Consumed by Consumption in the 19th Century American West – TB and Mercury’s Rise, by Ann Parker

Posted by on Jun 17, 2013 in 19th Century U.S., Historical Research, Historical Tidbits | 10 comments

Although most of my Silver Rush historical mysteries are set high in the Rocky Mountains in 1880s Leadville, Colorado, the fourth and latest, Mercury’s Rise, has my protagonist Inez Stannert heading down to Manitou Springs to reunite with her young son and his guardian, Inez’s beloved sister.

As I nosed about, getting my bearings for this new location, I became intrigued with the “selling” of this area of the West—particularly of Manitou Springs—as a health resort and tourist destination in the mid- to late-1800s. Colorado Springs was hyped as “Little London,” while Manitou Springs was touted as the “Saratoga of the West.” Promotion and puffery abounded in nearly every period piece of documentation I read, from the backs of cabinet cards to books such as Tourist Guide to Colorado in 1879 by Frank Fossett and New Colorado and the Santa Fe Trail by A.A. Hayes, Jr., published 1880.  The latter quotes one fellow who praises the healthful effects of the weather and mineral springs, adding, “I came here [Manitou] from Chicago on a mattress.”

Many of those coming to the area were, like the fellow from Chicago, “chasing the cure,” that is, looking for relief from tuberculosis, aka consumption, the white plague, the wasting disease, and phthisis. TB was the leading cause of death in the U.S. in the 19th century. From the beginning of the century through 1870, it was the cause of 1 in every 5 deaths. You need only read about the scourge of the disease, before the discovery of antibiotics effected a true cure, to shudder and pray that “superbug” tuberculosis does not breach the current spectrum of antibiotics. As a science writer, I appreciate the power of metaphor and analogy to make a point, and found this passage in Transactions of the American Medical Association, 1880, written by Ephraim Cutter, M.D., to his colleagues, a real eye-opener:

“It is estimated that one-quarter of the human deaths is caused directly or indirectly by what is commonly called consumption…I find I can write my name readily ten times in one minute…it would take 1 year, 213 days, and 16 hours of unintermitted writing to inscribe the names of this host, if on the average they consisted of thirteen letters. Suppose the vast company could be marshaled in rows four deep and two feet apart, this host would reach 770 miles in length, and occupy 10 days and 17 hours in passing a given point at a continuous rate of three miles an hour.”

It’s hard to imagine that anyone living in the 1880s remained untouched by the effects of the disease. In fact, one of the reasons I decided to tackle the topic of tuberculosis comes from my own family’s history: my grandfather was 9 years old and his sister 13 when their mother and father died of tuberculosis in 1892. Thus orphaned, they were taken in and raised by an aunt and uncle. My grandfather’s story is not unique, and was part of what started me wondering about the effects of this dread disease on the families and individuals of the era. Consumption was everywhere—and patients, families, and physicians were desperate to find a cure.

The 1880 Transactions are full of papers on tuberculosis treatments and research, including “The Salisbury Plans in Consumption—Production in Animals—Rationale and Treatment,” “Artificial Inflation as a Remedial Agent in Diseases of the Lungs,” and “Some Remarks on the Lesions of the Larynx in Phthisis.” The so-called causes and cures ranged far and wide. For instance, in 1881 in the textbook The Principles and Practice of Medicine, some of the causes put forth were hereditary disposition, unfavorable climate, sedentary indoor life, defective ventilation, deficiency of light and “depressing emotions.” Cure routines ranged from reliance on nourishing food, fresh air, and exercise, to the “slaughterhouse cure,” i.e., drinking the blood of freshly slaughtered oxen and cows (reported in Denver in 1879), to patent medicines and nostrums containing such ingredients as cod-liver oil, lime, arsenic, chloroform, the ever-present alcohol, and yes, mercury, even into the 1920s.

Another “cure” proposed by a well-respected physician in 1875 was—I kid you not—growing a beard. (You can find that particular medical treatment in Addison Porter Dutcher’s Pulmonary Tuberculosis: Its Pathology, Nature, Symptoms, Diagnosis, Prognosis, Causes, Hygiene, and Medical Treatment, “Chapter 30: A Plea for the Beards; Its Influence in Protecting the Throat and Lungs from Disease,” pg. 304.)

Is it no wonder, then, when Inez travels to Manitou for her family reunion she hears much about the wonders of the mineral waters and their miraculous health effects, and also finds out about some not-so-miraculous treatments being pedaled to the desperate and the dying? And, since Mercury’s Rise is a mystery, she discovers that not all the deaths are natural …

Ann ParkerJune 17, 2013

Parker is a California-based science/corporate writer by day and an historical mystery writer by night. Her award-winning Silver Rush series, featuring saloon-owner Inez Stannert, is set in 1880s Colorado, primarily in the silver-mining boomtown of Leadville. The books in the series—from first to most recent—are: 1) SILVER LIES, 2) IRON TIES, 3) LEADEN SKIES, and 4) MERCURY’S RISE. MERCURY’S RISE won the Bruce Alexander Memorial Historical Mystery Award and was named finalist for several others including the Colorado Book Award, the Agatha Award, the Willa Literary Award, and the Macavity Award.


  1. I enjoy Silver Rush series books, personally, and like to recommend them to library patrons. Mercury’s Rise was one of the books in our photo to SinC for the “SinC Loves Libraries” entry. Hope there’s a new Silver Rush book out soon.


    • Hello Harriette!
      I’m so pleased to hear you’ve enjoyed the Silver Rush books so far! The next book in the series is “under construction.” I’ve been slower than usual, owing to, eh, just call it “life.” I’ll have to beg for your patience on this one. Fingers crossed, I can have it done in time to come out toward the end of 2014…

  2. Interesting post, Ann! I love reading medical advice of the past, though it makes me wonder what we’re told now that will be laughable or horrifying to future folk!

    • Hello Peg!
      Sooooo true! I think that’s one of the valuable thoughts we can take away from looking at the past. Someday, our current day medical practices will be looked at as “old-fashioned,” and ailments and treatments that we struggle with now will seem so obvious from that future perspective. Assuming we continue to move forward in medical research, of course.

  3. Reading books set in the West and published 100 years ago, you get used to the frequency with which characters are described as having come West for their health. It always meant a belief in the restorative effects of an arid climate for those with pulmonary disease. Thanks for the depth of research on this subject. You are right that we can’t fathom what it must have been like to live at a time before antibiotics.

    I would like to post a review of SILVER LIES at my blog. Drop me a line at facebook.

    • Hello Ron!
      True, true. And anyone who had relatives “come West” in the late 19th/early 20th century might find with a little digging that the move was prompted by health concerns. The fact is, many people did find the drier climate was a healing one. My grandfather came to Denver in the early 20th century, suffering from TB. I remember coming across an old photo of him lying in a bed, outside on a porch, with other beds in the background. I believe he was recovering in a sanatorium in Denver. Wish I could put my hands on that photo now, but it’s with another relative. I’ll have to see if I can find it again on my next visit to Colorado…
      I’ll definitely drop you a line, Ron. Thanks!

  4. No wonder I love your books so much–the amount of your research is amazing! And thank you for sharing all of this in such a fashion it didn’t make me queasy which much medical discussion does.

    I’m looking forward to reading Mercury’s Rise soon.

    • Hello Kay!
      I’m glad you found the post non-queasy-inducing. 😉 In MERCURY’S RISE, the medical discussions come and go, as appropriate to the story… I think you’ll find them readable (although there’s always “skimming,” if not!).
      Hope you enjoy the book!

  5. Thank you, Ann, for your fascinating post. Like you, my turn of century family was touched by TB and even in post WW II era, I had a childhood friend whose mother died of complications from the disease. Your book paints this tragedy and details of living with the fears of it with compassion and such well-integrated detail. But that is also what I have learned to expect from all Ann Parker books! Very grateful for the hours of sheer joy reading your series.

  6. Hello everyone! And thank you, Mary Louisa, for the opportunity to post here. 🙂

    A busy day at work yesterday (Monday) meant I wasn’t able to get back to respond to comments in a more timely fashion, but here I am…