WAYNE E. REILLY

Bangor residents battled white plague a century ago

Posted Aug. 17, 2014, at 11:26 a.m.
Last modified Aug. 17, 2014, at 3:54 p.m.

When the Anti-Tuberculosis Society of Bangor met a century ago this summer, there was good news and bad news in the battle to end the Great White Plague.

First, the good news: Public drinking cups had been banned, noted Miss Madeline C. Mosher, the city’s tuberculosis nurse.

“It was a great satisfaction to find that last Monday morning every common drinking cup in the city had been removed in requirement with the new state law,” she said in the Bangor Daily Commercial on June 4, 1914.

The State Board of Health had banned common drinking cups and “common towels” in hotels, restaurants, theaters and other places of amusement, schools and in the waiting rooms at the railroad station, effective June 1 and subject to a fine of up to $500 and imprisonment of not more than six months in jail.

The bad news?

“I would further recommend that something be done to eliminate the spitting nuisance in the city,” Mosher added.

A no-spitting ordinance had been passed several years before, but city fathers were doing little to enforce it. People suffering from tuberculosis were still spitting in public places, spreading the disease, it was believed.

The white plague wasn’t choosy. Hundreds of victims — young and old, rich and poor, male and female — died in Maine every year. It was believed that hundreds more, including many pale-faced, frail children, were walking carriers who could be cured only if their symptoms were treated early.

The disease struck down people from all levels of society, but it spread most quickly among poor people living in crowded conditions. Treatment consisted of fresh air, sunshine, health food and plenty of rest. Antibiotics, which later provided a cure for most people, had yet to be developed for widespread use.

Some people believed tuberculosis victims could be treated at home, but the Anti-Tuberculosis Society lobbied for more sanatoriums.

Mrs. Gertrude Pearson Atwood, the Bangor society’s secretary, bluntly stated this belief in her report that year: “[Even] if the chances of recovery at home were equally good, there is another point of view which should induce us to insist upon the building of more sanatoria and hospitals for tuberculosis patients. Every case of tuberculosis has become infected by a preceding case …, and if every case of tuberculosis could be placed in a sanatorium and kept there until recovery or death, our efforts to exterminate this great white plague would soon be successful.”

Sanatoriums were on the minds of Bangor members. On Nov. 30, 1913, the association’s sanatorium, or “camp” as they sometimes called it, was destroyed by fire. Patients at the Kenduskeag Avenue facility and their nurse were moved to “the office roof porch” at Eastern Maine General Hospital until space was available at larger sanatoriums in Hebron and Fairfield.

Since then, the association had voted to rebuild. The Kenduskeag Real Estate Company had been formed, and “sufficient stock has been subscribed and the work of rebuilding will commence in a very short time,” said Atwood. The new building would be constructed on the same site with a capacity for about 20 patients.

To raise money for equipment at the new camp, an elegant “garden fete” was planned at Elmbank, the mansion of Mr. and Mrs. Samuel R. Prentiss at Kenduskeag Avenue and Division Street. The burned tuberculosis camp had been owned by Prentiss, one of Bangor’s most prominent tuberculosis fighters.

Besides the elaborate gardens, an automobile parade, a dance to music by Pullen’s Orchestra and a lobster salad supper, the affair at Elmbank featured a performance of Alice and Wonderland starring the children of many of the city’s wealthiest families.

One of the fete’s staged sets was an “English village” complete with thatched-roof cottages used as booths to sell refreshments, “Parisian lingerie,” potted plants and gardening equipment. Proceeds were believed to have topped $1,000 at day’s end, according to the Bangor Daily Commercial on June 24.

A few weeks later, an architect’s sketch of the new sanatorium appeared in the Bangor Daily Commercial. The design by W. E. Mansur reportedly would create “an attractive, home-like place.”

On Nov. 30, 1914, a year after the fire, the Bangor Daily News ran a lengthy feature on the new “camp,” stating it would be ready for occupancy that week. Located on high land with a magnificent view, a trolley car on the Charleston line would run right by the front door, two-and-a-half-miles from the Bangor Post Office. The staff consisted of the same nurse, Mrs. Merrill, along with a cook and “a second girl.”

With brown-shingled sides and cream trimmings and a red-shingled roof the building was considered “handsome” compared to most sanatoriums, which “look more like barracks or hen-houses.”

Meanwhile, as reported at the society’s meeting that June, Mosher, the district nurse, had discovered 51 new tuberculosis cases in the past year, bringing the total number to 130 victims known to be living in Bangor. Some were in the almshouse and others in the jail, but many remained at home. Examinations were conducted at the York Street clinic and educational programs on how tuberculosis victims should conduct themselves at home were held.

That year, Mosher had distributed 2,500 “sputum boxes,” including cups into which victims were instructed to spit after coughing. Moser was horrified when she visited some homes to find healthy children eating off the same dishes as their tubercular siblings, and tubercular parents spitting indiscriminately around the house.

Most of these victims of the white plague remain anonymous today possibly because the disease was often associated with physical weakness and poverty. Seldom was tuberculosis mentioned in the death notices of the era — usually written about wealthy or well-known people. Many people to this day, however, have stories they will tell you about family, friends and neighbors who succumbed to the dreaded disease.

One exception to this anonymity was Olympic-star marathon runner Andrew Sockalexis, who was the area’s poster-child for the tuberculosis epidemic. His running career ended prematurely, he would be treated off and on for the next five years in Hebron until he died in 1919.

A fundraiser to help pay for his treatment was held in Bangor on Aug. 22, 1914, featuring some of the country’s best known runners. Fundraisers such as this one were uncommon a century ago, and certainly there were too many tuberculosis victims to consider it a practical way of helping large numbers.

Wayne E. Reilly’s column on Bangor a century ago appears in the newspaper every other Monday. His latest book, Hidden History of Bangor: From Lumbering Days to the Progressive Era, is available where books are sold. Comments can be sent to him at wreilly.bdn@gmail.com.

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