by Malcolm Macdonald, November 2, 2016
Late last May, out of a clear blue sky, and seemingly normal health, I developed a head ache one morning. The headache grew by noon into a pounder with shivering feet unaccountably accompanying sweat beads dripping from my forehead. By one in the afternoon I lay on the bathroom floor hugging the toilet bowl. My stomach convulsed again and again until every last drop of food and phlegm was evacuated. Some sort of food poisoning appeared to be the culprit.
Eight days later I had a cataract surgery. All went well there, but just hours after returning home: headache, cold toes, heated head, and vomiting so thorough that I felt like a worn out rag afterward, barely able to stumble to bed. Perhaps an anesthetic a bit too strong?
Another week went by with relative ease in between then, boom, feeling fine one morn followed by the same pattern as paragraph one. The next day I felt relatively fine. Even stronger for another week or so until wham, bam, no thank you, headache, chills, sweat city, bathroom floor, barf-o-rama.
What in the sam hill was happening? Imagine my slightly squirming curiosity when I ran across this bit of old timey news in a Ukiah Press article from September, 1879:
“Our community was pained and shocked to learn of the sudden death from poisoning of two children of J. McGrath, aged respectively seven and two years, and the narrow escape of another from the same untimely fate. As near as we can learn from persons claiming to have knowledge of the facts, the children were given their usual supper of warm milk and bread, and in about an hour thereafter were taken desperately ill. Such remedies as the family possessed were administered by the mother, and Dr. King sent for, but nothing seemed of any avail with two of them, while a strong emetic of salt and water saved the one. The anguish of the parents at this sudden bereavement may be imagined but cannot be described.”
The Dr. King referred to was undoubtedly E.W. King, who later served as the Medical Superintendent of Mendocino State Hospital at Talmage. I recognized the name because one of my great aunts spent the latter part of the 19th century and half of the twentieth century at Talmage in a more Byzantine era of mental health care.
Dr. King was 48 years old as of the poisoning event and something of a California pioneer. A native of Genessee County, New York, he grew up in Illinois. At eighteen he undertook the study of medicine with his older brother, A.W., a graduate of Rush Medical College. E.W. attended Rock Island Medical College during the winter months of 1849 and early 1850, but the gold bug infected him. He abandoned his studies and traveled overland to California, arriving at Placerville in mid July, 1850. He worked in “the diggings” off and on for the next twelve years.
With mining proving an iffy business at best, E.W. King took up his medical books once again, graduating from med school at the University of the Pacific in 1863. His first practice was in the remote confines of Howland Flat, Sierra County. In 1868 he moved to Santa Clara then to Ukiah in 1870, where his shingle hung for the rest of his career, including the position at Mendocino State Hospital well into the 1800s.
Though some readers may disagree, madness apparently didn't enter into my physician's potential diagnosis as to my recurring malady. A test for giardia turned up negative. My doctor went on vacation overseas, but in strode the nurse practitioner from the same office with an educated guess, which would require me to give up a couple of my favorite food items for two weeks.
Let's pick up our story of the poisoned children with a late September, 1879 accounting by William Heeser, founder, publisher, and editor of the Mendocino Beacon: “One of Mr. McGrath's cows fell to the ground in spasms, not long after milking, and to this fact is attributed the death of the children, they having partaken of her milk.”
A few days later, Mr. Heeser furthered the report, “The stomachs of the children were sent to San Francisco for examination. It has been suggested that the cow had eaten strychnine.”
Yep, dairy proved to be my undoing as well. Fortunately it wasn't fatal. My problem appears to stem from a need to moderate both dairy products and caffeine. I am not, nor never have been a straight coffee drinker, but over the last half decade I have developed quite the taste for mochas. The cure: small or medium mochas, not the large I formerly ordered and often re-ordered, and on “go to meeting” evenings, often a third one to keep me awake during civic affairs that tend to drag on for hours. Now that meeting mocha is not only smaller, but almost often preceded by a modicum of physical labor at the Macdonald Ranch and/or a hike of several miles distance.
A different, but widespread and deadly version of milk poisoning went largely undetected in the American Midwest throughout much of the nineteenth century. It was especially virulent near the Ohio River and its tributaries. Abraham Lincoln's mother, Nancy Hanks Lincoln, may well have been one of its victims. The mid-western milk sickness grew so serious that in 1830 the Kentucky General Assembly offered a $600 reward for the discovery of its cause.
Anna Pierce Hobbs, born in 1812, trained as a midwife, but acted as the general practitioner in and around the small community of Rock Creek in southeastern Illinois. After milk sickness afflicted both her mother and sister, Anna deduced that the cause was a seasonal herb. To narrow down just which one might be the villain she set out one day to follow a herd of grazing cattle. On her way she encountered a Shawnee medicine woman who assured Anna she could easily solve the problem. The Shawnee woman pulled up some white snakeroot, a member of the daisy family. Anna took the plant home with her and tested it on a calf. The animal's subsequent demise confirmed its toxic effects.
Anna convinced her neighbors to eradicate the plant, which they methodically did, but her findings failed to travel far and wide. Officially, the American medical community did not recognize the tremetol (essentially unsaturated alcohol) of the snakeroot plant as the cause of milk sickness until 1928.
Some years after Anna Pierce Hobbs's husband died she re-married, to Eson Bixby, a man who appears to have turned out to be nothing more than a common criminal, perhaps a counterfeiter. Legend has it that Dr. Anna accumulated quite a fortune over the years, a treasure she buried in a cave overlooking the Ohio River. Eson Bixby allegedly tried to murder her for the money, luring Anna into the woods one dark night. He bound her hands in a thicket, but before he could inflict further harm Anna raced away. Tripping and falling repeatedly, she was scraped, scratched, and bruised before she tumbled over a bluff and found a hiding spot, perhaps her very own favorite cave, where her ne'er do well husband couldn't locate her.
Law enforcement subsequently detained Eson Bixby, but somehow he got himself loose, fled Illinois, was arrested again in Missouri, escaped, and his eventual fate proves unknown.
Anna's treasure has yet to be found, but those in the vicinity of Rock Creek have claimed that on certain late nights a torch light can be spotted, flickering in and out of sight among the trees and gullies above Anna Bixby's cave.