Tag: White Snakeroot

  1. The Masque of the White Death

    White Death - Milk Sickness

    Imagine you are living in the Great Smoky Mountains in the 1830s and people in your family and in the community that surrounds you are getting sick and dying. It is the early fall of a dry year. Children and adults are complaining of loss of appetite, weakness, vomiting. Your uncle is in a coma. The haggard doctor in the next community cannot identify a cause. And there are no cures. Some farms are quarantined. A black flag or other sign on the fence out front warns neighbors and travelers that the sickness has reached the unfortunate family within.

    Your neighbor’s horse, which suffered from “the trembles,” slowly dies. Families talk of moving back east where they were never afflicted by such a plague. You have relatives in Kentucky who send word that half the people in their town have succumbed.

    But then, in November, people quit getting ill. You learn that many families have lost most of their calves and are worried about possible starvation in the winter ahead. But the terrible affliction has apparently run its course.

    Because of its cryptic nature, milk sickness remained a mystery in the eastern United States for many years. It is caused by a late summer wildflower that is common in the Great Smokies, white snakeroot. People and livestock tend to avoid the plant, but during drought years, when forage is thin, cattle, horses, sheep, and other livestock will graze it. Many of the livestock get sick and die, but some show no symptoms. Tremetol, the toxin that is passed from the plant to livestock to humans, was not scientifically identified until the early 20th century. Nancy Hanks Lincoln, Abraham Lincoln’s mother, is said to have died from milk sickness.

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