Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Last week I stated that poisons will be my blog topic series for the near future. I’m sorry, but I have to interrupt myself. I want to share a discovery that will indirectly tie into a discussion of poisons. It might also be useful to an historical writer.

Approximately twenty years ago, my grandmother and I were going through a box of old photos. I came upon one picture of a baby (see photo), and my Grandmother said, “That was Mabel. She was born two years before me and died when she was eight months old.”

“How did she die?” I asked.

My grandmother shrugged and said, “Something called phantom.”

I questioned her further, but she remembered nothing else. No clues to find out what this disease or illness was. I assumed the word phantom was her interpretation of something she’d heard as a child. Kids often hear words wrong.

My grandmother died a few years after that discussion. With her passing, I lost the only person who remembered little Mabel. I entered her into my family tree, then wrote down the few facts I knew on the back of the cardboard picture and tucked it into my genealogy notebook.

Forward about ten years. . .

I got a computer and internet access, and tried to research the disease. I used the spellings “phantom,” “fantum,” and “fantom,” but found nothing in the online lists of old diseases available at that time. Eventually I stopped looking, and Mabel’s memory and her picture were once again relegated to my genealogy notebook.

Forward to the present. . .

My husband and I were watching Marshall Dillon (the show that preceded Gunsmoke) on the Western Channel, as we do every evening lately—him on the couch, and me in the chair with my computer in my lap. During this broadcast, Doc Adams diagnosed a cowboy with “brain fever.”

What exactly was brain fever? I wondered. I’d heard of it before, but didn’t know the details. So, I Googled it. One thing led to another, as often happens with internet exploration, and I found one site that contained a long list of old-timey diseases and the modern disease equivalents.

Out of curiosity, I glanced down the list. That’s when I discovered what probably happened to Mabel.

Cholera Infantum. In all likelihood, as a youngster, my grandmother heard about Mabel’s death, and her child’s mind remembered only the last portion of the disease. . .fantum. Now I have a likely cause of death to put in my photo album with Mabel’s picture. 

Cholera infantum isn’t related to cholera at all, but the symptoms are similar. It was a ruthless, brutal summertime killer of babies. I’m not sure where the word infantum comes from. Maybe from the Latin word infantia, which means infancy? But while reading about the disease, I found some information that’s worth sharing, in particular treatments that probably killed more babies than saved them. That will be my discussion next week and will segue beautifully into a discussion of poison.

Does anyone else have a story like this to share about a long ago family member?


  1. Thanks for a great link. My grandmother also had a sister who died very young. Her name was Amy, and she appears in an old picture with her siblings. I have never heard any information about how she died, though. I've always wondered. Now you have me wondering again, but no one in the family who might have a clue is still alive.

  2. Gr8 info, Candice. . .can I use it for my next book? Oh, wait, I write romance. . .

  3. Olivia, I'm glad you liked the link. Thanks for commenting. Now you have me thinking about little Amy. Like how old she was and where she lived. That could play into the mystery of her death, too. It's astounding to me how many children died in the 1800s. I imagine people were much more accepting of death back then because it was so common--but then again, can a mother's heart ever be accepting of child's death? I don't know.

    Anyway, thank you again for visiting.


  4. My dear Sandra, of course you can use this in a book. We could both use it and it wouldn't turn out the same. It would work in romance, too, wouldn't it?


  5. What an amazing article! Thank you, Candice. The website link is very helpful, too.

    And I'm a huge fan of Gunsmoke, only I LISTEN to it on the radio. It's called the Radio Classics channel, and you can find it on XM 82. I've actually done a lot of research listening to these old radio shows, because it gives me such a good feel of the language and terms used in the 40's and 50's!

  6. Wendy, thanks for visiting us here, and I'm glad you like the link.


  7. Lisa, I love Gunsmoke. We've been watching it together since we got married. A lot of fodder there for an author. I appreciate the characterization, as well. I also like the fact that it's low key and clean even while the bad things are implied (sort of like inspirational fiction.) My introvert self doesn't feel like I have to scrub scenes out of my head when I'm done watching the show. I hate watching graphic violence in shows and movies.

    I like your idea about listening to it on the radio. I might check into that. It would be a good excuse to get XM radio. "Sweetheart, I need it for my writing." LOL! But's a great idea, especially when we travel.


  8. No lie...I actually used something I learned listening to XM Radio Classics in my last book, Love Finds You in Calico, California. The story is set in a mining town, so of course, when an episode of Gunsmoke featured a mining accident, my ears perked up. I learned that the person in charge of running the mine was called the "superintendent", and of course, I plugged that into my novel immediately.

    Also, the radio show went into some detail about the mining operation itself--all of which I absorbed like a sponge, LOL!


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