Poison in the Blood

Advertisement for Ayer's Sarsaparilla, a purported cure for the disease known as scrofula. "The Wellington Enterprise," 7-1-1885, pg. 7.

Advertisement for Ayer’s Sarsaparilla, a purported cure for the disease known as scrofula. “The Wellington Enterprise,” 7-1-1885, pg. 7. Photo by author.

Regular readers of the blog will recall that one of the principal focuses of my research has been the life of Noah Huckins, a Canadian who moved to Wellington after the Civil War and built an Italianate on the north side of town once owned by my family. Huckins had some type of illness that forced him to resign as mayor of the village in September 1872. He lost two children in infancy and his two surviving children were plagued with lifelong health issues; his daughter died of complications from a corrective surgery when she was only in her twenties.

I recently obtained a transcription of a diary kept by Noah Huckins’ older brother, George, while both men were students at Baldwin University. (Many thanks to former Baldwin Wallace University archivist, Jeremy Feador, for sharing the document with me.) Over the course of sixty-three manuscript pages, George mentions his younger brother in only three sentences. But one of those lines may hold the key to revealing Noah Huckins’ mysterious lifelong illness.

Advertisement for Hood's Sarsaparilla, a purported cure for the disease known as scrofula. "The Wellington Enterprise," 10-29-1890, pg. 8.

Advertisement for Hood’s Sarsaparilla, a purported cure for the disease known as scrofula. “The Wellington Enterprise,” 10-29-1890, pg. 8. Photo by author.

On January 25, 1859, George wrote: “Noah is sick today with lung disease.” In the nineteenth century, the most popular name for that particular ailment was consumption; today we know it as tuberculosis. It is a wasting disease that attacks the lungs and can be fatal without proper treatment.

I began to think about Noah’s children, Howard and Ibla, with their strange neck growths. More research revealed that TB is intimately connected with another archaic-sounding sickness, scrofula. Scrofula is most infamously known as a medieval scourge that was once thought to be curable by a royal touch, hence its nickname, “the king’s evil.” The full medical term for the disease is actually Mycobacterial cervical lymphadenitisit is a tubercular infection of the lymph nodes that causes chronic, persistent, painless masses in the neck that grow over time.

Huckins’ children, who may have already been born with a genetic susceptibility to the condition, probably contracted it at very young ages from their father and the infection manifested itself in them as cysts which both had surgically removed in their twenties. Unfortunately, surgery is not an effective treatment against scrofula, because the underlying bacterial cause simply reasserts itself through new growths. Surgery can also spread the bacteria to other parts of the body, and is always inherently risky even when it appears to be a straightforward procedure, as Ibla Huckins’ death demonstrates.

Advertisement for Hood's Sarsaparilla, a purported cure for the disease known as scrofula. "The Wellington Enterprise," 11-25-1891, pg. 4.

Advertisement for Hood’s Sarsaparilla, a purported cure for the disease known as scrofula. “The Wellington Enterprise,” 11-25-1891, pg. 4. Photo by author.

I came across hundreds of advertisements in The Wellington Enterprise for products marketed as cures for the disease. Sarsaparilla, a beverage not unlike root beer, was particularly popular. Many companies chose to sell their inventory through druggists, and even to characterize a serving size as a “dose.” The beverage was made from the root of a sarsaparilla plant, which is believed even today to have minor medicinal properties. The plant actually has a WebMD page, which reports that, “Chemicals in sarsaparilla might help decrease joint pain and itching, and might also reduce bacteria. Other chemicals might combat pain and swelling (inflammation), and also protect the liver against toxins.” Sufferers from scrofula possibly experienced a measure of genuine relief by taking what is today considered a soft drink.

I find myself imagining Howard and Ibla’s uncle, Wellington druggist Erwin Adams, carrying the children bottles of sarsaparilla to enjoy as he walks home up North Main Street on a summer evening…

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