Thompson on sickness

From the history book "Stories of Indiana" by James Maurice Thompson, published in 1898. The Fairfield-born author goes to some lengths to humanize the pioneer experience of Indiana. His history text goes back as far as the fossils and brings us forward to the present, or in his case -- about the end of the 19th century. The motor vehicle was about to emerge. Before that, life on the Indiana frontier was a story worth telling. And he tells it well:

The early settlers of Indiana had to contend against invisible as well as visible foes. No part of America outside of the tropics was more subject to malarial visitations than were the rich, flat lands of our State before our present system of drainage removed the cause. The vast, dense forests in whose damp shade immense accumulations of leaves, fallen timber, and other vegetable remains lay rotting from year to year, and the innumerable collections of putrid stagnant water, exhaled poisonous gases with which, especially in the autumn, the air was burdened.

The story of suffering from chills and fever, or "ague," would, if conscientiously written, form a most pathetic part of our history. For many years after the first settlement of the country, almost every family was stricken with some form of the disease, the most common being a chill, followed immediately by a high fever, the attack recurring "every other day "; that is, the victim would have an ill day and a well day alternately. Sometimes, however, the chill and fever came on every day at the same hour, and so violent were the paroxysms of shaking that the bed upon which the sick person lay would creak and rattle and even make the cabin floor vibrate. So general was this plague that people became somewhat indifferent regarding it, taking its visitation quite as a matter of course.

But it was really a very dreadful disease, and so difficult to get rid of that it would last for months and even years, sometimes ending in consumption or some other fatal organic trouble. Notwithstanding the danger and pain it inflicted, the exigencies of pioneer life would not permit an ague-stricken man or woman to give up and quit work. Day after day the plowman trudged behind his plow with the rigor or the burning fever upon him, while his equally afflicted wife drudged at the washtub and cooked over an open fire. Meantime two or three children lay in bed, or upon pallets on the floor, convulsed with ague or delirious with a burning brain.

Ague and various forms of malarial fever continued to be the scourge of Indiana until open and tile ditches, the clearing up of the forests, and the finely drained highways now so common, had removed the stagnant waters and thoroughly aerated the damp soil of our rich flat lands. At present there is, perhaps, not a more healthful State in our country; indeed, Indiana is noted for the vigor, activity, and longevity of its inhabitants.

There was one disease peculiar to the new country which to this day remains a mystery. Men of science have tried in vain to find out the cause of it. Both people and cattle were subject to it, and its effect was often deadly. "Milk-sick" was the common name for it, as it was generally thought that people took it from drinking milk or eating butter which had been poisoned by something in the food of the cows.

Entire families would die of it within a few days, or the afflicted ones would linger in great agony through a long, slow convalescence; but usually death came within ten days after the attack began, or the victim got well. Many intelligent people contended that-the disease was not caused by eating the milk, butter, or beef of poisoned cattle, and some even denied the existence of such a disease. The controversy was a warm one; as in the case of rabies, even doctors differing about its origin and actual existence. Still there can be no doubt that there was a terrible and mysterious malady called milk-sick, of which people and farm stock died in great numbers over a large part of Indiana.

It is quite certain that the ailment, whatever it was, troubled neither human nor beast after the country became thickly settled and cultivated grains and pastures were substituted for the wild herbage which was. the only food of pioneer cattle during a large part of the year.

It seems probable that a vegetable alkaloid poison may have been the cause of the trouble. Some wild plant, insignificant in size, may have secreted the poison, and the plant itself may have disappeared when agriculture became general. Most people thought that certain springs and little boggy spots of ground were the sources of infection or poison, either the water itself or some plant growing near it being the immediate agent. Cattle would drop dead at these springs, and when a small area of surrounding land was fenced in, the trouble would cease. Yet years afterwards when the water was tested it was found absolutely pure and wholesome. Nor could the analysis of any plant growing near by account for the dread sickness.

It will be fairly understood how real milk-sick was, and with what terror it was regarded, when a few instances of its history are recorded. A man by the name of Lee came to Indiana about 1819 and settled below Terre Haute, near the mouth of Honey Creek, where he made him a good farm and began to prosper; but presently his family, his horses, and his cattle were stricken with milk-sick, and he abandoned his farm on that account. Indeed, instances of this sort might be cited until a volume of ordinary size would not hold them.

If it became pretty well authenticated by persistent rumor that a neighborhood or area of country was "subject to milk-sick," as the people expressed it, land became unsalable there, and for this reason it was very seldom that any person would say outright that the disease had ever been in his vicinity. As late as 1870, however, there were still a few places in Indiana where dangerous areas that is, little patches of ground supposed to be poisonous to cattle were inclosed and not used for pasture for fear of milk-sick. Now a man would probably be laughed at were he to inquire about such a disease in any part of our State.

The fact that land anywhere near a place where milksick was known to exist, was almost unsalable, made it next to impossible to investigate the cause of the disease. The man of science was kept upon a "wildgoose chase " from the moment that he made inquiries on the subject. No landowner was willing to admit that such a malady had ever been heard of in his neighborhood, until after he had sold his farm, and it was considered an insult to be resented, sometimes even to death, when it was alleged that a man's premises had a source of the plague, or that his cattle or his family had suffered from it. Some of the finest tracts of land in Indiana were for many years unoccupied on account of springs which were said to cause the death of cattle. Judge Thomas F. Davidson in his historical sketch of Fountain County describes one of these springs, around which were found the skeletons of many animals.

A Baptist minister by the name of Isaac McCoy was at the head of an Indian mission on Raccoon Creek, not far from Terre Haute. Being a man of marked ability, McCoy attracted a great deal of attention to his religious work. A Methodist minister visited the Mission and facetiously reported that it was a "place where bullfrogs and Baptists flourished in buttonwood swamps." Hearing of this, McCoy retorted that he had noticed the fact that "Methodists and milk-sick invariably entered a neighborhood at about the same time." "And what the milk-sick doesn't kill, the Methodists convert," was the closing rejoinder. In those days even theology had its grim jokes.