Tuesday, November 5, 2013

Nancy Hanks Lincoln
In the early 19th century, European-American migrants moved to the Midwest, first into the areas bordering the Ohio River and its tributaries. The settlers began to suffer from a disease that they feared as much as they did cholera or yellow fever. They called it Milk Sickness. Many thousands died from the disease, and it’s suspected that one of the victims was Abraham Lincoln’s mother, Mary Hanks Lincoln.

Here is a description of the disease from a book written originally published in 1888 called Jesse W. Herndon's Life of Lincoln.

A physician, who has in his practice met a number of cases, describes the symptoms to be "a whitish coat on the tongue, burning sensation of the stomach, severe vomiting, obstinate constipation of the bowels, coolness of the extremities, great restlessness and jactitation, pulse rather small, somewhat more frequent than natural, and lightly chorded. In the course of the disease the coat on the tongue becomes brownish and dark, the countenance dejected, and the prostration of the patient is great. A fatal termination may take place in sixty hours, or life may be prolonged for a period of fourteen days. These are the symptoms of the disease in an acute form. Sometimes it runs into the chronic form, or it may assume that form from the commencement, and after months or years the patient may finally die or recover only a partial degree of health.

The settlers knew the disease had something to do with the milk and meat of cattle. The following is an excerpt from the History of Fountain County [Indiana] together with Historic Notes on the Wabash Valley, published in 1881.

Among the discomforts and the dangers which are common to the settlement of any wild country, the first settlers of this county were subjected to one that was uncommon and terrible in its manifestation. As is usual with the settlers of a new country, the people who first inhabited this county had no pastures for their cattle except those which the “wood” furnished. This left their “stock” exposed to the depredations of the wild beasts and the thieves—for there were thieves even at this early day. . .But a new and more dreadful danger soon made its appearance, which threatened alike the human and the brute. People became sick with a strange disease, which usually ended in death in about nine days. The medical skill of the country—such as it was—was baffled; and the medical assistance was sometimes of more help to the disease than to the patient. After much study and investigation, and after many lives had paid the penalty of ignorance, it was discovered, as was believed by most people,  to have its origin in the use of beef and of milk; and soon the term milk-sickness was applied to a plague as dreadful as any that people ever suffered from. A fierce controversy arose as to the cause of this disease, many people denying that it was in any way attributable to the use of meat or milk, and others denying that it was peculiar to the locality. What increased the doubt was the fact that of a family, all of whom used the milk from the same cows, some would be taken with the disease while others would escape.

People weren’t the only ones to suffer. Cattle (horses, goats, and sheep) died, too. (As did dogs that were fed the meat or milk of a cow.) Signs of poisoning in these animals included depression and lethargy, placement of hind feet close together (horses, goats, cattle) or held far apart (sheep), nasal discharge, excessive salivation, arched body posture, and rapid or difficult breathing.

The History of Fountain County together with Historic Notes on the Wabash Valley goes on to say,

. . .many efforts have been made to discover the cause, but none have been so far successful as to set the matter at rest. About all that can be said is that observation and experience have demonstrated that cattle kept upon tame pastures were never affected by it. . .

At a time when medical treatments included of bloodletting (which often led to a quicker demise), and the sources of disease weren’t known, the settlers theorized that perhaps the local springs were poisonous. The settlers were partially right. The culprit was poison, but not in the water. 

Unfortunately, this blog article will double in size if I continue with the "rest of the story." So I'm going to leave our readers hanging with the promise that I’ll reveal what the poison was next week, including the person credited with finally bringing it to light. 


  1. I'll be looking forward to it. (& resisting the urge to google!) I love these Did You Know? posts!

  2. I'm so glad you enjoy the posts. I am such a collector of weird historical minutiae, and it's good to have an outlet. I'm appreciative of Lisa and the other ladies of The Borrowed Blog for allowing me this space to spit it all out. :-)

  3. I'm fascinated by it so I'm glad you share what you know. I was definitely thinking about your post on the great blizzard of 1888 last month on October 4th when we were getting one of our own!

  4. LadySaotome, you are showing great control not to google. Not sure I can do the same. I always hated "to be continued" when I was a kid. LOLOL! GREAT article, Candice.


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