Wednesday, May 3, 2017

Lead Poisoning

It is a rare day when someone comes to the Historical Society library with a tantalizing story that seems incredible, and difficult to confirm its accuracy.  That's how I felt last fall, when two women from Oregon visited me with a tale of lead poisoning.  Their ancestors had lived near Mt. Calvary, and family lore said that several of the children in their family had died young, supposedly from lead poisoning, and that the poison was in the flour they got from the mill. They were looking for any documentation of this family lore.

I knew I had heard that story before somewhere, but could not put my finger on just where......so of course, I decided to dig.  I was determined to check this out.

I found a story in the book "Wisconsin Heritage" by Bertha Kitchell Whyte, about this poisoning, but even though this confirmed the same story, it still did not give me a date to look for further evidence or at least, a newspaper clipping.  The story related how a Doctor Cary, from Greenbush, was treating a patient, and as he was leaving the sickroom, he spotted a pan of dough sitting on a window sill to rise, and he noticed something glinting in the dough. Upon closer examination, he discovered the lead impurities, and immediately sent out a rider to warn all the people in the neighborhood to stop eating the flour.

When I sent this story to the two ladies from Oregon,  they replied that they had found proof of the story in the mortality schedule for 1860.   Great.  Now I had a date to focus on.

The 1860 mortality schedule for the town of Marshfield, lists the deaths of Mathias Gesellschen age 9, John Gesellschen age 8 and Gertrude Gesellschen age 4, Mary Kramer age 4 and Henry Kramer age 7, all dying of lead poisoning.  In the town of Forest, Richard Hampton age 3 and John Gobel age 9 died of lead poisoning. In the town of Empire, Thomas Byrnes, age 68 died of lead poisoning.

At the bottom of the mortality schedule, the census taker wrote an explanation
"From line 31 to 35 inclusive and at any subsequent line, where lead poison is inserted as the cause of death, death ensued by lead being poured into the grooves of the millstone, innocently, by a miller in the town of Forest, which in grinding diffused itself into the flour, and through the consumption of the flour, perhaps from 300 to 400 people became seriously ill and about 10 to 15 died in my District and in the adjoining District."

Then I found this:

Wholesale poisoning - A singular case of accidental poisoning in the eastern part of this county has just been related to us as follows: In the town of Forest, Marshfield and that vicinity there have been during the winter, numerous cases of a disease, which from its extent was supposed by the people to be a kind of epidemic. The symptons were, intense pain through the lower part of the stomach and bowels. It is said that as many as a hundred have been attacked in this manner, and in some cases with fatal results. Suspecting there might be something wrong, about the food they were using, parties visited the flouring mill that does the custom work for the neighborhood, and ascertained that the miller under the impression that the grooves in the stones were too deep, was in the practice of filling them up with a preparation of white lead, and when it wore or came out, of refilling as occasion required. Some of the flour has been brought to this city to be analyzed, and we are informed it has been found to contain a considerable quantity of lead. There is now no doubt among the people of that section, that their sickness was caused by the use of this poisoned flour.
Democratic Press, January 25, 1860

Then I found another story
"Give him a Legal Examination - The board of health of the town of Forest, Fond du Lac county, have visited the mill from which the poisoned flour came, and report that miller had concluded to mix no more lead with the flour, and that the flour may hereafter be eaten with safety.  Last week we published a case of poisoning in Fond du Lac county, where a miller mixed lead with the flour. A correspondent of the Sheboygan Times says, that up to the 18th, Dr. Cary had treated upwards of seventy cases of the poisoned; and that in one family, the parents both lie ill, while three lovely children have been torn away by this act of inexcusable ignorance."
Trempealeau Representative, Friday March 2, 1860

Both of the family legends that I found, indicate that the miller had an assistant, who added the lead.  One story says that the assistant disappeard that same night and was never heard from again.  The second story says that the people were so upset because so many children had died, that they stormed the mill and hung the assistant.

I found yet another paper, with another news item:
"LEAD POISONING - Quite an excitement and not a little consternation has been created in the towns of Forest and Empire by the discovery that flour ground at the Forest Mills was mixed with lead ground to powder, in consequence of the miller pouring lead into a broken spot in the grinding surface of the stones. As it wore away he filled it anew, and so on, for several times in succession. The people consumed the flour manufactured there for some time, ignorant of its poisonance contents. The whole neighborhood nearly, were sick, many most dangerously. At last a lady discovered some shining particles in the bottom of her yeast dish, when a thorough investigation took place, which traced the cause to the millstone, unmistakably. Not less than from one hundred and fifty to two hundred persons have been affeccted by eating the flour. Vague rumors have reached this city that several had died but we learn from physicians that practice in the cases, that not one has yet died, where death could be distinctly traved to that cause, though many are very sick and came near to death's door, who will probably recover. It is a pretty serious affair and if not coupled with boundless stupidity on the part of the miller, we would like some one to coin a word that would express it more mildly, and yet truthfully described. We are told that some of the flour has been brought to this city and been exposed for sale by some of our dealers in the article, before they knew its character. Of course every honest dealer will withhold it from sale now. Let the people beware of the brand unless they are fully satisfied it was ground quite recently, as we are informed the defect is now remedied, and the owner of the mill is seeking to make all possible restitution to those who have been injured.
The Fond du Lac Commonwealth, January 25, 1860


[Here's my editorial note on this story]
This tale is one of the rare stories of early hardship of those sturdy pioneers. We all reflect on the good times and tend to bury the bad memories, but this makes history a bit lopsided. From our comfy chairs of today we read the local history books, and see only how each person prospered after coming to the area with nothing, and life was good. We read the biographical histories of Fond du Lac county, and don't stop to realize that not everyone supplied a biography to the publisher. So the picture can't be complete. The books don't mention the barns and stores that burned, the failed crops, the people who lost everything and had to start over, and finally the people who despaired and took their own lives.
It is good to share a story of hardship to balance out the scales, to make us all realize from history, that our own hardships are not unique. A life full of unexpected challenges is the norm, and how we deal with those challenges is what makes up our life's journey, as it did that journey of our ancestors.

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