Original publish date: November 12, 2008 Reissue date: March 26, 2020
Sometimes it’s just a photo that starts the discussion. Such was the case with the photo I ran across in the archives of the Indianapolis Commercial Club’s collection. It’s a curious photo of a group of Boy Scouts in Indianapolis in 1907. The serious faced group of young men are holding signs with the official “National Tuberculosis Association” (Now the American Lung Association) Red Cross symbols on the front with ominously humorous slogans that read “Join the Drive against the Spitter…A Spotless Town is a Spitless Town…Don’t Spit-A Clean City is a Safe City…Save the Children-Don’t Spit.” What could possibly have caused these fresh faced kids to parade around Indiana’s Capitol City carrying signs with such frightening messages? The Tuberculosis War in Indianapolis.
Tuberculosis , or T.B. for short, is a respiratory disease that mainly effects the lungs but can also effect the central nervous system, bones, joints, and even the skin. The symptoms of T.B. include a chronic raspy bronchial cough, fever, night sweats, weight loss, and bloody expectorations or spit. T.B. is spread through the air when infected victims cough, sneeze or spit.
According to a 1907 article in the New York Times, “The anti-spitting movement, a thing of comparatively recent growth, has spread all over the union. The purpose of the anti-spitting ordinance is two fold: first, to abate a nuisance; second, to prevent disease. While the nuisance is a very real one, and from that stand point, if from no other, spitting should be prohibited, the danger of the spreading of disease by spitting in public places has been exaggerated…Spitting upon the sidewalks, in street cars and public places is not nearly so dangerous as the spitting in tenement houses, cheap lodging houses, factories and workshops, and other places which the average spitting law does not presume to prohibit.”
More precisely, the article goes on to note that in 1907, there were 20 arrests in Indianapolis for spitting in public. All of these arrests were made by health officers, not policemen. The article went on to say “If you have to spit, don’t spit in Buffalo, N.Y., for it may cost you $25. The cheapest place to spit is Indianapolis, where people paid an average of 78 cents.” In 1907 tuberculosis was the second leading cause of death behind pneumonia /influenza.
During this period, no fewer than four tuberculosis hospitals were built in and around Indianapolis. The Flower Mission Pavilion for Incurables was added to the grounds of the city hospital. The revolutionary design of the building featured open air verandas built at the height of 822 feet containing 2 wards with 10 beds each and 6 private rooms. This hospital was unique in that it charged no fee for services and was available only to patients with advanced, incurable cases of “Consumption.”
The other hospitals were located in Danville, known as the Rockwood Tuberculosis Sanitarium and the State Tuberculosis Hospital in Rockville. The Danville facility was used chiefly for early cases of T.B. with rates ranging from $15 to $25 per week. It had a capacity of 50 patients. An ad for the facility read, “The Rockwood Tuberculosis Sanitarium is located twelve miles west of Indianapolis on the Indianapolis and Danville Interurban Electric line. Cars run hourly in each direction. The institution is located in wooded hill country, and overlooks White Lick Creek. All patients are accommodated in individual cottages, and are kept in touch with physicians and nurses by an electric call-bell system.” The State T.B. hospital was located on 527 acres near the Sand Creek station of the Vandalia Railroad. Started in 1908, it would not open until 1909.
But by far the most interesting of these four T.B. hospitals was the Day Camp of the Women’s Improvement Club, located in the Brightwood area of Indianapolis. It’s capacity was only 7 patients. Literature of the era described the facility as being “For colored women in incipient or convalescent stages of tuberculosis. The camp is located in a grove near Brightwood, a suburb of Indianapolis. The equipment used is largely tents. This is one of the few camps in the United States exclusively for colored women. It is conducted by the Women’s Improvement Club, composed of twenty colored women of Indianapolis.”
I could not be true to the “spirit” of this column if I failed to speak of the folklore that surrounded the dread disease tuberculosis. Before the Industrial Revolution, tuberculosis was regarded as vampirism. When one family member died of T.B., the rest of the family would inevitably contract the disease and their health would slowly begin to fail. People mistakenly believed that the original victim was draining the life out of the remaining family members. Symptoms of T.B. closely mimicked those historically connected to the victims of vampires, including red, swollen eyes (which naturally caused a sensitivity to bright light), pale skin, extremely low body heat, a weak heart and coughing blood, suggesting that the only way for these T.B. victims to replenish themselves was by sucking blood. As with most medical maladies, the pain associated with tuberculosis seemed to multiply in the nighttime hours, causing the victim to stay awake all night and sleep most of the day. All are classic symptoms associated with vampires.
It was mistakenly believed that the only way the epidemic could be stopped within a family was to visit the cemetery at night and disinter the deceased subject and remove it’s heart. There was a well documented case of this very thing happening in Rhode Island in 1892. Nineteen-year-old Mercy Brown had died of consumption and as her family began to suffer from the same symptoms, her father went to the family tomb two months after her death and, assisted by the family physician, removed her heart and burnt it to ashes. These fears and old wive’s tales about T.B. surely existed in 1907, undoubtedly contributing to the ferocity of the Tuberculosis War in Indianapolis.
Although this article concentrates on the 1907 TB epidemic, it should be noted that tuberculosis is making a modern day comeback. This new strain of T.B. is resistant to today’s antibiotics. It’s estimated that one third of the world’s current population is infected with tuberculosis, and new infections occur at a rate of one per second. However, only a small percentage of these infections will develop into full blown TB. These hosts with latent T.B. cannot transmit the disease. The disease can only be transmitted by those TB victims with active tuberculosis. Most will remain dormant or latent with little effect to the infected host. Eighty percent of these new T.B. infections occur in Asia and Africa with only 5 to 10 percent occurring here in the United States.
Some interesting trivia from the world of 1907. The average life expectancy was 47. The average wage was 22 cents per hour. Ninety-five percent of all births took place at home. There were 230 murders reported in the entire U.S., marijuana, heroin, and morphine were all available over the counter at local drugstores. Back then pharmacists claimed, “Heroin clears the complexion, gives buoyancy to the mind, regulates the stomach and bowels, and is, in fact, a perfect guardian of health.” That last bit of trivia casts a somewhat dubious level of importance to Indianapolis’ Tuberculosis War. Wouldn’t you agree?