BY KAREN GERHARDINGER | MIRROR REPORTER — Ghosts, vampires and zombies didn’t spook the residents of Waterville past. Typhoid fever, dysentery, malaria and Spanish flu were much scarier.
On October 13, several teachers and physicians from Waterville’s past came to life to share just how treacherous life on the frontier could be, telling tales of disease and of ill-informed treatments during the Waterville Historical Soc-iety’s seventh annual Ghostly Encounters at Wakeman Cemetery.
Written by WHS president Jim Conrad, the event showed just how many challenges settlers faced – and how different medical care was back then.
“Rampant diseases and epidemics are nothing new in Waterville,” said Conrad, who portrayed Dr. Paris Pray (1786-1850) and Dr. Waldo Suter (1854-1954). Suter was Conrad’s doctor early in life, and he can remember the doctor chain-smoking while treating patients. He later died of lung cancer, but not before treating many patients in the community, including Dewey Longstreet, a standout 1953 Anthony Wayne High School football player who dislocated his thumb.
“We talk about measles, mumps and scarlet fever,” said Kristen Goodell, who portrayed Charlotte Hutchinson (1900-1985), who began teaching in Waterville in 1919 when the school was so overcrowded her classroom was in the Columbian House.
“Teachers were on the front line of identifying ill children in school,” Goodell said.
The only available vaccine at the time, the smallpox vaccine, was limited mostly to cities. Common childhood diseases included scarlet fever, mumps, measles, chickenpox and whooping cough.
“Teachers learned that they should stop drinking water out of the same pail,” noted Kathy Saco, who portrayed Martha “Mattie” Lyon, a teacher who faced challenges in handling student injuries in the late 1800s.
“The teacher served as the first responder tending to broken bones, injured bare feet, burns, animal bites, bee and hornet stings and any parasite prevalent at that time. Teachers really were expected to perform above and beyond the call of duty,” Saco said.
Disease was so rampant that Amanda Bash Eastwood (played by Kathy Dowd) and her husband Asa were more worried about their sons Bill, age 28, and Herb, age 18, contracting a disease than being injured or killed while in Cuba during the Spanish-American War in 1898. Of the 3,000 troops who died during that war, an estimated 90 percent died from typhoid fever and dysentery, among other diseases.
Malaria was a big concern in Northwest Ohio’s Great Black Swamp.
Dr. Paris Pray, who began practicing in Waterville in 1834, noted that ague – also known as swamp fever or malaria – was treated by putting an extra log in the fireplace for chills and a wet blanket on the patient for fever. Doctors also conducted bleedings to remove ailments and administered calomel, a purgative that contained mercury.
As Dr. Welcome Pray, Conrad spoke of the dominant malady of the 1840s and ’50s – cholera. Severe cramps, diarrhea and vomiting would lead to fluid loss. Cholera epidemics that swept through the Maumee Valley not only killed people, but also wiped out entire towns, including Miltonville, right across the river, and Providence, 13 miles upriver.
Science later showed that cholera is a bacterial disease spread by water or food contaminated by human feces of the stricken. Waterways were too often used for dumping chamber pots – and that water used for drinking. Doctors prescribed calomel, and many patients died from mercury poisoning or other ill effects.
Dr. Waldo Daniels (1832-1882) was practicing medicine in Toledo when President Abraham Lincoln sought troops. Daniels enlisted in Gen. Steedman’s 14th Ohio and served in several southern states before being promoted to full surgeon and lieutenant colonel.
Military camps and field hospitals often had a host of issues – such as placing a latrine too close to the water supply. Dysentery accounted for the loss of 100,000 American lives during the Civil War. Typhoid accounted for 65,000 deaths. As a surgeon, Daniels didn’t help the situation, wiping his instruments on his apron – if at all – and not washing his hands between patients.
In 1918, Dr. Harry Babcock was in the Army Medical Corps as a captain when Spanish flu was transported with troops to Europe, where Spain was the first nation to report its cases. The Spanish flu epidemic was particularly deadly for people in their 20s and 30s, explained Jim Herzberg as Dr. Babcock.
“When soldiers returned home, they brought the flu with them and, in its early days, most physicians thought it was nothing more than just another flu outbreak,” Herzberg said. “By the end of the pandemic, an estimated 675,000 Americans had died of the flu or complications. Toledo did much better than many cities, losing only 311 per every 100,000 people.”
Waterville’s own Emery Christman was among those who died. Born on a farm just east of Whitehouse, he served in the Army and while at Camp Taylor, Ky., he became ill with the Spanish flu. Weakened and beginning to recover, he came down with measles and pneumonia and died 12 days before the signing of the Armistice.
During the pandemic, by local mandate, stores had their hours shortened, large gatherings of people were banned, schools were shuttered, church services were canceled, libraries and movie houses went dark, and 400 saloon owners fought hard for reopening even while many people voluntarily started wearing masks. By the summer of 1919, things started returning to normal.
Dr. Waldo Suter, who practiced until his death in 1954, also saw the effects of other diseases, including diphtheria, which can create a coating in the nose, throat or airway and affect the heart or nervous system. Without proper treatment, 10 percent of those who contract it will die. If one person in a family got it, the whole family quarantined.
Polio also struck fear into parents. A contagious virus that can cause nerve injury leading to paralysis, difficulty breathing and even death, polio affected Charlotte Hutchinson, Geraldine Fisher and others in the community – as well as Franklin Delano Roosevelt at age 39. In 1954, Dr. Jonas Salk introduced the first vaccine.
Mildred Barnett grew up on Waterville-Neapolis Road and knew farm life, but in 1924 entered the old Lucas County Hospital for a three-year course to become a nurse, practicing with Dr. Suter, often making house calls at night and delivering a lot of babies.
Each year, the WHS hosts Ghostly Encounters prior to Halloween at Wakeman Cemetery. While last year’s event was canceled, this was the seventh annual event, attracting 140 guests and raising over $700 for the nonprofit organization.
For information on these and other historical figures, visit www.watervillehistory.org.