(Please note: If this article sounds familiar, you may have read another version of the story that I posted on the Borrowed Book Blog several years ago.)
I love writing fictional mysteries--walking my sleuths through clues to a satisfying conclusion. I'm also fascinated by true-life mysteries. And when the mystery is one involving family, it’s even more fascinating.
This particular mystery began almost twenty-five years ago, when my grandmother and I were going through a box of old photos. I came upon this picture of a baby (see photo), and my Grandmother said, “That was Mabel. She was born two years before me (1896) and died when she was eight months old.”
“How did she die?” I asked.
My grandmother shrugged and said, “Some sickness called phantom.”
I questioned her further, but she remembered nothing else. I had no clues to aid me in discovering what this disease or illness was that killed little Mabel. At that time, in the early 1980s, computers weren’t personal, so I had no access to anything even resembling Google.
My wonderful grandmother died a few years after that discussion. With her passing, I lost the only person who remembered little Mabel and her tragic death. I entered her into my family tree, then wrote down the few facts I knew on the back of the cardboard picture and tucked it into my genealogy notebook. But I never forgot her or my desire to find the truth.
Fast forward about ten years when I got my first computer and internet access. I tried to research the disease in the relatively new online world. I assumed the word phantom was my grandmother’s interpretation of something she’d heard as a child. Kids often hear words wrong. I used the spellings “phantom,” “fantum,” and “fantom,” but found nothing in the online lists of old diseases available at that time. Eventually I stopped looking. Mabel’s memory and her picture were once again relegated to my genealogy notebook, but she never left my mind.
Little Mabel remained there until a couple years ago when my husband and I were watching Marshall Dillon (the show that preceded Gunsmoke). I’m fascinated by the history of medicine and disease, so when Doc Adams, the grizzled doctor in the show, diagnosed a cowboy with “brain fever,” I decided to Google it. One thing led to another, as often happens with internet exploration, and I found a site that contained a long list of old-timey diseases and the modern disease equivalents.
After I read about brain fever, I glanced down the list to check out other diseases. That’s when I spotted Cholera Infantum. Boom! Suddenly I knew what had happened to Mabel. In all likelihood, as a youngster, my grandmother heard about Mabel’s death, and her child’s mind remembered only the last portion of the disease: fantum. Now I had a likely cause of death to put in my genealogy album, along with Mabel’s picture.
Cholera infantum was a ruthless, brutal summertime killer of babies and small children during the 1800s. Despite its name, it was not really cholera and was not caused by the water-borne bacterium called Vibrio cholerae. The symptoms, however, were similar and included hot head, cold extremities, vomiting, and diarrhea, all of which rapidly led to dehydration and death in tiny children.
The online information I found about this disease is mixed. It includes antique medical texts, which make for fascinating reading, but are lacking in the medical knowledge we have today. Some of those texts say the disease was contagious, others say it was caused by heat. One even said it was caused by hysterical mother’s milk. Can you imagine holding your dying child and having the doctor tell you it was your hysteria and breast milk that caused the disease? Included in the information I found was a present day listing in Wikipedia (which may or may not be accurate) that states that cholera infantum is one of the diseases caused by a family of bacteria called campylobacte. You can read more about this at this link. In the article, cholera infantum is specifically mentioned under "history"
I didn’t pursue detailed research about the causes of cholera infantum because the purpose of my original search was to find Mabel’s killer, and I did that. The mystery of Mabel’s death is solved. I just wish I could tell my grandmother what I found. She would have enjoyed the story of my search, and she would have been fascinated to know what I’d found, just like I was.
Does anyone else have a story like this to share about a long ago family member?