- Editor’s Note: This article is part of a weekly series on Kane County’s amazing history. Today’s article was contributed by Elizabeth Marston of the Elgin History Museum, compiled from the work of E. C. Alft and Barbara Schock.
Although Elgin is shut down now with individuals asked to quarantine themselves, this is not the first time. In the 19th century, there were frequent epidemics that came with suffering and sorrow. In 1845, the ague — or “bilious fever” — raged.
Many settlers fled town and nearly every remaining resident was prostrate. It was said that one man whose wife succumbed from the illness had difficulty finding assistance to bury her in a decent manner.
“Children have been swept away as with a pestilence,” reported the weekly Elgin Gazette in 1862-1863.
This was right after former slaves, called “contraband,” arrived in Elgin. They traveled for two days in unheated boxcars after living in a crowded refugee camp. Sixteen African-American children died mainly of smallpox. An equal number of white children died of scarlet fever and diphtheria. Different diseases, but the blame fell on the new war refugees.
Cholera hit the city in 1854, killing Elgin founder James Gifford. Cholera hit again in 1866.
Diphtheria was an all-too-frequent visitor in the fall and winter months. Lottie Magden, 13, died on Saturday. Her brother, Eddie, 3, and her sister Lizzie, 15, died the following Wednesday. All three children were among several Elgin victims of the diphtheria outbreak of 1883.
The source of the disease was believed at the time to be a stagnant and slime-covered slough at the intersection of Dundee Avenue and Gifford and Summit streets. The bed of the wetlands was at the same level as neighborhood wells. Severe onslaughts of diphtheria occurred in 1895, 1896, and 1897, when there were 42 deaths.
Tuburculosis, Typhoid Fever And More
A slow moving epidemic, tuberculosis, affected world populations from the 1600s through the 19th century. At the Elgin State Hospital in 1906, more than 25% of all hospital deaths were caused by tuberculosis, including three doctors.
To control the spread of the disease, a tent hospital was set up to isolate TB patients who were also patients at the state hospital. Within a few years, the care of TB patients was located in a specially built separate building, and not on the main wards. For the general Elgin population, private sanitariums took on the care of tuberculosis patients.
July 1916 was the hottest month Elgin had known up to that time. Typhoid fever killed one person on July 5, but eight others in the city were ill with the disease. Many of the sick were Elgin National Watch Company employees.
Smallpox was also reported. Quarantine signs were posted outside of homes with sickness warning neighbors not to visit and milkmen to not pick up empty bottles.
Typhoid fever is a bacterial infection picked up through contaminated water, milk, shellfish, and other foods. It causes headache, fever, sore throat and diarrhea. Diagnosing typhoid is difficult in the early stages because the symptoms are common for many diseases.
Dr. Alban Mann was the city of Elgin physician and kept records of the typhoid cases. He tested the city water supply and found no typhoid, the same with the milk supply.
By Aug. 16, there were at least 25 cases, but officials could not find the source. Esther Range, who worked in the Spring Room at the watch factory, died. The next day there were 10 more cases.
The third victim, Verna Brandow, died on Aug. 18. She was employed in the Stem Wind department at the factory.
There were all kinds of ideas on what was causing the disease. Some residents thought it was the public bathing beaches on the Fox River, or sediment in the city drinking water, or pollutants from new automobiles.
In the end, more than 200 residents were stricken, with 26 deaths reported that year. The last person to die of complications of typhoid fever on Dec. 12, 1916, was Elizabeth Simms, who had been ill for 14 weeks. She worked 30 years in the Stem Wind department of the factory. The source of the contamination was traced by Mann to a leaky valve, which separated water from the watch factory’s reservoir on Watch Street and water taken from the river.
The leaky valve allowed river water seepage to contaminate water pumped to drinking fountains throughout the watch factory building.
The watch factory instituted mandatory vaccinations for typhoid. The vaccine was to be given in a series of three injections over a period of about three weeks. It was said that women and men had fainted during the process.
There were also rumors that some workers had to be taken to the hospital after they received the treatment. The company had a history of demanding vaccinations. In 1882, 34 years before the typhoid epidemic, all employees were vaccinated for smallpox.
Great Influenza Pandemic of 1918
The great influenza pandemic of 1918, which caused an estimated 20 million deaths in Europe and the Americas, was the last major scourge to inflict the city. Although 70 died in Elgin, the outbreak here was relatively mild compared to 236 dead in Joliet and 125 in Aurora.
Also in 1918, Elgin experienced a smallpox epidemic started by a young girl who traveled from Jacksonville to visit her married sister. The sister’s husband was a barber who worked the first two days after he was infected.
There was an immediate 20-day quarantine to suppress the disease and an immediate large-scale vaccination program. More than 5,000 vaccinations were given to Elgin citizens, but many refused to cooperate. Officials reported 117 cases of smallpox but, fortunately, no deaths.
Later in the 20th century, Elgin had cases of polio and AIDS. Both diseases were rampant for periods of time with unknown sources and cures.
Medical scientists, public health workers, and improved sanitation have eliminated the fears of an earlier day, but the coronavirus is a reminder that the battle against contagious disease is not yet won.
Read The Kane County History Series!
- 1850-1925 Geneva — When Penmanship Was Mightier Than The Sword
- St. Charles Museum Site — From Serving Gas To Preserving History
- Elgin Puts 3,500 Priceless Photos Online
- Batavia-Inspired Miniatures Thrilled a Nation
- Aurora’s Maud Powell, World Famous Violinist
- Waxing Nostalgic on Geneva’s WGSB, WFXW
- American Doughboys of WWI — in St. Charles, IL
- Experience High-Tech History at April 21 ‘Open Elgin’ Event
- Batavia, IL — ‘Windmill Capital of The World’
- Meet Andy Aurora, Man About Town
- Celebrating The 50th Anniversary of 9-1-1 in Geneva
- Blue Goose And Evergreen Pub — ‘Shop Local’ 90 Years In The Making
- Elgin Is The Apple of Illinois Bicentennial’s Eye
- Nordens Soner And Batavia’s Swedish Society
- Aurora’s Melting Pot ‘Yearning To Breathe Free’
- Candles, Timing Devices, Phonographs And The ‘Life Cup’ — All Things Made in Geneva
- Hotel Baker, The ‘Masterpiece’ of The Fox Valley
- Elgin Celebrates Our Once-Burgeoning Dairy Business
- Reflections of Batavia’s Quarry Beach Pool
- Aurora’s Mabel O’Donnell, Author of “Alice And Jerry’ Books
- As Alice (Davis) Says, ‘Schools Out For Summer!’
- Elgin Watches, ‘The World’s Standard’
- Aurora Silverplate a Symbol of Good Taste
- Women Leaders Played Huge Roles in Geneva
- Nationally Renowned Summer Camp in St. Charles
- The Harrowing Story of William Lynch, Elgin’s Civil War Brigadier General
- Batavia Powered The Aurora, Elgin & Chicago Railway
- Corsets Doing Big Business in Aurora? Scandalous!
- One Block of Geneva Tells 1,001 Fantastic Stories
- St. Charles’ Evergreen Pub — The ‘Before’ Photos
- 1917-18 — When Elgin Artists Went to War
- Thomas Cleveland — Batavia’s Presidential Connection
- Do Your Wurst — Aurora Meat Markets Are ‘In’ Again
- Geneva Is The Place For Graveyards And Ghosts
- Visit Amelia Anderson At St. Charles’ North Side Cemetery
- Calling All Artists! … For a Cobblestone Reflection in Elgin
- Batavia’s 108-Year-Old Gazebo Still Lights The Way
- The Compelling, Tragic Story of Aurora’s Black WWI Hero Frank Boger
- Geneva History Museum Invites Artists To Celebrate Cultural Heritage
- Elgin’s Anson Clark Soared in The Great War … And Life
- What It Meant To Be a Patrol Boy and Louise White School
- ‘Men’s Night’ Christmas Shopping Was a 1950’s Aurora Phenomenon
- St. Charles Remembers Colson’s Christmas-Day Fire of ’33
- The Art of Elgin’s Cobblestone Reflections
- When Suffrage Met Prohibition in Batavia
- Geneva Presents The Art of The Fox River
- Blansford Astronomical Clock Is Aurora’s Treasure
- St. Charles Returns Family Heirlooms From WWII
- Museum Lands Painting By Elgin Artist Albert Kenney
- Cars Still Fixed at Historic Location in Downtown Batavia
- A Bird’s-Eye View of 19th Century Geneva
- Sheldon Peck: Kane County’s Connection To The Underground Railroad
- Elgin High School Celebrates 150 Years of ‘Education For All’
- Batavia’s Incredible Roller Skating History
- The Fabled History of Jewelry Stores in Geneva
- Astonishing Buried Treasure Discovered in Aurora Outhouse
- Lincoln Elementary School in St. Charles Celebrates 90 Years of Education
- Remembering Elgin High Grad, Renowned Composer Daniel Brewbaker, 1951 – 2017
- Meet Batavia’s Sharron Moran, LPGA Star, ‘Most Beautiful Golfer’ of 1966
- The Many Iterations of Geneva’s National Food Store
- The Burlington Zephyr — A ‘Silver Streak’ Through Aurora
- What IS That Thing in Downtown St. Charles?
- 18 Events, Limited-Edition Poster For Preservation Month in Elgin!
- Julius Amandus Anderson’s WWI Memorial Trapunto Banner
- Geneva’s Swedish Days Celebrates Its 70th Anniversary
- The Historic Drive To Save Aurora’s GAR Hall
- The Story of St. Charles’ Paddlewheel Riverboats
- Meet Elgin’s Legendary Marshal — Andrew Barclay Spurling
- Jackie DeShannon ‘Put A Little Love’ In Batavia
- Aurora’s William S. Hart, Cowboy Movie Star
- St. Charles’ First Settlers, One Lost, Found Again
- Discover The Elgin Stories All Around You
- Batavia’s WWI French Connection
- Amazing Stories Behind Geneva’s Extraordinary Parks
- Roots Aurora Seeks 2019 Nominations For Aurora Cultural Champions
- Newly Renovated Thompson Middle School Retains Memories of St. Charles High
- Elgin’s Bluff City Cemetery Memorializes City’s Past
- Batavia Connection to 1969 Moon Landing
- Geneva Company Made Huge Contribution to Art Deco
- East Vs. West 1914 — Aurora’s Greatest Football Game
- North, Union Cemeteries Are St. Charles’ Hallowed Grounds
- Elgin Temperance Crusaders Take Hatchet To Beer Fans
- Ever Heard of Clybourneville? (Hint: It’s Now in Batavia)
- Geneva Ghost Stories Rise From Former Hospital Site
- Aurora Tells The Cows To Shut Up
- Baby Face Nelson And 100 Years of St. Charles Boys School ‘Good, Bad And Ugly’
- Behold The Telegraph, Elgin’s First Digital Communication!
- Mary Bailey, Batavia’s Trailblazing Woman Lawyer
- Holiday Traditions, Historic Creche at Geneva History Museum
- Welcome To Thanksgiving Dinner at Aurora’s Tanner House
- St. Charles’ Whiskey Bend Signaled Boom Time For Taverns
- From Elgin Watch Cases To 4.2 Mortar Shells
- Lorraine James’ Art Leaves Lasting Impression on Batavia
- Geneva Remembers The Tornado of 1967
- New Year’s Calling in Aurora
- Newly Digitized Footage Documents Construction of St. Charles Municipal Building
- ‘New Year’s Calling’ in Aurora Was The Online Dating of Late 1800s
- A Woman’s Right To Vote — In Elgin
- How The Household Journal Came To Batavia
- Geneva’s East Side — From Dodson To Dog ‘N’ Suds
- On Leap Year, ‘She-Wolves of Aurora’ Have ‘Gender-Swapping Fun’
- Mary Todd Lincoln, Batavia Resident
- The Women Who Broke Codes at Riverbank Labs in Geneva
- Turn Around in Aurora And You’ll Bump Into a Luxembourger
- Geneva History Museum Offers COVID-19 Journal
- Aurora’s Amazing Family Portrait Exhibit ‘A Brilliant Idea’
- How St. Charles Survived The Spanish Flu in 1918
Sign Up To KCC E-Newsletter