Anoka County History: Death and disease in the nineteenth century

In the 1870s-1880s the United States saw a massive immigration of people from northern Europe. Lured by newspapers advertising good schools, good jobs, and basically a good life, many of them chose to settle in Anoka because of its healthy environment by virtue of its location between two rivers, the Rum and the Mississippi. People had heard about germs—little critters that could make you sick but were too small to be seen by the naked eye. Thus, they reasoned, the two rivers would keep them safe from the nasty little creatures because being so tiny they couldn’t possible swim across one river, let alone two. So much for germ theory.

Among the leading illnesses in the nineteenth century were cholera, diphtheria, consumption (tuberculosis), and smallpox. Many diseases were the result of poor environmental conditions. Cholera was acutely infectious. It was caused by drinking water from contaminated sources and targeted the young, especially. Given their preference for alcoholic beverages, men were at the least risk of contracting this deadly malady. Cholera caused a slowing in blood circulation which, in turn, caused the victim’s skin to turn blue and shrink, leading to death. People thought the cause of this deadly disease was the sun, or comets, or too much oxygen in the air, or from eating fruits and vegetables, as well as from paranoia caused by fear of the disease itself. Ironically, cholera was often caused by the water of those very same rivers that were supposed to keep Anokans healthy. Back in those days, people had little concern for sanitation and the rivers did double duty as sewers.

Diphtheria was another killer of young children. This highly contagious disease was caused by “bacillus” bacteria that formed a thick, gray membrane in a child’s throat, creating fever and weakness and making it difficult to breathe, choking them to death.

“Consumption” was the name given to the disease we know as tuberculosis because its most notable feature was the consumption or wasting away of the body. The disease was caused by highly contagious bacteria that were carried in milk as well as in other foods, and in the saliva of an infected person. (Beware the sneeze.) It began as fine bacterium granules attached themselves and grew on every organ of the body, including the lungs and brain, damaging or destroying them. Tuberculosis was rampant in slum areas due to congestion and lack of fresh air and sunshine, so the poor were more likely to be its victims.

The most dreaded of diseases, however, was smallpox Caused by a virus which created small blister-like lumps, or poxes, on the skin and inside the mouth and throat it was highly contagious and had a 35 percent mortality rate. Smallpox was such a renowned killer over the centuries that a song, now sung as a children’s game, described its symptoms. You know the tune: Remember the words? “Ring around the Rosy, a pocket full of posy. Ashes, ashes, we all fall down.” (dead) While the European settlers had some natural immunity to the disease, the Native Americans had none. Upon exposure, whole tribes were wiped from the face of the earth.

These diseases had run rampant for centuries, but in the later part of the nineteenth century, discoveries were being made that would strike a mighty blow at the Grim Reaper.

June Anderson is a volunteer member of the Anoka County Historical Society. If you have a story you would like to share, please contact her thru ACHS or by e-mail: [email protected].

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