Our New History at Home Series

by Bev York

We’ll be updating these frequently, so check back to see what this weeks topics are.

Table of Contents

Health and Healing

Healer or Hoax

          Lydia Estes Pinkham – Part 1

Lydia Estes Pinkham was the inventor and marketer of “Lydia E. Pinkham’s Vegetable Compound” an herbal-alcoholic “women’s tonic” for “female complaints” such as menstrual and menopausal problems, prolapsed uterus, cramps, hot flashes, and pregnancy-related issues. It also assisted conception by lowering risk of miscarriage, and it treated kidney and ovarian diseases and “all manner of womanly woes.” Lydia Estes was born into a middle class family in Lynn, Massachusetts. She was well educated and advocated the causes of temperance, abolitionism and woman’s rights. Lydia wed Isaac Pinkham, a widowed shoe maker, but the family fell on hard times during the depression of the 1870s. Lydia, like many women, brewed home concoctions to cure ailments. The idea of selling her tonic to help support the family was formed. The ingredients? See part 2

Health Hazards:

          Factory Machines

Occasionally in the New England textile factories the workers had accidents on the fast-moving machinery. The machines were operated by rapidly turning leather belts connected to the shafts revolving overhead. The following account from Rhode Island is from David Macaulay’s book “Mill.”

August 15, 1864 Mary McDonnell was drawn into the machinery by the belting today and lost her right arm below the elbow. I fear the heat will not help her recovery.
August 17 Mary McDonnell died today, the infection having spread too quickly from her injury. I will send her wages on to her mother.

          Byssinosis – White Lung

In the factories of the 19th and early 20th centuries there were many health hazards. One was developing respiratory problems from poor air quality. In the textile factories the cotton dust caused a lung ailment known as byssinosis. People who opened bales of cotton during the first stage of processing were at the highest risk for this occupational asthma. The symptoms of byssinosis are similar to asthma and include tightness in the chest, wheezing, and coughing. Exposure over a long period of time could cause coughing up blood and suffocation. Eventually ventilation and face masks were utilized to decrease the number of cases. There are still industrial accidents every year but nothing like in the early years of the industrial age.

Health Folklore:  


“Ring around the rosy, Pocket full of posies, Ashes, Ashes, We all fall down.” Some documented research shows that this nursery rhyme and child’s singing game was first in print from the 19th century in English and other languages. However, many believe the legend that the poem’s origin dates to the great plague of 1665. “Rings” of the rose-colored rash, pockets of “posies” or flowers and herbs to mask the stench of disease and death. “Ashes” for the cremated bodies or in some versions “Achoo. Achoo” for the sneezing signifies the final symptom of the disease. “We all fall down.” Dead. Though some folklore scholars dispute the explanation, it is the lore and lure of the death version that lives on.

Health Horrors:  

          Cholera – Part 1

A wave of Cholera, “the blue death,” spread around the world in the 19th century. Cholera is an infection of the small intestine and is caused by bacterium vibrio cholerae. It is a highly contagious intestinal disease that is transmitted through the food and human wastes of its victims and by flies. Those afflicted experience drastic loss of body fluids through vomiting and diarrhea. After suffering for three to five days, the cholera patient became dehydrated, went into shock and died. About 40-60% of infected victims die from the disease.

          Cholera – Part 2

Though cholera has been around for many centuries, the disease came to prominence in the 19th century, when a lethal outbreak occurred in India stemming from contaminated rice. The infection spread throughout Asia by traveling along trade routes established by Europeans. In 1829, the second cholera pandemic began and by 1832 it arrived in the Americas. In June of that year, Quebec saw 1,000 deaths from the disease, which quickly spread from New York and Philadelphia, and along the St. Lawrence River. 5000 people died in New Orleans alone. Over the next couple of years, it would spread across the country. There have since been numerous outbreaks and seven global pandemics of cholera.

          Cholera – Part 3

Cholera, like other contagions, traveled the world by sea. A ship, the Apollo, set sail exceeding capacity with 711 people on board in 1849. Physician Thomas Graham, the assistant navy surgeon on the voyage kept a diary in which he recorded tales of newly discovered countries, cultures and wildlife. When the disease broke out, Graham recorded the conditions on board as: overcrowded, poor ventilation, inadequate food and water. He wrote “After we had been at sea a few days, the scene on the lower deck was anything but pleasant. As many were sick and so crowded, children quarreling and women laying about.” The doctor reported various methods of treatment. The current belief was that foul air was to blame for cholera. The usual way to curtail the disease from spreading was quarantine. The Apollo was quarantined off the coast of Brazil. Over 50 days there were new cases every three to six days. Many survived the ordeal and only 18 people died. Dr. Graham died unexpectedly of Malaria shortly after the voyage.

          Cholera – Part 4

Cities were devastated by 19th c. cholera epidemics. The townsfolk of Hamilton, Ontario, still remembered the horrific epidemic of 1832. So when the third worldwide wave hit their city of 20,000 in 1854 they were terrified. That summer 550 people or more died of the disease. Mark McNeil of the “Hamilton Spectator” tells the story of the horse-drawn hearse driver who said: “I used to drive to the cemetery every day and I had as many as ten in one load. I’ve seen coffins stacked up like cord wood. You couldn’t get enough grave diggers.” McNeil also reports about a historian, Gary Winston Hill, who discovered the unmarked mass grave outside of town where so many cholera victims were hastily buried.

          Civil War Casualties

History at Home: Health Horrors
A mass grave of sorts from the Civil War was recently found in Virginia. The gruesome find was a grave that contained two soldiers buried with eleven assorted severed limbs. Discovered at Manassas National Battlefield, this was the first Civil War surgeon’s pit grave to be uncovered, excavated and studied. The first Battle at Manassas took place in July, 1861. In the 19th c. if someone was badly wounded, amputation was one of the main treatments. The two bodies were Union soldiers identified by the buttons on their jackets. The soldiers have been reinterred at Arlington National Cemetery.

          Mass Graves – Part 1

Mass graves have been used when a great many deaths occur at one time. Too many corpses all at once overwhelm the regular undertakers and grave diggers. The bodies must be buried quickly for sanitation reasons to control disease and infection. Mass burials have been used in epidemics, wars, crimes, famines, natural disasters, genocides and the Holocaust. One example pictured here is during the 1918 influenza pandemic when tragically 4,500 souls died in one week after attending a crowded parade in Philadelphia.

          Mass Graves – Part 2

The mass grave at Duffy’s Cut. In 1832 a crew of 57 Irish immigrants were laying rail for Philip Duffy on a stretch of early railroad west of Philadelphia. The cholera disease that struck was part of the second wave of the pandemic. It is not known how many of the Irish Catholic workers died of the disease but forensic evidence reveals that the others were killed probably due to nativism and the fear of contagion. The story lay buried until old records were discovered in the 1990s and research ensued. A marker was placed in 2004.

          Polio – Part 2

For some seventy years the Poliovirus terrified the American public. The affliction came on suddenly, the muscles failed and in two or three days the victim would be in an iron lung machine because they didn’t have the strength to breathe on their own. The disease affected mostly children and those that survived suffered some degree of paralysis causing them to need crutches or a wheelchair. The 1916 polio epidemic in New York City killed 27,000. Polio killed thousands each year until the development of the Salk vaccine in 1954.


Today social distancing is recommended to stop coronavirus contagion. Since ancient times people were fearful of the sick, avoided contact with them and often shunned them as outcasts. One such disease with noticeable deformities was Leprosy. Interestingly leprosy is caused by a slow-growing type of bacteria called Mycobacterium leprae (M. leprae). It is not very contagious as it takes close and repeated contact with nose or mouth droplets from an untreated victim. The incubation period is about 3 to 5 years or more for symptoms to appear after coming into contact with the leprosy-causing bacteria. The symptoms affect nerves and loss of feeling. If untreated the patient can develop skin sores, lesions and nodules, paralysis, crippling of hands and feet, loss of digits, ulcers and blindness. Leprosy is also known as Hansen’s disease after the Norwegian scientist, Gerhard Hansen, discovered M. leprae in 1873. Each year there are about 200 cases of Hansen’s disease in the U.S. and 200,000 cases worldwide. Treatments and antibiotics are provided free of charge by the World Health Organization.

          Inhumane Experimentation

The Nazis conducted painful and deadly experiments on Jews who were imprisoned in the concentration camps during WW ll. They seized the opportunity to study what happens to the human body when foreign objects are injected or surgically inserted. How long does it take for a human to drown or freeze to death? One physician, Josef Mengele of Auschwitz, was known as “the angel of death.” He selected victims to be gassed and experimented with genetics on children and twins. During disease outbreaks of typhus, scarlet fever, and other contagious diseases, he developed a plan to rid the camp of the infection. In the deceased block all 600 people would be murdered. Then the building block would be cleaned and disinfected. Another group of 600 would be bathed, deloused, given disinfected clothing and moved into the first block. Then their empty block would be cleaned in the same manner and so on until the entire camp was rid of the outbreak.

          Influenza – Part 1

The 1918 Influenza Pandemic during WW 1 spread with the troops. The lack of vaccines or treatment became a crisis that caused 50 million deaths worldwide; 675,000 in the U.S. and 8,488 in CT. People were advised to stay home and wear masks if they had to go out. Public places, schools, and churches were closed. The Willimantic Chronicle reported that, at St. Joseph Hospital, only 3 out of 22 nurses “were on their feet.” Also, the sexton of the cemetery needed help digging graves. In Windham, 152 people died from influenza.

          Influenza – Part 2  

It was in Philadelphia on September 28,1918. In hindsight, they should have canceled the Liberty Loan Parade promoting patriotism during World War 1. But people filled the streets thinking the virus pandemic was over. No one knew that the highly contagious influenza would come back in the fall with a vengeance. Thousands in the crowd were infected that day. During the next week 4,597 souls would die.

          Typhoid – Part 1 of 2

Typhoid Fever is a bacterial infection due to a type of salmonella typhi. It is spread by food or water contaminated with the feces of an infected person. The risk factors are poor sanitation and poor hygiene. Symptoms begin to show 6 to 30 days after exposure and include weakness, abdominal pain, constipation, headaches, vomiting and sometimes a rose-colored skin rash. A vaccine (developed about 1899) prevents 40 to 90% of the cases. Traveling to developing countries without adequate sanitation facilities pose a risk for typhoid infection. There are 21 million typhoid cases per year and 220,000 deaths.

          Typhoid – Part 2 of 2

Are you trying to make sense of asymptomatic disease carriers or people who spread an infectious disease but experience no symptoms? Mary Mallone (1869-1938) or “Typhoid Mary” was perhaps one of the first. She was a cook in affluent New York homes. Typhoid is spread through feces and inadequate hand washing. The bacteria may have been under her fingernails as she prepared peach ice cream or another dish that did not require cooking. (Since heating kills the bacteria.) Mary infected 51 people and three of them died. When the authorities figured out Mary was the carrier, they had to forcibly quarantine her and she spent 30 years in isolation.

Health Heroines:

          Alcott, Louisa May

Louisa May Alcott (1832-1888) is remembered for her endearing story of “Little Women.” But her first successful work was “Hospital Sketches” where she describes her experiences for six weeks of nursing in a Union hospital during the Civil War. The hard work ruined her health and she contracted typhoid fever and was treated with mercury. She survived but remarked, “I was never ill before this time and never well afterward.”

Louisa May Alcott

          Barton, Clara

Like nurses today, Clara Barton of North Oxford, MA, risked her own life to save others. Known as “the angel of the battlefield,” she left her job and went to distribute relief supplies to wounded soldiers during the Civil War. After the war, she identified some 12,000 graves of the Union dead at Andersonville Prison and wrote letters to their families. She was a founder of the American Red Cross, organized hospitals and advocated for humane treatment of the wounded. Barton provided disaster relief at the Florida yellow fever epidemic, Russian famine, Armenian massacre, the Galveston flood and more.

          Ferriday, Caroline

During the Holocaust, Nazis performed painful and debilitating experiments on women in the camps. Nazi doctors studied what happens to the human body when drugs or bacteria are injected and foreign objects (wood, metal and glass) are inserted. Some of these victims, called “Lapins”or rabbits, who survived the war lived in excruciating pain. A New York City actress, Caroline Ferriday, who lived in Bethlehem, Connecticut, used her money and her influence to help some of these Polish women by having U.S. doctors attempt reconstructive surgeries and remove foreign objects (implanted by the Nazis.) Ferriday was a true humanitarian.

Caroline Ferriday

          Jones, Emeline Roberts

America’s first woman dentist was from Connecticut. Emeline Roberts Jones (1836-1916) married a dentist who suppressed her interest in the field because he thought women were unfit with their “frail and clumsy fingers.” So Emeline studied in secret and practiced on teeth her husband had extracted. After her husband died, Emeline continued his Danielsonville practice and traveled with a portable dental chair. Later, Emeline Jones opened a practice in New Haven and was joined by her son educated at Harvard and Yale. Emeline Jones’ career in dentistry spanned six decades.

Emeline Roberts Jones

          Nightingale, Florence

Florence Nightingale is “The Lady with the Lamp.” Perhaps no single individual did more to make nursing the sanitary and scientific procedure it is today. She was born May 12, 1820, in the Italian city for which she is named. She studied nursing at various institutions. During the Crimean War she supervised British army hospitals and the nursing staff caring for 10,000 sick and wounded men. With her efforts the death rate fell from forty-two per cent to two per cent. She opened the Nightingale Nurse’s Training Home to teach modern practices.

Health Heroes:

          Cholera – Part 5

In 1849, the cholera epidemic struck Ohio and killed thousands of people. Eight thousand died in Cincinnati alone. Some tried to flee the illness and they brought the cholera germ with them. In Sandusky doctors from Cincinnati, Cleveland, and numerous other communities came to care for the townspeople. In two months four hundred people died. Most of the deceased were buried in a mass grave. The disease visited again in 1850, 1852 and 1854. Today, the site of this mass grave is designated as the Cholera Cemetery. There is a monument to the courageous doctors which says, “This marker is to recognize many doctors who came emphatically in our time of need.”


Disease epidemics and pandemics have plagued the world for centuries killing some cultures into near extinction. It should be no surprise that the study of the who, when and where of disease is so important in medical science that it has its own discipline “epidemiology.” The word, literally means “the study of what is upon the people”, is derived from Greek epi, meaning ‘upon, among’, demos, meaning ‘people, district’, and logos, meaning ‘study. The work includes study of risk factors, outbreak, transmission, patterns of distribution, analysis of data, statistics and drawing appropriate conclusions. Epidemiologists are doctors and scientists who have been building upon the knowledge of previous pandemics. Pictured are two maps indicating the route of two of the 19th c. cholera epidemics which traveled to urban areas by rail and by boat.

          Mayo Brothers

The Mayo Brothers were founders of the famous clinic. In 1889 the Sisters of St. Francis in the tiny prairie town of Rochester, Minnesota, were trying to build a new hospital. They enlisted the services of a local physician of excellent reputation, William Mayo. Soon, he was joined by his two doctor sons, William and Charles. At the time, many chronic illnesses were considered incurable. But the Mayo brothers applied new knowledge and successfully treated patients with goiter, ulcers, gallstones, appendicitis and more. By 1960 the Mayo Clinic had 350 staff doctors. Today there are 4,500 physicians and scientists at the Mayo Clinic.

          Roentgen, Wilhelm Konrad

Wilhelm Konrad Roentgen was a German physicist who discovered X-Rays largely by accident. He was unfairly expelled from high school for holding a caricature of a teacher that he had not drawn. Without a high school diploma, he had difficulty getting into a university. Later in his career in 1895, he produced electromagnetic radiation while doing experiments with electric current and crystals of barium platinocyanide. Objects cast shadows on a card. Further study proved that radiation would pass through substances. Unsure of what he had discovered he labeled it with an x (symbol of unknown) and today we know it as the X-ray. One of its first medical uses was locating a bullet in a man’s leg.

Wilhelm Konrad Roentgen
Roeentgen's X-Ray Device

          Salk, Dr. Jonas – Polio – Part 1

On April 26, 1954, the field trials began to test a polio vaccine, developed by physician and epidemiologist Dr. Jonas Salk. Poliovirus was not the deadliest disease in the first half of the 20th century but it was feared because it infected mostly children, came on suddenly and caused permanent paralysis. The trials would vaccinate 1.8 million children in the U.S., Canada and Finland. Franklin Delano Roosevelt contracted polio at age 39. He helped organize the March of Dimes, to raise funds for research and development of the vaccine. Salk declined to patent his cure and profit from it. When asked who owns the patent, he replied, “The people I would say. There is no patent. Could you patent the sun?”

Health and Healing:


“He or she is so good humored.” Today this description usually refers to a person’s wit and jovial disposition. But in ancient and medieval times and even into the 18th century, good or poor humored referred to your health. The “humors” were the vital bodily fluids, such as blood, yellow bile, phlegm and black bile. Hippocrates believed that an excess or deficiency of any of the humors in a person can be a sign of illness. Disease could also be the result of the “corruption” of one or more of the humors, which could be caused by environmental circumstances, dietary changes, or many other factors.

          Diagnostics from the Grave

Did Gilbert Fuller want to inscribe his ailments on the stone or was it a survivor who watched him suffer? Jaundice is a yellow discoloration of skin and eyes caused by too much bilirubin when red blood cells overwhelm the liver. Symptoms include itchy and yellow skin, light stools, and dark urine. If there is further obstruction caused by infection or cancer the skin may turn an olive to dark green and is called black jaundice. This condition may include headache, nausea, vomiting, fever, pain, fatigue, weakness, confusion, swelling, stiffness, seizures, anorexia, coughing, and bleeding. Add these symptoms with the aches of rheumatism in an age before indoor plumbing. Nine years of illness is a very long time indeed. This grave stone isn’t a stone at all. It is actually cast metal called a zinkie. This memorial is located in the Old Willimantic Cemetery on Main Street.

          Bilious Pills

This will cure you! On April 30, 1796, Samuel Lee Jr. of Windham, Connecticut, received a Letters Patent for his recipe of bilious pills—a patent medicine (the first in America) that became known as “Dr. Lee’s Windham Bilious Pills.” The “True and Genuine Pill’” claimed to “remove pains in the head, stomach and bowels – – – the gripes and all obstructions” also an “excellent help for the gravel, scurvy, cholic, jaundice, dropsy . . . and therefore convenient for all travelers by sea or land.” The reputation of its maker was extremely important and Lee Jr. was the son of Dr. Samuel
Lee, a respected physician on the schooner Oliver Cromwell, a privateer ship from Norwich during the Revolutionary War. As Yankee peddlers sold their wares, “Dr. Lee’s Windham Bilious Pills” soon appeared up and down the East Coast.


Leeches were used in medicine since ancient times until the 19th century. It was believed that the segmented parasite would suck out the bad or diseased blood. In fact, if too many leeches were applied, a sick person could get weak or die from loss of blood. Some apothecaries (drug stores) had decorative jars that held the leeches to be sold. Some medicine practices still advocate using leeches.

Triangle Shirtwaist Company Factory Fire – March 25, 1911

          Triangle Shirtwaist Fire – Part 1 of 8

The Mill Museum will commemorate the 146 victims of the tragic and deadly Triangle Shirtwaist Company Factory fire on March 25, 1911. The Triangle Shirtwaist Factory occupied the top three floors of a ten story building in the garment section of New York City.

The Triangle Shirtwaist Company
Tragic and deadly Triangle Shirtwaist Company Factory fire on March 25, 1911.

          Triangle Shirtwaist Fire – Part 2 of 8

“Chalk” honors the victims of the 1911 Triangle Shirtwaist Co. factory fire in New York City. Each year individuals or descendants are assigned a victim’s name and address. On March 25 they find the place where the victim resided and chalk their name and age on the sidewalk. Some passersby will learn about the tragic event for the first time and others are reminded that this is the anniversary of that horrific tragedy. Lest we forget. This year due to the corona virus the Chalk memorial will be held where ever participants live. The Mill Museum will honor some victims. Want a name? contact ruth@streetpictures.org

See where to people who perished lived:  http://rememberthetrianglefire.org/the-names/

More on the Chalk Project: http://rememberthetrianglefire.org/event/chalk-for-the-triangle-workers/

Fabric Badges memorializing the women of the Shirtwaist Triangle Fire sewn by our own Chelsey Knyff

          Triangle Shirtwaist Fire – Part 3 of 8

In the early 1900s New York City had the largest garment industry in the world. The Triangle Shirtwaist Company factory had about 600 workers and sewing machine operators who manufactured shirtwaists or popular fancy blouses. They labored sometimes as long as twelve hours a day for $6.00 per week. And on March 25, 1911….to be continued….

          Triangle Shirtwaist Fire – Part 4 of 8

On March 25, 1911, Frances and Bettina Maiale (ages 21 and 19) went to work at the Triangle Shirtwaist Company Factory like they had for five years since they had come from Sicilia to America. Most of the Triangle workers had immigrated from Eastern Europe and were Russians, Italians and Jews. While hundreds of women were sewing, a fire broke out late in the afternoon. That day 144 women, girls and men would perish and two would die later from their injuries. Every year each victim of the fire is remembered with a “Chalk” memorial. Two years ago Bev Willnauer and I traveled to Manhattan to honor these sisters- Frances and Bettina. Rest in Peace.

          Triangle Shirtwaist Fire – Part 5 of 8

March 25,1911. This was the tragic day when the Triangle Shirtwaist factory fire took the lives of 146 workers and shook much of the country into passing serious fire safety regulations. The almost 600 workers tried to escape. Some people climbed on the roof, others used the fire escape until it collapsed, and many took the one small working elevator. Doors to the stairways were locked. Many of the victims never made it out and 62 jumped or fell to their death from the eighth floor. The onlookers stood helpless and horrified by the tragedy.

          Triangle Shirtwaist Fire – Part 6 of 8

The Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire was a tragic event in New York City on March 25,1911. Each year the 146 victims are remembered with “Chalk” memorials all around the city where they lived. This year, due to the covid 19 virus request to shelter in place, the memorials are relocated across the land. Friends at the Mill Museum in Willimantic are honoring four young women. They sewed shirtwaist blouses in exchange for their bread until that disastrous day when their lives were cut short: Josie Del Castillo, age 21; Yetta Goldstein, age 20; Esther Hotchfield, age 21; and Bessie Vivano, age 15.

          Triangle Shirtwaist Fire – Part 7 of 8

The Mill Museum of Willimantic honors the victims of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire of March, 1911. Many of the workers who died in the fire were sewing machine operators who manufactured shirtwaists (fancy blouses) twelve hours a day for about $6 a week. It seemed appropriate that the Mill Museum, aka Windham Textile & History Museum, remember these women by stitching their names onto fabric patches. Museum board member, Chelsey Knyff, created patches for Bessie, Bettina, Esther, Frances, Josie and Yetta. May they Rest in Peace.

          Triangle Shirtwaist Fire – Part 8 of 8

The Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire, on March 25, 1911, was the deadliest industrial disaster in the history of New York City. 123 women and girls and 23 men perished in the disaster. Thousands of mourners attended the funerals. The fire marshal decided that the probable cause was a cigarette butt in a scrap bin. Even though smoking was prohibited sometimes the fabric cutters were known to sneak a smoke. The factory owners, Max Blanck and Isaac Harris, were indicted on charges of 1st and 2nd degree man- slaughter. The jury acquitted them but they were later found liable of wrongful death and ordered to compensate the families in the amount of $75 per deceased victim. The tragedy led to improved fire safety regulations nationwide.