Last week I stated that poisons will be my blog topic series for the near future. I’m sorry, but I have to interrupt myself. I want to share a discovery that will indirectly tie into a discussion of poisons. It might also be useful to an historical writer.
Approximately twenty years ago, my grandmother and I were going through a box of old photos. I came upon one picture of a baby (see photo), and my Grandmother said, “That was Mabel. She was born two years before me and died when she was eight months old.”
“How did she die?” I asked.
My grandmother shrugged and said, “Something called phantom.”
I questioned her further, but she remembered nothing else. No clues to find out what this disease or illness was. I assumed the word phantom was her interpretation of something she’d heard as a child. Kids often hear words wrong.
My grandmother died a few years after that discussion. With her passing, I lost the only person who remembered little Mabel. I entered her into my family tree, then wrote down the few facts I knew on the back of the cardboard picture and tucked it into my genealogy notebook.
Forward about ten years. . .
I got a computer and internet access, and tried to research the disease. I used the spellings “phantom,” “fantum,” and “fantom,” but found nothing in the online lists of old diseases available at that time. Eventually I stopped looking, and Mabel’s memory and her picture were once again relegated to my genealogy notebook.
Forward to the present. . .
My husband and I were watching Marshall Dillon (the show that preceded Gunsmoke) on the Western Channel, as we do every evening lately—him on the couch, and me in the chair with my computer in my lap. During this broadcast, Doc Adams diagnosed a cowboy with “brain fever.”
What exactly was brain fever? I wondered. I’d heard of it before, but didn’t know the details. So, I Googled it. One thing led to another, as often happens with internet exploration, and I found one site that contained a long list of old-timey diseases and the modern disease equivalents.
Out of curiosity, I glanced down the list. That’s when I discovered what probably happened to Mabel.
Cholera Infantum. In all likelihood, as a youngster, my grandmother heard about Mabel’s death, and her child’s mind remembered only the last portion of the disease. . .fantum. Now I have a likely cause of death to put in my photo album with Mabel’s picture.
Cholera infantum isn’t related to cholera at all, but the symptoms are similar. It was a ruthless, brutal summertime killer of babies. I’m not sure where the word infantum comes from. Maybe from the Latin word infantia, which means infancy? But while reading about the disease, I found some information that’s worth sharing, in particular treatments that probably killed more babies than saved them. That will be my discussion next week and will segue beautifully into a discussion of poison.
Does anyone else have a story like this to share about a long ago family member?