Tag Archives: disease

Serious disease outbreaks not uncommon in Illinois, Fox Valley history

At the order of Gov. J.B. Pritzger, Illinois remains somewhat hunkered down these days as the medical profession and biologists try to figure out how to handle the severe acute respiratory syndrome-related coronavirus 2—shortened to COVID-19—pandemic sweeping the world.

Here in Illinois’ Fox River Valley, towns up and down the river issued shelter in place orders last spring, businesses (except for those deemed essential) were closed along with most governmental agencies including schools, park districts, museums, and libraries, and the only reason most people left home was to get groceries or visit the drug store. Things have begun to loosen up a bit, but as they’ve done so, cases have started on an upward trend line once again, making the area’s financial recovery problematical in the near future.

Serious disease outbreaks were fairly common around these parts back during the settlement era, a situation that lasted well into the 20th Century. In the early days, nobody knew what caused the periodic outbreaks of smallpox, cholera, typhoid, typhus, diphtheria, or the ever-present ague—which we know today as malaria.

But when it came to actually killing our pioneer ancestors, the big three diseases were cholera, typhoid, and smallpox.

Gen. Winfield Scott

Illinois’ earliest cholera outbreak happened in 1832 as the U.S. Army responded to the Black Hawk War. Troops brought west on the Great Lakes had picked up the disease along the way, and were dying even as they arrived. When Gen. Winfield Scott arrived at Chicago’s Fort Dearborn with his infected soldiers, most settlers who had fled to the fort for protection quickly left for their homes, figuring while the Indians might kill them, the cholera surely would. Legend has it that as Scott’s small army marched northwest to the Rock River country in western Illinois and southern Wisconsin, and as additional soldiers died, they were buried along the route with a cannon ball used as a marker for each dead soldier, thus, supposedly, the origin of today’s Cannonball Trail.

But of the three, smallpox was the most feared, and most certain, killer during that era. Thought to be eradicated in the 1970s, smallpox made a comeback of sorts back in the early 2000s, with the spread of rumors it was being cultured for biological warfare.

Abu-Bakr Muhammed ibn-Zakariya’al-Raz

Although known to be at least 3,000 years old, smallpox wasn’t mentioned in Europe until the 6th Century. Oddly enough, given the current unpleasantness between ourselves and the Islamic countries, the first scientific description of smallpox distinguishing it from its cousin, measles, was made by Abu-Bakr Muhammed ibn-Zakariya’al-Razi, chief physician at a Baghdad hospital—in 900 A.D. He established the diagnosis criteria for the disease that would be used until the 1700s.

From the 6th Century on, frequent European epidemics killed millions. Those same epidemics, however, provided a growing tolerance to the disease that allowed the death rate to decline to between 10 and 30 percent of those infected. Even so, the disease remained deadly. During the 18th Century alone, smallpox killed an estimated 60 million Europeans.

Even royalty suffered the ravages of the pox. The earliest-known royal smallpox victim was the Egyptian Pharaoh Ramses V who died of it in 1160 B.C. Other, more modern, monarchs who succumbed included William II of Orange in 1650, Queen Mary II of England in 1694, Czar Peter II of Russia in 1730, Louis XV of France in 1774, and Maria Theresa of Austria in 1780.

Early European explorers brought Old World diseases to North America, and they proved extra deadly to the New World’s Native People. The combination of smallpox and measles killed upwards of 90 percent of the Native American population in some areas, along with smaller numbers of European settlers. When the Pilgrims arrived aboard the Mayflower in 1620, they found what later became Massachusetts strangely uninhabited, although the empty villages and fields of Native People were scattered all over the region, their residents having been killed during a recent smallpox epidemic, probably inadvertently spread by Portuguese fishermen.

Then came the 18th Century and some true medical progress. Greek physician Emanuel Timoni, living in Constantinople in 1713, described how smallpox might be prevented by immunization using some of the liquid from a smallpox sore and rubbing it into a small scratch on a healthy person’s skin. While the inoculation caused a mild case of the pox, 98 percent survived and were thereafter immune.

In 1718, Lady Mary Wortley Montagu, the wife of the British minister to Constantinople, described inoculations she personally witnessed. During a 1721 smallpox epidemic in London, Lady Montagu had her five year-old daughter inoculated. The child developed a mild case, but recovered almost immediately. The exploit persuaded King George I to have two of his grandchildren inoculated—after having the process tested on 11 children from a charity school and a half-dozen prisoners at Newgate Gaol first. Couldn’t be too careful, you know.

Gen. George Washington mandated immunizations for the Continental Army during the Revolutionary War to stop the debilitating spread of smallpox.

Although inoculation was known, the pox still caused untold deaths throughout the world. In 1776, smallpox struck the Continental Army around Boston, and 5,500 of the 10,000-man force came down with the disease. In 1777, General George Washington, himself a smallpox survivor, ordered his entire army inoculated against the pox. Although Congress was opposed to the relatively new treatment (Washington’s home state of Virginia outlawed smallpox inoculations), Washington insisted—no anti-vaxxers allowed. As a result, Washington’s Continentals were spared the smallpox that was ravaging the 13 Colonies. When infection rates dropped from 20 percent to 1 percent, even Congress couldn’t ignore it. That led to one of the nation’s first public health laws legalizing smallpox vaccinations. Previously, some colonies (including Washington’s own Virginia) had prohibited vaccination under penalty of law.

British soldiers, most of whom had been exposed to the pox as children, suffered far less mortality than their American cousins during the war.

Then in 1796, English scientist and doctor Edward Jenner invented his famed method of inoculating patients with cowpox vaccine, leading to protection from smallpox with few, if any side effects.

Edward Jenner administers smallpox vaccine to a child in this painting.

Even so, epidemics continued to strike, particularly hitting Native People the hardest. In 1837, a smallpox outbreak along the Missouri River, probably carried by fur traders, killed 15,000 Indians, virtually wiping out the Arikara, Hidatsa  and Mandan tribes.

Smallpox made careers other than Jenner’s, too. In 1878, when a deadly smallpox epidemic hit Deadwood, S.D., 26 year-old Martha Jane Canary nursed patients, rendering services during the disastrous outbreak that eventually made her the legendary “Calamity Jane.”

Here in the Fox Valley, an 1845 epidemic struck Oswego. James Sheldon Barber, writing to his parents in Smyrna, N.Y. from Lockport on April 27 of that year, reported: “I have been waiting to go to Oswego and partly on account of the small pox. I was vaccinated one week ago last Monday. It worked tolerably well & I have got over it & now I feel perfectly safe.”

Barber finally got to Oswego to visit the friends with which he’d traveled from Smyrna to Oswego back in 1843 and was happy to find them all alive, if somewhat scarred: “I found the folks all well. Hawley’s folks have all had the small pox but Honer, Harriet & Jabez had the hardest of them all. Harriet’s face is scarred some but she says it is not so bad as it has been & I think She will get over it entirely in a short time.”

Oswego’s last smallpox scare came when a passenger arrived at the Oswego Depot in 1891.

One of the last local smallpox scares was in January of 1891. According to the Kendall County Record, a woman traveling by rail to Chicago through Oswego was found to have a rash some thought to be smallpox. A community panic ensued, with calls for the school to be closed, a community-wide quarantine established, suspension of mail service, social gatherings canceled and attendance at church services curtailed (does this sound familiar?). But within a day or so, it was found the woman had a simple rash and “The scare ceased almost as fast as it began,” the Record’s Oswego correspondent reported.

The last recorded case of smallpox was reported in Somalia in October 1977, and it is officially considered an eradicated disease.

Now, we’re dealing with a new disease that seems every bit as deadly as smallpox for those who contract it. The strange thing, though, is that today we know what a virus is, and even what the microscopic COVID-19 virus looks like. We just don’t know—at the present time—how to manufacture a vaccine to inoculate people against it.

In that respect, it’s at least a little bit like those days of long ago when diseases struck for no apparent reason, killed dozens, hundreds, or thousands, and then disappeared as quickly as they came. At least today, we have reason to believe help is on the way as the scientific community is working hard to come up with a vaccine for those not stricken and effective treatments for those who have contracted COVID-19.


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Yellow Jack a no-show on this Florida vacation…

So after spending February 2014 mostly chasing my snowblower up and down our driveway, I decided it might be prudent to get the heck out of northern Illinois during February 2015.

February has always been a problematical month here on the prairies west of Lake Michigan. It’s not for nothing that the Native Peoples who lived here when the settlers arrived called February’s full moon the “Full Snow Moon.”

Winter in Oswego, 2014, persuaded us that it might be prudent to head south during February 2015. We did, and it was.

Winter in Oswego, 2014, persuaded us that it might be prudent to head south during February 2015. We did, and it was.

Of course back then, while there was a lot of snow, the good news was that the wetlands that dotted the prairie were frozen solid, and there weren’t any flies or mosquitoes to deal with. And that meant no ague—which we call malaria these days. The roads during the settlement era were mere tracks and traces (thus the title of the monograph on area roads and stagecoach travel I wrote: By Trace and Trail) that morphed into bottomless muddy quagmires whenever a brief winter thaw happened. So February, with all its snow, was usually a month for good sleighing.

Farmers generally took their wagon boxes and hayracks off their running gears and put them on bobsled gears when the snow built up so they could haul feed to their own livestock and take the occasional load of grain to the grain elevator in town to sell or have ground into coarse flour to feed the hogs and chickens.

Actually, opting out of the Fox Valley for the winter really isn’t anything new. On May 20, 1875, the Kendall County Record’s Oswego correspondent reported that “Mr. and Mrs. Kinney have returned in the best of health and spirits from about a seven months’ sojourn in southern California.”

California was really the thing for quite a while if you wanted to avoid the worst of a northern Illinois winter. But slowly, Florida began to be mentioned as a destination. Early on, folks avoided Florida like the plague. Because, it just wasn’t a very healthy place to live, even though some local folks decided to take their chances anyway.

For instance, in October 1878, Oswego was all agog with the plans of the George Avery family, who had decided to sell out and move to Florida. They sold all the household goods that they couldn’t carry, and sold their house to Anton Miller. Then young George headed south to Utica, where he built a boat.

As the Record reported on Oct. 17: “Mrs. Lucy Avery with the children depart this morning to join her husband, and old George Avery at Utica, where they have been building a boat in which the party will embark for Florida or at least go in the same as far as New Orleans.”

By late November, the family, consisting of George and Lucy and their three daughters, George’s father, nicknamed “The General,” and their cats and dogs had reached the Mississippi above St. Louis. They eventually made their way all the way to Florida, and sent back such glowing reports that George’s brother, Ed, decided to sell out in Oswego and head down there, too.

On Oct. 2, 1879, Lorenzo Rank, the Record’s Oswego correspondent, reported he’d had a letter from the venturesome Avery family:

“Who does not like to be remembered and thought well of by the children? Was especially pleased to receive a letter from Allie Avery the other day with an alligator cuticle inclosed for a watch charm. The family went away from here over a year ago, spent the winter in Missouri, early in the spring went to Florida and chose Pensacola for their new home. Miss Allie also sent me a full record of the temperature of that locality for August, the hottest month they had, which shows the thermometer to have stood between 70 and 93 in the daytime, the latter point reached on the ninth; the average of the month at 7 a.m. was about 78, at noon 87, and 6 p.m. 80, and there were 12 days scattered through the month on which they had rain. Ed Avery, who sold out his house-hold goods and other effects Saturday, will also start for that region in a short time.”

Ed and family left Oswego Oct. 8, and headed south to join his father, brother, and family.

On Feb. 12, 1880, Rank reported he’d received another letter from young Lucy Avery:

“Received word the other day from the Oswegoans now residing in Florida by letter from Mrs. Lucy Avery in which she gave me a record of the temperature at Pensacola during January, the coldest month of the year, of which the following is the average of the thermometer: At 6 a.m., about 59; noon, 67; and 6 p.m., 63. The old General, too, sends me his respects with the advice that this is the country for old chaps.”

All wasn’t sweetness and light, of course. In September 1880, Rank said he’d received news of a near-tragedy involving the family: “It is said that Ed. Avery with a part of his family while out boating in Pensacola bay was overtaken by the big storm down there and compelled to put into a cove where they had to remain all night; that another boatload in their company were drowned by capsizing.”

“The Old General” was the first of the Florida Averys to die, although it seems to have been more old age that claimed him than any disease. Reported Rank in early November 1881: “The information was received yesterday by his wife and brother that George W. Avery, ‘the Old General,’ who several years ago in company with his son went to Pensacola, Florida died there very suddenly. The bell was tolled for him this morning.”

And maybe Ed should have seen the boating mishap as a portent, because he was the next to go, but this time it was no accident and it wasn’t old age. It was yellow fever.

At the time, one of the main reasons folks tended to avoid Florida was the tendency of yellow fever epidemics to break out. Yellow fever is one of hemorrhagic fevers—as is Ebola—but it’s far less contagious and is only spread by mosquitoes that have bitten infected people. However, no one knew that at the time and the occasional outbreaks of the deadly disease were terrifying.

Pensacola had been yellow fever free since 1874, and residents had let their guard down. Malaria was common, but not the deadly Yellow Jack. But then the Spanish bark Saletra arrived at the port of Pensacola with three sick crewmen aboard. The first night the ship was in port, one of the mates suddenly died of yellow fever. Panicky officials ordered the ship into quarantine, but it was apparently too late. Next stricken was Captain Bartolo, of the Italian bark Vincenzo Accamé, who died the same day he fell ill, and from there the disease spread quickly until it claimed one of the Oswego Averys.

In the Oct. 19, 1882 Kendall County Record, Rank reported the distressing news: “The sad intelligence was received last week that Ed Avery had died at Pensacola, Florida from yellow fever.”

February 2015 in Cape Coral, Florida proved a bit warmer than it was out on the Illinois prairie. A quiet sunrise out on the screened porch—they call them lanais—was a lot nicer than -10° F. with a stiff wind and snow.

February 2015 in Cape Coral, Florida proved a bit warmer than it was out on the Illinois prairie. A quiet sunrise out on the screened porch—they call them lanais—was a lot nicer than -10° F. with a stiff wind and snow. And we didn’t see a single case of Yellow Jack.

The epidemic finally burned itself out without taking any more Avery lives.

So that was on my mind as we headed south to spend February in Cape Coral, a relatively new town carved out of the mangrove swamps along the Caloosahatchee River starting in 1957. Today, the place is huge and features more than 400 miles of canals, most of which link to the river, whose mouth is on the Gulf of Mexico.

The good news was we got all the way through February without hearing about a single case of Yellow Jack. The traffic might kill you down there, but we didn’t see a single mosquito, much less the homicidal little Aedes aegypti that would sooner give you yellow fever than look at you.

In fact, we liked it so much we are probably going back down next year, especially since we kept up with the weather news (it wasn’t pretty) from the Fox Valley while we were there—along with no mosquitoes, we didn’t see any snow either, which was a big plus for me. And the food was pretty good, too.

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