Diseases/pandemics in Fayette County: A history


By Fayette Co. Historical Society Trustees



As we the citizens of Fayette continue to experience the difficulties and suffering of the COVID-19 pandemic of 2020, we must realize this is not the first such event of this type where a catastrophic illness affected the people of Fayette County, Ohio, and our national population. History tells us that Fayette Countians have come together, supported each other’s families, and assisted their neighbors in overcoming tragedy caused by various illnesses since our county was established, and before.

The following sicknesses all struck Fayette County, some with heartrendering sadness. One can reflect not only how difficult the current pandemic has been to survive, but how much more of a hardship was endured early in our history, when medical science was somewhat in its infancy, and treatments were not known or yet to be developed.

PIONEER ILLNESS

During the early years of this territory, prior to settlement, roving bands of Indians visited this area as one of their favorite hunting grounds. During their annual excursions into the Fayette County area, one of their activities was to burn the tall or prairie grasses which in some places grew to six feet. These areas were to the north central and northeastern areas of the county known as “The Barrens.” The Indians used these grass fires to drive wild animals into a confined area where they could be harvested for their winter food. This process also had the ecological effect of clearing the areas of undergrowth and stems, leaving the ground exposed for the following spring growing season.

As white settlers came to the area and the Indians withdrew, and the grasses were permitted seasonal growth would fall down and decay. From year to year, the area became swampy until the deep accumulation of vegetable matter produced an infection similar to malaria, to such an extent that areas of the county between 1818-1824 were almost rendered uninhabitable, causing those who could leave, to do so.

One area between Lee’s Creek and Rattlesnake Creek during the early history of the county, a settlement was formed by the Yocum and Burson families in addition to others, which because of the unhealthy conditions described, was totally abandoned. This malaria-type disease was to the extent that the county was in danger of depopulation in some areas. ( Dill’s History of Fayette County 1881)

An article published in “The Prairie Farmer” in Chicago in May 1847 describes the importance of burning old prairie grass, stubble, weeds, and straw piles to avoid rotting and sending forth into the air an unbearable stench, an example of during 1846 a season of fevers prevailed that in places previously considered very healthy, became very unhealthy, caused by two years of unburnt material being left to degrade.

The practice of annual cleansing of prairie grass by fire is still practiced today. Located at the Ohio History Center in Columbus, the Ohio History Connection maintains a 1,000 square foot prairie. Prior to the 1800s, 95% of Ohio was forested, but 1,500 square mile were prairie. One percent of Ohio’s prairies remain today. Prairies need to be burned to kill invading shrubs and trees. Today burning also kills invading species. The prairies at the History Center contain Big Blue Stem and Indian Grass.

MILK SICKNESS

Through the first half of the 1800s, a disease was experienced in the Midwest that if not fatal, created a weakened condition for extended periods. Milk Sickness is believed to have been caused by “White Snakeroot,” a plant found in areas along the Ohio River and its tributaries, as this was the mode of travel in those years from one area of the country to another. The states most affected were Ohio, Kentucky, Tennessee, Indiana and Illinois. This plant was present in the Midwest, but the settlers migrating from the east cost areas were not familiar as it is not indigenous to that area. Livestock would not graze on snakeroot during the summer until July-September when other grasses dried up or were scarce. The plant contains a poison called “Tremetol” which caused thousands of deaths during the early half of the century.

Milk sickness wasn’t identified by medical science until around 1828. President Abraham Lincoln’s mother, Nancy Hanks Lincoln, is believed to have died from milk sickness in 1818. The disease begins with a general feeling of weakness and vomiting every half hour, the stomach being so irritable that it could not retain food or medicine. Death usually followed in 3-10 days. The toxin would spread from cows who ate the plant, to their milk or calves. Thus the milk or meat from the infected animals spread to humans easily. Usually the cows that gave milk would not display the symptoms. Calves would tremble and die in 3-4 days. Interesting that pasteurizing temperatures would not inactivate the cause of milk sickness, but boiling the milk would.

The effect of this disease to Fayette County can be observed in the tragedy experienced by two families. John and Eleanor Smith lived in a small cabin on the Capps Road in Perry Township, marrying in 1815. They had four sons and three daughters. On July 5, 1837 they experienced the death of their son John, age 8. On the very next day July 6, their son Lewis, age 20, passed. On the following day July 7, their son Harrison, age 18, also died. Four days later on July 11, daughter Sarah Jane, age 11, passed. On Aug. 18, daughter Anna, age 14, and daughter Elizabeth, age 16, a short time later.

Only one son, Jabez, survived the catastrophic attack on the Smith children. He lived to the age of 80. The family is buried in nearby Cochran Cemetery on the Washington-New Martinsburg Road. Sisters Sarah Jane and Elizabeth are interred in the same grave. The death of the six children was attributed to milk sickness. The parents, John and Eleanor who survived this unbelievable ordeal, lived to be 73 and 85 years of age respectfully.

Associate Judge of the Fayette County Common Pleas Court, Judge Daniel McLean, became concerned of the multiple deaths of the Smith family and ordered an investigation. Medical knowledge and doctors were scarce in 1837, but the judge’s investigators reported the cause of the deaths was “Milk Sickness.” Judge McLean along with the Smiths and a neighbor followed the path of the cows to the woods. Fences were not common yet. Through observation it was noted that cows grazed on White Snake Root and became sick. Repeated results were the same, and not observed when they grazed on other plant life. Some people were skeptical of the judge’s findings, but as cows were kept away from this plant, the sickness disappeared.

The second tragic event involved the Nathaniel and Nancy Boggs Blackmore family of near Bloomingburg. Their farm was located at the intersection of US 62 and the Bloomingburg-New Holland Road. The Blackmores had five children, Charles, Almira Jane, Austin, William and Emily. On June 29, 1846 daughter Emily, age 8, passed away. The next day June 30, Charles, age 11, died. On July 3, 1846 Almira, age 18, died, and the mother Nancy passed away on July 9, 1846, all four as a result of milk sickness within 17 days. Son William moved out of state and Austin lived in Clinton County. The parents and the remaining siblings are buried in the Bloomingburg Cemetery. It’s hard to imagine how these families were able to endure this early disease, losing so many loved ones, so close to each other.

SPANISH FLU

The pandemic, known as the Spanish Flu, was caused by the H1N1 influenza and affected 500 million or 1/3 of the world’s population, had its effects on Fayette County also.

In September of 1918 Fayette County was dealing with over 2,000-2,500 cases of the influenza. Information gleaned from local newspapers of the time describe similar activities and actions we are experiencing today.

One article speaks to the overworked doctors, and that the drug stores being swamped with purchase of medicine to combat the illness. One or two local physicians also suffered from the disease themselves, and were unable to care for patients. There appeared to be nothing to combat the effects of the illness. The article remarkably states only two deaths were record at that particular time. The City Board of Health took drastic action to prevent the spread as the disease was running unchecked in the community. Shows, churches and all other places of public assembly were ordered closed. On Oct. 1, 1918 the Board of Health ordered as follows: “Orders of the Board of Health Department of Washington C. H. O., To those in control of public and private schools, houses of worship, picture theaters, places of public amusement, all places of large and small gatherings closed. With some 1,800 cases of Spanish influenza under the care of physicians, the daily average of cases growing larger and the citizens of Washington and Fayette county facing an epidemic of the disease now sweeping the country, closed the above facilities.”

Another notice describes the closing of the local library, however an open-air concert by the Naval Training Station Band was held in front of the courthouse. The concert continued as planned as it was held outside and did not violate orders from the Board of Health, the Board feeling the danger of contracting the influenza was very small.

SMALLPOX

Smallpox has been killing people as far back as ancient Egypt. An estimated 300 million people died during the 20th century.

The viral disease came to two forms. The minor version was fatal in less than 1% of the cases. The major form killed about one-third of infected people. Smallpox wasn’t always the cause of death, but the fever or bacterial infection did because of the open skin lesions on the body.

Smallpox is not like chicken pox. One would get enormous blisters on the skin, and if recovery was made, the skin was left looking almost like a burn victim as it scarred the skin terribly. Nothing could be done to avoid the scarring. Parents knew the permanent damage the blisters would do to their children for life.

1902 was a devastating year in northern Ohio, particularly the Cleveland area. By 1901 the quarantine and disinfection broke down and the number of cases reached 1,232 with 20 deaths. After a large-scale vaccination effort took place, four people died, with others falling ill, which caused public resistance. A return to aggressive disinfection campaign was started. A smallpox hospital was hastily erected. This worked for a while, but in 1902 the disease returned and 30 people died as cases increased.

The disease appeared in Ohio from April 1898 to June 1899, and within the 14-month period, 1,182 cases were recorded, with 30 deaths out of the 88 counties.

In Fayette County the following statistics were recorded:

1927 100 cases

1928 4 cases

1929 1 case

1930 51 cases

1932 31 cases

1933 4 cases

1934 None

In March of 1937, Fayette County Health Commissioner Dr. James F. Wilson stated “Vaccinations Stopped It,” as in October of 1932 an extreme vaccination program was started where more than 2,592 Fayette County school children received the vaccine, or about 65% of the school population. The local statistics supported his statement.

POLIO

Polio, once considered one of the most feared diseases in the U.S., has been all but eradicated. In the early 1950s, prior to the availability of a vaccine, outbreaks caused more than 15,000 cases of paralysis each year.

At its height in the late 1940s, polio outbreaks in the U.S. increased in frequency and size, crippling an average of more than 35,000 people each year. Travel and commerce between affected cities were sometimes restricted. Public health officials imposed quarantines where polio cases were diagnosed.

Newspapers, almost daily, highlighted its progression within the community. An article within a 1941 edition of the Record-Herald relayed a national proclamation toward the active swatting of flies, as it was recently determined they carried that of Poliomyelitis. Just like in today’s pandemic, schools and gathering places, such as public pools, were closed to the public. Parents, frightened to let their children go outside, when permitted, actively encouraged them to avoid such youthful exploits as autumn leaf jumping, as it was thought to be a possible cause.

A Sept. 16, 1944 issue of the newspaper reported that while the disease was on the rise within surrounding counties of Clinton and nearby Ross, at that time none were being reported in Fayette County. Only three days later, Sept. 19, the first case in the county was identified – a young boy of 7 years of age — then living on Gibbs Avenue. Backed by the brainchild of Superintendent of Washington Court House City Schools, Mr. A. B. Murray, local teachers earned more than $500 (nearly $7,500 in today’s money) toward research and the purchase of medical necessities, such as crutches and braces, by collecting daily within the classroom and educating students in their charge toward the prevention of the disease.

Following introduction of vaccines, the number of polio cases fell rapidly to less than 100 in the 1960s and fewer than 10 during the 1970s. Since 1979, now 41 years, not a single case has originated within the United States.

TUBERCULOSIS

Tuberculosis, often referred to as simply T.B., is an infectious disease that primarily attacks the lungs. Like that of the current Covid-19 pandemic, the bacteria that causes tuberculosis spreads from one person to another via tiny droplets released into the air by coughs and sneezes. Most infections show no symptoms, in which case it is known as latent tuberculosis. Approximately 10% of latent infections progress to active disease, which, if left untreated, kills about half of those affected. Historically referred to as consumption, common symptoms include that of a chronic cough emitting blood, fever and night sweats. Tuberculosis has been identified in humans throughout antiquity.

Specifically to Fayette County, with the month of April designated as TB awareness month; skin tests were offered to those in high-risk occupations, such as primary health care, as well as to interested school employees and children. Those with a positive diagnosis were sent immediately to get a chest x-ray. This early diagnosis in children was important, as most kids were able to fight it off, temporarily, with the assistance of antibodies.

However, over time children may reacquire through exposure to others with the disease or simply pass it on to others, as they no longer show effects of their own. A 1941 Record-Herald article emphasized this point in stating that “early diagnosis [was] vitally important to the eradication of [the disease].” Two years later, in September of 1943, 103 cases of active TB were recorded in Fayette County, yet the mortality rate was of seven and eight, respectively over the past two calendar years.

An Oct. 8, 1952 edition of the Record-Herald headlined a photograph of area schools’ juniors and seniors lined up to enter a mobile x-ray machine, similar to the mobile blood-drive vehicles of today. Over a span of eight days, the machine was able to x-ray more than 2,000 individuals, including more than 600 students and teachers from the city and county schools, as well as 11 local industries. The mobile unit even sat in front of the court house, allowing for interested individuals to be x-rayed, all with no cost to those being tested.

The following year, in 1953, with the costs of screening rising, the assistance from the state level in sending of a mobile x-ray to town was to be eliminated. However, the Fayette County Tuberculosis and Health Association vowed to keep the worthwhile program going on its own. To that end, the previous cost of each x-ray would increase from 25 cents to 75 cents due to the need to offset the costs of acquiring a new x-ray machine.

At the same meeting, it was determined by a representative from the Anti-Tuberculosis League in Cincinnati that the Fayette County Tuberculosis and Health Association was “one of the oldest fundraising organizations of this kind in the country,” however, the downside was that more than 98% of all donations were of only $2, or two sheets of the Christmas Seals (roughly $20 in 2020); as a result, it remained highly-imperative that the word of the need for financial assistance continued to grow.

IN REVIEW

The above information was researched and written by the Trustees of the Fayette County Historical Society, with the intent to show that even though we are working our way through very difficult times related to the drastic effects to our everyday lives, Fayette County has experienced similar events in our history. We have prevailed over these terrible diseases and we will prevail over the current pandemic also.

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By Fayette Co. Historical Society Trustees