Will it live or die, health problems in Coal City

Sandy Vasko

    Coal City, like Braidwood, sprang up overnight. It was truly like a newborn child with all the hopes and dreams of its future. But there were also the perils that all children face, especially in the 19th century.
    The location of the town was picked for its proximity to the coal mine that was already sunk there. They didn't have to move anybody out of the way because, like Braidwood, no one was living there at the time. And there was a reason for that, something that the builders of the city did not take into consideration. It was an unhealthy place to live.  
    Although the city was built on the “high ground” of the prairie, the drainage was very poor. The prairie there was covered with bogs, swamps, quicksand, etc. And in the standing water, mosquitoes bred by the millions. With mosquitoes came malaria.
    We think of malaria as being a tropical disease, and certainly with all the mosquito-born illness we have now, malaria is never mentioned. But to early settlers it was almost a fact of life.
    It was called the “shaking ague” and although few people died from it, many suffered from it. In fact, the newspapers called summer the shaking season for that very reason.
    Another health problem associated with the poor drainage was cholera.  Cholera comes mostly from bacteria in human waste contaminating drinking water. It kills by causing such severe diarrhea that the victim dies of dehydration. It was particularly devastating to small children.  
    Wells of that period were very shallow because the water table was very close to the surface. The pits for outhouses were also dug shallow for the same reason. Because water flows freely from one spot to another, bacteria easily passed from outhouse to well.
    Because children were more likely to die from the disease, it was given the name “cholera infantum”, meaning “infant's cholera.”
    The Wilmington newspaper in August of 1875 said of the town, “Cholera infantum, is the prevailing disease, and the doctors are having all they can do.”
    On the other hand, there were some supposed health benefits. Anyone who has dug a deep well in the area, knows that the water is full of minerals and sulfur. It clogs up plumbing, makes everything it touches a rusty color which is almost impossible to remove, and gives the water a distinctive taste and smell which most people find disagreeable.  
    But in the 19th century these very qualities were seen as valuable. We read in the Coal City section of the Wilmington Advocate, “An analysis of the water found here, by Prof. Delafountaine, of Chicago, has resulted in proving to be the fact the idea that for some weeks past has prevailed - as to the mineral properties of the water from the Company's well, near the track.
    “The analysis shows a rich percentage of mineral salts, iron, magnesia, etc., and nearly, if not quite equal to any famed mineral springs of the country.  It is possible that a previous knowledge of this fact caused the company to build their palatial hotel and set out thousands of beautiful shade trees as they have, which will all tend to make Coal City one of these days at least the Saratoga of this section of the State.”  
    Another problem with the brand new city was that while the coal company had convinced quite a few miners to settle in the new town, however they had not convinced very many physicians to do so. There were several doctors in Wilmington and Braidwood at the time, but none wished to risk their career by moving to a place where health problems were so prevalent. And those that did were young, and not trusted by everyone.
    We read of one poor woman's plight, and the trouble the doctor got into when he attended her.
    “On Monday last, Dr. Terry, of Coal City, was arrested at the instigation of some malicious enemy, upon the charge of manslaughter, and brought before Justice Little, of Diamond, for hearing. From the testimony given, it appears that the Dr. was called on Tuesday, the 22nd., to attend a Mrs. Moody, in a case of confinement (pregnancy), and in his treatment had prescribed limewater, to allay her vomiting.”  
    “After several visits - the task being a tedious one - he left her for a time, feeling assured that nature in due course of events would bring all things right.  The following day, during his absence, the woman was delivered of a stillborn child which, from its decomposed condition, had probably been dead from one to two weeks.”  
    “Malice from an ignorant opponent prompted the rumor that the lime water given had “gone through on to the child and killed it: hence the causes of the skin falling off, and not from decomposition. Hence, the trumped-up charge.
    “However, after hearing but a portion of the evidence for the prosecution, the attorney threw up his case as hopeless and unworthy, and at his request the Justice dismissed the case at the cost of the plaintiff, who will doubtless have the opportunity of occupying the same position as the Doctor, as he should, under a charge of false imprisonment and malicious prosecution.”