By Eilene Lyon
A 19th Century Scourge
In my gold rush research, I’ve come across a couple cases of milk sickness – a deadly disease that was common in the 19th century throughout the Ohio River Valley states. I made the erroneous assumption that this was some bacterial illness that was neutralized by pasteurization.
Rather, milk sickness was a poisoning caused by a wild plant that is endemic to that part of the country. It was slow-acting as well as lethal, which made it so insidious.
Imagine immigrants venturing into “new” territory in hopes of a better life, watching as their cow begins showing signs of sickness. The icy shroud of dread envelops the parents’ hearts as they realize the family had been consuming the cow’s tainted milk for days.
All they could do then was wait and suffer a slow, agonizing death along with their livestock.
One of the most famous milk sickness cases in U. S. history is the death of Abraham Lincoln’s mother, Nancy Hanks Lincoln, in 1818 in Little Pigeon Creek, Indiana. Many in the tiny community were afflicted – not an uncommon circumstance, unfortunately.
Milk sickness first began appearing after pioneers crossed over the Allegheny Mountains. Their domestic animals were frequently turned loose to forage in woodlands. When other plants became unavailable due to drought or late season scarcity, the livestock would sometimes consume white snakeroot (Ageratina altissima), a fall-blooming member of the sunflower family.
In animals, the symptoms vary, but one common effect is a shaking that gave the disease the name of “The Trembles.”
William Fisher went to California with Elias D. Pierce. He survived the journey there and back only to encounter milk sickness at home in 1859. This story about his family contracting milk sickness has a slight error. One of the Fishers’ adopted sons survived. Both Gilson and his wife, the tenants, perished. The five deaths occurred over the span of nine or ten days.
One story in the annals of tremetol poisoning (the toxin in snakeroot), is that of Dr. Anna Pierce Hobbs Bixby, a pioneer doctor in southern Illinois. A milk sickness epidemic ravaged her community, devastating people and animals alike, including members of her own family. Young Dr. Hobbs railed at her inability to combat this mortal foe. She sought help from eastern medics, to no avail.
Suspecting the cattle were ingesting an evil herb and passing the poison through their milk, she began scouring the local forests in the fall of 1834. She came across a Shawnee medicine woman who showed her the plant she was seeking.
Dr. Hobbs tested it, found the Indian woman to be correct, and told farmers to remove it from their fields and prevent their animals from foraging on the deadly plant. Each fall the community headed out with hoes to destroy all the snakeroot they could find.
Some people speculate that her discovery didn’t become widely known because, after all, she was a woman and couldn’t possibly know what she was talking about.
In humans, tremetol attacks the metabolic process, preventing absorption of food, and leading to acidosis, similar to what can happen to a diabetic. Untreated, chemical starvation occurs and the acidosis leads eventually to coma and death. In the meantime, those afflicted suffered from intestinal distress, loss of appetite, lethargy, and a reddened tongue. Acetone built up in their bodies, giving a distinctive odor to their breath. Those who managed to recover experienced many weeks of muscular weakness, called “The Slows.”
It wasn’t until the 1920s that chemists finally isolated tremetol and concluded it caused milk sickness. The last known case occurred in the 1960s. Treatment can be as simple as consuming sodium bicarbonate (baking soda) to counter the acidosis.
A couple factors helped greatly diminish the incidence of milk sickness in the late 1800s. First, farmers began fencing in their livestock, thereby reducing the chance they would encounter white snakeroot. Second, agricultural cooperatives began pooling their milk, thus diluting any potentially poisoned batch so it could not cause illness in humans.
The Disease Goes West
When my ancestor, Henry Zane Jenkins, and his partners left Indiana in the gold rush in 1851, they probably thought they’d left milk sickness behind. No one had heard of it occurring in California.
As winter approached, Henry and John C. Teach stocked their canvas-roofed 8′ x 12′ log cabin with provisions. These included flour, potatoes, coffee, pickles…and a 22-pound cheese wheel. It was made back east from “milk-sick” milk, they discovered, much to their distress – and that of the dog they gave some to!
Feature image: Ageratina altissima, of the Asteraceae family. (Wikimedia Commons)
Daly, Walter J. March 2006. “The ‘Slows’: The Torment of Milk Sickness on the Midwest Frontier.” Indiana Magazine of History, V. 102, no. 1 pp. 29 – 40. https://www.jstor.org/stable/27792690?read-now=1&seq=1#page_scan_tab_contents
Hardin County Historical Committee for the Centennial. 1939. History of Hardin County, Illinois. pp. 50 – 51.
Stewart, Amy. 2009. Wicked Plants: The weed that killed Lincoln’s mother & other botanical atrocities. Algonquin Books, Chapel Hill. pp. 213 – 215.
The Summit County Beacon [Akron, Ohio], August 10, 1859 p. 4 – via Newspapers.com