collection 77.20, Bess Bower Dunn Museum.
Public health initiatives such as this poster educated people on disease prevention. Circa 1925. 
U.S. National Library of Medicine.

Lake County's Tuberculosis Sanitorium was established on Belvidere Road in Waukegan in 1939. In addition to providing the latest in diagnosis and antibiotic treatments, the facility had patient rooms that opened onto private balconies for fresh air. (see my post on the TB Sanitorium).
Nurses's station at TB Sanitorium in Waukegan, circa 1940.  
Tuberculosis Collection 77.20, Bess Bower Dunn Museum. 

For centuries, the origin of tuberculosis was not understood and contracting it was thought to be unavoidable. With the advent of germ theory and the discovery of the bacterium that causes TB, people began to understand how to control the spread of the disease through isolation, and eventually prevent it through antibiotics. 

Tuberculosis remains a public health concern in part to a rise in drug resistance. The disease has re-emerged as a pandemic killing 1.5 million people worldwide each year. However, in the U.S. the number of new cases continues to fall steadily. For more information visit the Centers for Disease Control 

Telling the stories of Lake Countians who died from tuberculosis or worked to treat those with the disease is possible because official records and archival materials have been preserved and made available for research. 

Today, we are experiencing a struggle that is similar to the one our 19th century counterparts endured. To understand this moment in time, museums around the worldincluding the Bess Bower Dunn Museumare collecting stories and photos related to the COVID-19 pandemic. Historians and researchers 10, 20 or even 50 years from now will benefit and find perspective from the stories we archive.

- Diana Dretske, Curator

Sources: - 1850 and 1860 U.S. Federal Census Mortality Schedules, Lake County, Illinois. 

Bess Bower Dunn Museum of Lake County. 
Centers for Disease Control and
Manoli-Skocay, Constance. "A Gentle Death: Tuberculosis in 19th Century Concord." Accessed May 22, 2020.
"Died." Little Fort Porcupine and Democratic Banner, Little Fort, Lake County, Illinois, August 6, 1845. Newspaper Collection. Bess Bower Dunn Museum of Lake County. 
Jordan, Brian Matthew. Marching Home: Union Veterans and Their Unending Civil War. New York: Liveright Publishing Corporation, 2014.
Partridge, Charles A. History of the Ninety-Sixth Regiment Illinois Volunteer Infantry. Chicago: Historical Society of the Regiment, 1887.
Murray, John F. "A Century of Tuberculosis." Accessed May 28, 2020.


Rosanne Fitko said...

Thank you for this interesting post about tuberculosis and its devastating effect on Lake County residents. There are many parallels between their struggle and ours today with Covid-19. If readers are curious about Lake County’s battle with tuberculosis in the 20th century, they may be interested in a free webinar hosted by the Bess Bower Dunn Museum, “Victory Over Tuberculosis: How Lake County Combatted an Infectious Disease,” which will be presented on June 18. Register here

Joyce Dever said...

Thank you for the very interesting article. I never realized how devastating it was. My Grandmother dies in the flue epidemic My Mother was from a family of ten and the youngest were were put in an orphanage as my Grandfather could not take care of them. My Mother, her sister and I believe two brothers were put there. I guess it was pretty awful as my Mother never spoke about it. It was outside of Janesville, WI I have some info on it but could never locate it. At fifteen a Norwegian family took her in. My Grandparents came from Norway. I would like to find more non it.

I could not enter this an I kept tring when I did I’m not a robot it wouldn’t let me.