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Part 4 - 1860 to 1865
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Medicine in the Civil War Era and After

All interest in disease and death is only another expression of interest in life - Thomas Mann

A Surgeon's Kit from the Civil War
Surgeon General C. Everett Koop called the Civil War "a watershed in the history of medicine." On this page we will attempt to give you a glimpse of the practice of medicine on each side of that "watershed" in the townships of New Boston and Eliza. In addition, for those interested in the Civil War we will give some brief remarks and some sources for more information. To assist in your genealogical research we have included a list of epidemics at the bottom of the page.

From an article by Lowell E. Sunderland of The Baltimore Sun published in the Kenosha News Sunday, October 27, 1996:

Many museums focus on the Civil War and its battles, but what happened to its 620,000 dead and even more wounded gets only passing mention. The National Museum of Civil War Medicine at 48 E. Patrick Street in Frederick, Maryland is devoted to filling this gap. Frederick was chosen for its location as it was a major wartime medical center - central to battles at Gettysburg, Antietam, Harper's Ferry and south into the Shenandoah Valley. No fewer than 29 churches, schools and buildings in Frederick served as hospitals at some time during the Civil War. The kit above is one of their exhibits and probably was actually advanced practice for the more than 50,000 legs and arms amputated on various battlegrounds.

Forced to cope with rampant illness and horrible wounds numbering in the tens of thousands, doctors with little in the way of modern knowledge or technology experimented, improvised and invented. The list of advances is impressive:

Better sanitation practices, modern hospitals, nursing as a profession, wide use of anesthetics, the triage system of treating the injured, mobile surgical units - all have Civil War roots.

Medical treatments before the Civil War were often bizarre and life threatening. The photos at the right are from the Museum. Burgan's well-intentioned doctor, who knew nothing about germs or antibiotics, treated his cold with "calomel," a mercury-based potion intended to make him salivate and, thus, flush his body of "bad humors." Though Burgan's scarring was grotesque, his face was restored by a New York Doctor regarded as the father of modern plastic surgery. Burgan married and fathered many children, living to the age of 71.

Not the least of things learned during the war was public sanitation - systematized cleanliness, separating latrines from water and food in campsites, for example. Early in the war, chronic diarrhea was a major killer as well as a spreader of disease. Many of the returning soldiers still sufferred from chronic diarrhea and their lives were signficiantly shortened because of it.

Before the war the only hospitals had been "pest houses" or "poorhouses" where people with contagious diseases were isolated to die. Because of the overwhelming numbers of wounded and ill in the Civil War airy, easy-to-clean hospitals with central nursing stations evolved.

A fine book Civil War Medicine, Care & Comfort of the Wounded, by Robert E. Denney, documents much of this evolution of medicine on a day to day basis. For those of us not so familiar with the Civil War battles, it is also a great reference to see which battles were occurring on what days! It also lists in many cases what troops were fighting and where the wounded were taken.

There is a book Medicine Women, the Story of Early-American Women Doctors by Cathy Luchetti, 1998. While it is not specific to Mercer County, much of the time period of the book coincides with our history and covers diseases and treatments used. It is particulary interesting in covering information about women's concerns such as child birth, birth control, abortion, and "female complaints."

There is an old book History of Medical Practice In Illinois issued by the Illinois State Medical Society in Commemoration of Its Diamond Jubilee in 1927. Since it is out of copyright, when time permits we will scan in the pages covering the early medical history of Mercer and Henderson Counties and link them here.

There is a Web Site with much Illinois History including a transcript of the Illinois Department of Public Health 1927 publication of epedemics in Illinois and including definitions of diseases.

There is an interesting biography of a physician in Rock Island County just north of Mercer on a pioneer interview Web Site. He gives us a glimpse of the life of a country physician in the 1830's. He mentions the prevailing diseases as fever and ague, and intermittent and billious fevers. Quinine was his anchor of treatment. (See paragraph on the ague below.)

There is an excellent article on "Childhood Diseases in the Victorian Age " posted on Also Part II. Access to these articles is free.

We also have a list of epedemics and dates of occurrence published in Ancestry Trails and Ancestors West that we excerpted at the bottom of the page.

Medicine in New Boston & Eliza Townships

We have Mr. Stanton V. Prentiss of New Boston to thank for placing the following advertisement in the New Boston Golden Age in 1855 and giving us a pretty complete rundown of the complaints people sufferred from, and the nostrums they used to combat the complaints in that time period.

While Mr. Prentiss's advertisement is directed to "those who cannot obtain the care of a competent physician," there were several physicians in Mercer County at an early time (list below). And there were other drug stores than the Prentiss store, cf Thomas Alyea below. In The Golden Age in March, 1855, an advertisement was run for "The Best Female Medicine Known - The peculiar maladies to which females are subject, commonly produce great bodily exhaustion, accompanied by a depressed and gloomy state of mind. As the system declines in strength, there is a loss of nervous power, and this very naturally impairs the energy of the mind, and disturbs the equanimity of the temper. Any candid woman who has ever suffered from female complaints will admit this to be the mournful truth. Now, to obtain relief, it is only necessary to stop the tendency to depletion and debility. This is done by renewing the fountain of health and strength, the Blood, and no medicine accomplishes this desirable result so speedily and complete as Dr. Guysott's improved Extract of Yellow Dock and Sarsaparilla. Ladies of pale complexion and consumptive habits, and such as are debilitated by those obstructions which females are liable to, are restored by the use of a bottle or two, to bloom and vigor. Scrofula and Cancer cured by Dr. Guysott's Extract of Yellow Dock and Sasaparilla...Price $1 per bottle - six bottles for $5." Distributors listed were J. C. Cabeen of Keithsburg, T. W. McDill, Oquawka and S. V. Prentiss & Co of New Boston. This ad is very interesting in light of the reluctance to talk about "female" complaints {including pregnancy} in that time period!

In 1854 the April 26 issue of The Golden Age ran the following article: "THE CHOLERA This fearful scourge is again making its appearance on the river, and in some cases it assumes a very malignant form, especially for so early in the season. The steamer York State which passed up on Monday from St. Louis had four fatal cases during the passage... . A lady from St. Louis died shortly after, and was buried here. The cause of the present appearance of this disease is no doubt to be found primarily in the unusual heat of the season. On Saturday the mercury showed the temperature to be ninety-two deg. in the shade, which is but slightly below the highest temperature of last summer;... . Any irregularity of habit or improprieties in diet by persons traveling, could hardly result in anything else than Cholera, surrounded by such an atmosphere at this early season - the man we were told, was very intemperate, and the woman had committed the impropriety of eating a gorge of hard boiled eggs."
(Note: This is one possible source of grave markers in New Boston Cemetery that cannot be tied to Mercer County families.)

In 1861 a group of Mercer County physicians met and set a fee schedule. Dr. T. Willits(New Boston) was chairman of the group and J. P. Boyd (Millersburg) was Secretary. In addition to setting fees, they resolved that it would be "respectful to their patrons and just to themselves that the sum of each bill be made out and handed over or left at the nearest post office twice each year, say 1st January and July, and that this be considered notice that payment or settlement is expected and further, that if neglected ten percent, will be charged until paid." The fee bill adopted was:

Prescription in office, $1.00
Visit in town, 1.00
Dressing wounds, from 1.00 to 10.00
Reducing Luxations and Fractures from 5.00 to 10.00
Simple accouchment, 5.00
Instrumental accouchment, 10.00
Protracted accouchment, extra per diem 5.00
Capital operations in surgery, from 25.00 to 50.00
Minor operations in surgery, from 1.00 to 10.00
Consultations 5.00
Mileage on the above rates, 50 cts
At night fifty per cent, extra

Physicians signing were: Jos. W. Gaston, T. S. Stanway (New Boston), Samuel Kelley (Keithsburg), W. D. Craig (Aledo), J. A. Anderson, C. Kellerman, J. A. Maury (Aledo), J. V. Frazier (Viola), G. Irvin (Mercer Twp). Dr's. Maury, Frazier and Stanway were appointed a permanent committee. J. A. Anderson, Jos. W. Gaston, and C. Kellerman are not found in the 1860 Mercer County census and we cannot otherwise identify them. This does tell us however that physicians were moving into the county at a rapid rate in this time period. Prices for procedures throughout the country were not standardized until the passage of the Medical Practice Act of 1876.

Two deaths were reported in the May 10, 1864, Aledo Weekly Record: "Died - New Boston, April 24 of whooping cough, Emma J., daughter of Dr. & Mrs. A. W. Tipton, aged five months and one day." The doctor could not save his own child. " New Boston, April 28, of typhoid fever, Albert Beach, aged 26 years. Deceased enlisted near three years ago in Co I, 17th Regiment, Illinois Volunteers, but after a trial was regularly discharged on account of ill health. He subsequently joined Co D, 9th Iowa Cavalry and at the time of his death was home on furlough." This was not an unusual situation. Patriotism ran high and if you find your relative discharged for ill health in a Mercer County regiment, he may have joined another regiment somewhere else.

Physicians Associated with New Boston & Eliza Townships

(from History of Mercer County 1882 unless otherwise noted):
-- Ezra S. Benson, physician per 1860 and 1870 census. He was of New York and we would be interested in his training as a physician. He died at an early age.
-- Edmond Harrell, Physician and Surgeon (note: there were four other professional persons with him in the 1840 census)
-- Mark Willits, listed as first doctor in New Boston in 1840 in History of Mercer County, 1882. Soon moved to Wisconsin where he is listed as a physician.
-- Thomas Willits began practice in Indiana in 1826. In New Boston in 1840. Listed in 1875 Atlas as first physician in New Boston. Chairman of the meeting to set fees above.
-- Simeon Smith, listed in the Census as a Physician. Medical College graduate, practiced in Canada, but preferred the profession of teaching in Mercer County
-- A. W. Tipton, see paragraph above in 1864.
-- Drs. Shiner & Howey, mentioned in History of Mercer County, 1882 as early physicians in New Boston Township
-- Charles Drury, studied in Rock Island County with Dr. Eli Reynolds, returned to Eliza Township and practiced until 1851 when he moved to Oregon.
-- Thomas Stanway, participated in fee setting above and was practicing in New Boston in the 1870 census.
-- J. O. Allen, advertised in New Boston in 1847
-- Charles Fred Lytle, son of George Lytle, is listed in the 1900 census in New Boston, age 26, physician.

Other Mercer County Physicians

Dr. William W. Waugh, died 1859 Richland Grove;
Dr. John B. Rathbun, (third wife was sister of Dr. Waugh) well documented in the Mercer County History in Rivoli and Richland Grove Township. Brenda McNeil is researching these families.
Dr. A. Ashbaugh was a judge in the Swine Department in the 1857 Agricultural Fair, but we have been unable to determine where he lived in Mercer County.

On our Emerson Family Page under the William Swafford Emerson family we have included a portion of the biography of his son, Dr. Edward L. Emerson, who practiced in New Windsor after March 26, 1881. The biography is interesting as it describes the training that a doctor had to go through in the late 1880's.


-- S. V. Prentiss, ad above
-- John Beeson, first druggist in New Boston
-- Thomas Alyea, attended Mount Morris Seminary in Ogle County in 1845 and became the second vendor of drugs in New Boston. He opened a store in 1853 {Advertisement}
-- John E. Willits was listed as a druggist in the 1850 census in New Boston
-- George Lytle is listed as a keeper of a drug store in 1880 in New Boston and as druggist in New Boston in 1900. Ad below:


-- C. B. Epperly (Keithsburg) see advertisement below. Ilene Tracy is researching the Epperly family.
-- Mortimer Prentiss (New Boston, about 1854 to after 1860).

We like this advertisement from the April 16, 1887 issue of the New Boston Vedette. The promise of "no death" seems especially comforting!

The Ague --

And to-day, the swallows flitting
Round my cabin see me sitting,
Moodily within the sunshine,
Just inside my silent door,
Waiting for the "ager," seeming
Like a man forever dreaming;
And the sunlight on me streaming
Throws no shadow on the floor;
For I am too thin and sallow
To make shadows on the floor --
Nary shadow any more. - Anon.

A common complaint among the early settlers was the "ague" or "chills and fever" or "shakes." A vivid description of it is given in the History of Hardin County, Iowa, for it was no respecter of place, time or persons. It was not contagious but was derived mostly from impure water. Mercer County had its share as people used the water from the streams. The impurities continued to be absorbed in the body until the fever and chills began. When you had the fever you couldn't get cool and when you had the chill you couldn't get warm. When the appointed time came around, everything had to be stopped to attend to its demands. You felt as though you had gone through some sort of a collision and come out not killed, but next thing to it. You felt weak... . You felt languid, stupid and sore, and down in the mouth and heel, and partly ravelled out. Your back was out of fix, your head ached and your appetite crazy. Your eyes had too much white in them; your ears, especially after taking quinine, had too much roar in them, and your whole body and soul were entirely woe-begone, disconsolate, sad, poor and good for nothing. You didn't think much of yourself, and didn't believe that other people did either; and you didn't care. You didn't quite make up your mind to commit suicide, but sometimes wished some accident would happen to knock either the malady or yourself out of existence. You imagined even the dogs looked at you with a sort of self-complacency. You thought the sun had a sort of sickly shine about it. About this time you came to the conclusion that you would not take the whole State as a gift; and if you had the strength and means you would pick up Hannah and the baby, and your traps, and "go back yander" to "Old Virginny," the "Jarseys," Maryland; or "Pennsylvany."

Thomas Alyea, New Boston druggist, advertised remedies for the fever and ague in the New Boston Non-Pareil March 29, 1856: (Unfortunately part of the page is cut off on the microfilm but here is the gist of it) "TO AGUE SUFFERERS ...Arsenic, Tonics, Mercury, ...Strychnine, or Anti-Pe...The well known inefficient and noxious poisons proves them...either of false medical...of mercenary quacks. The only...that is both sure and ...FEVER AND AGUE CURE. New Boston, by THOMAS ALYEA..." Apparently by this time the "noxious poisons" were being recognized as such and new remedies were on the market.

The preparation of medicines was eventually defined by national standards set in 1876 and by local regulations in individual states. Cathy Luchetti in Medicine Women… tells us that conscientious practitioners kept abreast of new drugs and treatments but were often forced to find remedies close at hand, easily available and without cost, so fell back on tried and true home remedies.

In the 1899 Merck's Manual of the Materia Medica Ague is cross referenced to Malaria and there are 91 medications listed including Quinine, but many of the old ones such as Arsenic and Mercury are still on the list.

Rabies was another and more dangerous malady. The Aledo Weekly Record, October 16, 1860 reported: "Bitten by a Mad Dog - We are informed that a young man named Snyder was severly bitten by a dog supposed to be rabid, in several places about the hand and arm on Saturday evening last - finding it impossible to get away from the brute, he seized him by the throat and choked him to death. We understand that he has gone to New Boston to try the virtues of the mad-stone in the possession of Mr. Z. P. Willett." Two other cases of mad dog bites within a week or two plus some cows said to show symptons of hydrophobia. The book Medicine Women… mentions that the only treatment for rabies was simply to smother the patient to death between two featherbeds (to prevent being bitten by him).

Cholera was another recurring threat in Mercer County. In the New Boston Non-Pareil March 29, 1865, M. M. Prentiss, New Boston, H. W Thornton, Millersburg, and J. C. Cabeen & Co, Keithsburg, advertised together : "F. BROWN'S ESSENCE OF JAMACIA GINGER This Essence is a preparation of unique excellence. In ordinary diarrhea, including cholera, in short, in all cases of prostation of the digestive functions, it is of inestimable value. During the prevalence of epidemic cholera, and summer complaints of children, it is peculiarly efficacious; no family, or traveler, should be without it. CAUTION. - Be sure to get the genuine essence, which is prepared only by F. BROWN at his Drug and Chemical Store, N.E. Corner of Fifth and Chestnut streets, Philadelphia, and for sale by all respectable Apothecaries in the United States."

Cholera is now known to be an acute bacterial infection of the small intestine, caused by Vigrio cholerae and characterized by massive diarrhea with rapid and severe depletion of body fluids and salts. Source of the bacteria is contaminated water and food. Children were particularly often fatally affected because of their small body size. The Mercer County cemetery records attest to the loss of many families during the various epidemics.

The obituary of Dr. Thomas Willits at the bottom of the James Willits Page gives an interesting flavor of medical practice in Mercer County and a brief note on how the focus of disease changed.

There is an interesting Web Site with much medical information, including archaic terms. We have also started a page on Diseases where we list definitions as we find them - this should be useful in interpreting death certificates.

Below are listed some of the various epidemics that may have affected your ancestors. Items have been added from various postings on the Internet (also see the link above to the Illinois Trails Web Site listing epedemics in Illinois). After those that may specifically have affected New Boston and Eliza Townships we have listed other locations and times to aid in your genealogical research. If your ancestor lived in one of these places in the time indicated and he disappears, he may have died. Consider migration as well, as people left in droves for "more healthful" climates.

Epedemics that affected Mercer County

1831-2 Nationwide (brought by English emigrants) Asiatic Cholera
1832 Nationwide Influenza
1841 Nationwide (especially severe in the south) Yellow Fever
1847 Norhern US Yellow Fever
1847-8 Worldwide Influenza
1848-9 North America Cholera
1850 Nationwide Yellow Fever
1850 North America Dengue Fever
1850-1 North America Influenza
1851 Illinois Cholera
1852 Nationwide Yellow Fever
1855 Nationwide Yellow Fever
1857-9 Worldwide Influenza
1861-5 Civil War numerous epedemics of infectious diseases
1865 Nationwide Cholera and Typhus
186875 Nationwide Smallpox (note vaccination had been avail since Rev War)
1873-5 North America and Europe Influenza
1878 Northern US Yellow Fever
1889 Worldwide Influenza
1893 US 1st known outbreak of Polio
1900 US Plague
1901 US Smallpox
1907-18 US Polio
1918 Worldwide Influenza - more people hospitalized in WWI than from wounds
1931 US Polio
1942-53 US Polio
1657 Boston Measles
1687 Boston Measles
1690 New York Yellow Fever
1713 Boston Measles
1729 Boston Measles
1732-3 Worldwide Influenza
1738 South Carolina Smallpox
1739-40 Boston Measles
1747 CT, NY, PA, SC Measles
1759 North America (areas inhabited by whites) Measles
1761 North America and West Indies Influenza
1772 North America Measles
1775-6 Worldwide Influenza
1783 Dover, Delaware Bilious Disorder
1788 Philadelphia & New York Measles
1793 Vermont Putrid Fever and Influenza
1793 Virginia Influenza
1793-4 Philadelphia Yellow Fever
1796-7-8 Philadelphia Yellow Fever
(The yellow fever epidemics are interesting-people in the poor areas of the city where fires burned constantly were not so much affected as it kept away mosquitos, the unknown cause at that time. Rich people who could afford doctors died from the noxious treatments given them.)
1803 New York Yellow Fever
1820-3 Nationwide "Fever"
1833 Columbus, Ohio Cholera
1834 New York City Cholera
1837 Philadelphia Typhus
1847 New Orleans Yellow Fever
1849 New York Cholera
1851 Coles Co, IL, Great Plains, Missouri Cholera
1860-1 Pennsylvania Smallpox
1865-73 Philadelphia, NY, Boston, New Orleans Smallpox; Baltimore, Memphis, Washington DC Cholera Typhus Typhoid Scarlet Fever
1878 New Orleans Yellow Fever
1886 Jacksonville, Florida Yellow Fever