For some Illinois pioneers, unexplained illnesses were terrifying signs of a witch’s power to spread affliction.
Disease was an ever-present threat on the nineteenth century American frontier. Smallpox, diphtheria, yellow fever, cholera, tuberculosis, food poisoning, and milk sickness were common, and their causes were not well known. Germ theory was still in its infancy. In this hostile environment, Illinois pioneers fell back on folk wisdom and superstitions passed down by their ancestors.
Milk sickness in particular plagued the Midwestern frontier, made even more frightening because its origins appeared so mysterious. It was caused by drinking milk or eating the meat of cattle that had consumed white snakeroot plant, which grows in the woods along the Ohio River and its tributaries. Symptoms included abdominal pain, severe thirst, vomiting, constipation, tremors, delirium, coma, and sudden death.
According to historian Walter J. Daly, “Ordinary settlers and their doctors found it unpredictable, untreatable, and highly fatal. Milk sickness killed many, frightened more, and caused local economic crises. Villages and farms were abandoned; livestock died; entire families were killed.”
Little by little, pioneers like Anna Pierce Hobbs of Hardin County, Illinois, learned the cause of the illness, but their knowledge and experience went unrecognized by the broader medical community. Most people could not make the connection between the milk they drank and this illness, because cattle often showed no symptoms of the disease. Pioneers turned to folk cures and dubious “medicine men” who also doubled as witch doctors. Witch doctors were needed because, according to popular belief, maleficium, and not germs, viruses, or poisoned vegetation, caused these mysterious illnesses.Continue reading “Beware a Witch’s Gift”