Eat Well and Thrive…or Not by Ann Parker

Posted by on Mar 17, 2014 in 19th Century U.S., Historical Research, Historical Tidbits | 3 comments

mercurys_rise185x280aSince I write mysteries, people die and my sleuth, Leadville saloon-owner Inez Stannert, must ferret out the criminal and the crime. This latest book in my series takes Inez to Manitou Springs, a fast-rising health resort and tourist destination, where there was a whole lotta dying going on, not all of it (or even most of it) of a nefarious nature.

In 1880, during the time the book takes place, Manitou was famous for its mineral waters. It also had a mild climate, wide open spaces, and beautiful scenery. It had some very high-class (for the West, anyway) hotels, and it had many many physicians. The reason being that Manitou was a “destination resort” for many from the East Coast and Europe who suffered from a variety of ailments, particularly tuberculosis.

eggs-25The cause of tuberculosis, or consumption as it was popularly called, was still unknown in 1880. Robert Koch, the physician who would discover the bacteria that causes the disease, was still conducting his research in Germany. Even though no one knew for certain what caused this dreaded disease, that didn’t stop physicians from developing their own theories and regimens for “curing” or at least slowing its progress.

Diet, in particular, was seen as an important element in controlling TB. However, some of those diets are pretty alarming by today’s standards: if the tuberculosis didn’t kill you, it seemed that your plugged arteries probably would. For instance, a Fannie Farmer cookbook from 1904 (long after Koch’s discovery), advises a dining schedule that a Hobbit would appreciate: besides breakfast, dinner, and supper, “there should be a luncheon in the morning, another in the afternoon, and still another before retiring.” Fats, in the form of cream, butter, olive oil, bacon, and beef fat were part of the recommended diet. And eggs. Lots of eggs. Preferably raw. Some doctors advised 18 eggs a day. Milk and beef were also staples of the consumptive’s diet (and we’re talking full-fat milk here, cream and all).

cowStill, eggs, cream, and beef fat would have been far preferable to the “slaughterhouse cure,” that became popular among consumptives in Denver in 1879. This particular cure involved drinking the blood of freshly slaughtered oxen and cows. And if we’re to segue into talking other comestibles taken to forestall the march of tuberculosis, I should mention the patent medicines and nostrums peddled to a desperate public, who lived in fear of the “white plague.” These so-called medicines and tonics contained ingredients such as cod-liver oil, lime, arsenic, chloroform, turpentine, kerosene, the ever-present alcohol, and yes, mercury.

We can all shake our heads in dismay and wonder what people were thinking of back then, to turn to some of these diets and remedies. But we have the virtue of hindsight. What will folks a couple generations from now think of our efforts to tame diseases such as cancer with diet? It would be interesting to know…

Ann 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.

Ann Parker, March 17, 2014


  1. As I’ve delved into my genealogy, I’ve been amazed at how many 19th and early 20th century ancestors died of TB. My great-grandfather squandered a fortune visiting spas and springs–to no avail.

  2. What a truly fun piece! Since I lived in Cheyenne, WY, from ages 8-21, I got to Manitou more than a few times & knew about the waters — but not the cures. As you say, what will future generations think of some of our screwy diets.

  3. Fascinating! While those diets don’t tempt me much, I seemed to remember there was some link between nutrition and TB (though maybe I’ve seen too many movies of wan, thinsome folks coughing blood into hankies). I came across a few articles that seemed to agree (eg One even said “Nutritional supplementation may represent a novel approach for fast recovery in tuberculosis patients” (perhaps not so novel after all!) to the point where “raising nutritional status of population may prove to be an effective measure to control tuberculosis in underdeveloped areas of world.” (Gupta et al. 2009) Now I don’t know what the nutritional status of the average resort patient was like, but sounds like it might have even been a helpful idea after all?