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.


          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.

          Confederate Prisons

During most wars far more soldiers died of disease than in battle. Prisoners were starved so they lacked the strength to stave off infections. One notorious Civil War prison was at Andersonville, Georgia. From February 1864 to April 1865, the site was overcrowded to four times its capacity, with an inadequate water supply, inadequate food rations, and unsanitary conditions. Of the approximately 45,000 Union prisoners held at Camp Sumter during the war, nearly 13,000 died. The chief causes of death were scurvy, diarrhea, and dysentery. Sgt. Maj. Robert H. Kellogg, from Wethersfield, CT, (pictured) who survived his imprisonment wrote, “I wonder if they know at home of our real condition here.” And “the men are mere walking skeletons covered in filth and vermin.” Since 1775 over four million American military have died for us. May we never forget their sacrifice to our freedom and democracy. Discover great stories while you’re at home at https://millmuseum.org/history-at-home/

          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.

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, 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.

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.

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.”

          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.


          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.

          Prison Ships – Death by Disease – Part 1

Prison ships were a tragic and slow death for the imprisoned Continental soldiers during the American Revolution. The British had several aging ships in Wallabout Bay on the East River in New York. The ships kept soldiers starving below deck where conditions were dark, dank, dirty and riddled with varmints and disease. The Department of Defense estimates between 8000 and 11,000, of the 20,000 soldiers that succumbed to disease or starvation, died in those ships. And 4,435 fell in battle. These are the brave men that fought our War for Independence.

          Prison Ships – Part 2

The most infamous British prison ship during the American Revolution, was the HMS Jersey or Old Jersey, anchored in Wallabout Bay near New York City. The decrepit decommissioned ship was overcrowded with more than 1000 patriots imprisoned below deck, and conditions aboard were inhuman. Food and water were scarce, and diseases such as dysentery, small pox, typhoid, and yellow fever, ran rampant. The Jersey, referred to by its inmates simply as “Hell” had an obscenely high death rate of its prisoners, and about a dozen soldiers died every night from disease, starvation and torture.

          Prison Ships – Part 3

Robert Sheffield was one of the few men to escape the hulks in Wallabout Bay near New York City. He was imprisoned, like thousands of other patriots during the Revolutionary War, and subjected to horrific conditions of starvation and diseases such as small pox, yellow fever, and typhoid. Sheffield wrote: “The heat was so intense that [the 300-plus prisoners] were all naked, which also served the well to get rid of vermin, but the sick were eaten up alive. Their sickly countenances, and ghastly looks were truly horrible; some swearing and blaspheming; others crying, praying, and wringing their hands; and stalking about like ghosts; others delirious, raving and storming, all panting for breath; some dead, and corrupting.” Excerpt from July 1778 edition of the Connecticut Gazette. Discover great stories while you’re at home at https://millmuseum.org/history-at-home/

          Prison Ships – Local Man On Board – Part 4

Joseph Hale (1750 -1784) from Coventry, CT joined the Continental Army, answered the Lexington Alarm, and served as a lieutenant in Knowlton’s rangers. He was imprisoned on a British prison ship beginning on November 16th or 17th, 1776 after being captured at Fort Washington where a musket ball grazed him. He was exchanged later for a British prisoner. His name does not appear on the Jersey prison ship list but there were several other ships in New York where many patriot soldiers died of starvation or disease from the despicable conditions. Though he survived his imprisonment, Joseph would die of consumption or tuberculosis at the end of the war. He was one of six of the Hale sons to serve in the War for Independence. His brother, Nathan, would be captured and hanged as a spy. This drawing “British Prison Ship” was done by another local son, John Trumbull of Lebanon. Discover great stories while you’re at home at https://millmuseum.org/history-at-home/

          Slavery and Yellow Fever – Part 1

The great pandemic of Yellow Fever of the 1790s is intertwined with an antislavery story. The ship, The Hankey, later called the “Ship of Death,” and two other ships were carrying 300 antislavery British to Bolama, an island off the west coast of Africa. They hoped to establish a colony where Africans could be hired rather than enslaved thereby undermining the slave trade. Unfortunately, a particularly virulent or poisonous strain of yellow fever was likely contracted from the island’s numerous monkeys (through a mosquito vector). The colonists were decimated and their enterprise was a tragic failure.

In 1793, the Hankey or the “ship of death” carrying antislavery British to Bolama, an island off the coast of Africa, encountered yellow fever before they could help save souls from bondage. The poisonous strain of the disease was likely contracted from monkeys and mosquitoes. Reduced in numbers the survivors, lacking healthy sailors, caught the trade winds to the Caribbean carrying mosquitoes, eggs and larvae (as it turned out) in their water kegs. Each port they stopped in developed yellow fever. The fever is an acute viral disease with symptoms of jaundice, fever, head ache, muscle pain, nausea, vomiting and fatigue. About half of people who develop a severe case will die in 7 to 10 days. The ship helped to start the first yellow fever pandemic.

Yellow fever was carried by infected mosquitoes that lived and multiplied in wooden water barrels below deck on the ship The Hankey. That is how the highly contagious disease crossed the Atlantic and took hold in the West Indies. On the massive sugar cane plantations it devastated both the enslaved Africans as well as the European whites because diseases don’t discriminate by race. In 1791 in St. Domingue (now Haiti) there was a slave rebellion. The French and later British troops arrived to crush the rebellious slaves but in addition to the battles perhaps 100,000 soldiers died due to yellow fever. The slave rebellion succeeded. The revolution was the only slave uprising that led to the founding of a state which was both free from slavery, and ruled by non-whites and former captives.

The British ship Hankey unknowingly carried the infectious yellow fever transmitted by mosquitoes reproducing in the water barrels below deck. In 1793 after stopping at several ports in the Americas the ship spreading the pandemic headed for Philadelphia. Captain John Cox may have violated the maritime custom by not flying the Yellow Jack flag as an international signal that disease was on board. If Captain Cox had flown the flag the ship would have been quarantined for 40 days and the pandemic might not have gone ashore in Philadelphia. However, the plague did arrive. Years later, in 1806 King George lll would enact a statute requiring all ships with infectious disease to fly a yellow signal flag if they were with in 4 leagues of the British Isles. Illustration is “Yellow Jack Monster” by Mathew Morgan. Note: In centuries past the Yellow Jack flag stood for quarantined for diseases such as yellow fever or cholera. Today a yellow and black flag signals infection and an all yellow flag means free of contagion.

The 1793 fever pandemic hit Philadelphia, then the capitol city, and killed 5000 residents in three months. 20,000 more, like President Washington, fled. People collapsed in the streets and others died horrible deaths at home, their skin turning yellow, their vomit dark with blood. Citizens avoided others. Handshaking stopped. Some people covered their faces with cloth. Schools and roads were closed. Some used tongs to handle newspapers and letters. Pictured is Dr. Benjamin Rush, a local physician and signer of the Declaration of Independence, who recommended: copious bloodletting (see illustration) and purging via heavy doses of mercury. Others desperately tried staving off the fever by smoking tobacco, cleaning the house and/or one’s person with vinegar, chewing garlic, or hanging a bag of camphor around one’s neck. One tenth of the population perished. What was destroying them, scientists say, was the first virus found to cause human disease. It was yellow fever.

          Syphilis – Experiment – Part 1

African American males were used to study syphilis without their knowledge or consent in a clinical study conducted between 1932 and 1972 by the U.S. Public Health Service. The Tuskegee Study of Untreated Syphilis in the African American Male aimed to observe the natural history of untreated syphilis. The men in the study were only told they were receiving free health care from the Federal government of the United States. The Public Health Service worked in collaboration with Tuskegee University, a historically black college in Alabama. Investigators enrolled 600 impoverished, African-American sharecroppers from Macron County, Alabama.

In 1932 the “Tuskegee Study of Untreated Syphilis in the Negro Male” was started by the U.S. Public Health Service and the Tuskegee Institute, to study the effects of the disease. In exchange for free health care and burial insurance, 600 poor sharecroppers in Alabama were studied but not treated without their consent. 399 had syphilis and the control group of 201 did not. Researchers told the men they were being treated for “bad blood,” a term used to describe ailments such as syphilis, anemia, and fatigue. The doctors withheld treatment from the men who had the disease, even after penicillin was available in 1947, causing needless pain and suffering for the men and their loved ones. Without treatment, syphilis effects the brain, nervous system and the eyes. Symptoms include headaches, difficulty with coordination, paralysis, dementia and blindness.

Health Heroes:


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.

          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?”

          Public Baths

In the 19th century how did the factory laborer bathe in an era when many jobs consisted of twelve-hour days of hard physical and filthy labor? The working class usually had a tub to bathe children but adults took sponge baths. In good weather there was the swimming hole or the buckets in the barn to remove dirt, reduce body odor and clean out cuts and gashes. But some mill towns had access to public baths. They gained popularity in the mid 1800s when society began to consider personal hygiene as a protection against infectious diseases. We know that the Romans had public baths and they were not unlike the spas wealthy people patronize in modern times. But public bath houses or wash-houses were designed for the working class. Some are listed on old city maps that list building uses. For a fee a bath on Saturday after work might just be in order.

          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.

          Enslaved People – Health, Healing and Slavery

Red onions are a flavorful root vegetable. They are keepers
(if kept dry they last a long time) and can be prepared in so many ways: baked, boiled, grilled, fried, roasted, or raw. Many people claim that onions provide a wide range of health benefits including 13 vitamins and minerals and disease fighting elements that help prevent cancer, stroke, heart disease, bone deterioration and boost the immunities. A near perfect food.
Wethersfield, CT, was famous for its scarlet onions and starting in the 1730s thousands of bushels were shipped down the Connecticut River yearly to the West Indies where sugar plantation owners made it an important part of the diet of their enslaved workers. The product was exchanged for molasses, with which New Englanders made rum. There were many ways that Connecticut was complicit to the West Indies slave trade.

          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.