When Tuberculosis Sufferers Quarantined Inside Kentucky’s Mammoth Cave | Journey

Through the latter half of 1842, pale figures walked the shadows of Mammoth Cave, the world’s longest-known cave system, close to central Kentucky—hospital robes clung to their withering frames. The ghastly figures appeared as phantoms, however these had been dwelling, respiration individuals, although barely—their lungs had been ravaged by pulmonary consumption, later often called tuberculosis. Determined for a treatment, the sufferers had retreated to the underbelly of the Earth, one mile into Mammoth Cave, a spot pitch black to the bare eye.

“I used to face on that rock and blow the horn to name them to dinner,” recalled a slave and Mammoth Cave information named Alfred. “There have been fifteen of them they usually seemed extra like an organization of skeletons than the rest.”

Three years earlier, in 1839, John Croghan, a Louisville, Kentucky, physician, slave proprietor and nephew of George Rogers Clark, had bought Mammoth Cave, a preferred vacationer attraction first found by Europeans round 1790, for $10,000 (roughly $290,000 in 2021). Believing the cave’s air possessed healing qualities, Croghan ordered his slaves to assemble a consumption sanatorium consisting of two stone cabins and eight picket huts—every measuring 12-by-18 toes, constructed upon a tongue-and-groove ground and capped by a canvas roof. Sufferers, lots of them rich, some who had traveled lengthy distances, synced their watches to the skin world to keep up a semblance of time; they lined the sanatorium with recent foliage to liven up the barren panorama, and prayed for reduction.

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Illustrations of Mammoth Collapse Harper’s Weekly are titled “Home Previously Utilized by Consumptive Sufferers” and “Crossing the River Styx” (H. Linton, 1877; Illus. in: Harper’s weekly, v. 21, 1877 Feb. 10, complement, p. 118).

(Library of Congress)

“Croghan had studied in Pennsylvania as an apprentice to Dr. Benjamin Rush, one of many signers of the Declaration of Independence,” says Jackie Wheet, a Mammoth Cave Nationwide Park Ranger. “He heard that folks working in Mammoth Cave had been recognized for his or her good well being, so he experimented. He let a few of his sufferers stay within the cave, respiration the cool, pure cave air to see if it helped them really feel higher—they really paid the physician fairly a bit of cash for the therapy.”

Between the top of 1842 and starting of 1843, someplace between 16 and 20 consumption sufferers filed into the darkish recesses of Mammoth Cave—the place humidity fluctuates, however timber doesn’t rot and useless animals by no means decay. Maybe the cave’s air won’t solely protect, however restore, thought Croghan.

“We predict there may need been just a few different sufferers that went unaccounted for,” says Wheet.


Within the mid-Nineteenth century, earlier than a vaccine was developed in 1921, poisonous substances like hemlock and turpentine had been supplied as cures for consumption. So had been bleedings, purgings, cod liver oil and vinegar massages—making Croghan’s proposition of an underground sanitorium one in an extended line of tried cures. The truth is, Croghan’s first consumption affected person, William Mitchell, a neighborhood Kentucky doctor himself, endorsed the medical experiment, getting into the cave within the late spring of 1842.

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Younger girls sit on and round a stone tuberculosis hut inside Mammoth Collapse 1912.

(A.V. Oldham/Library of Congress/Corbis/VCG by way of Getty Photographs)

“In regards to the 1st of December final, I used to be taken with a slight cough,” wrote Mitchell within the November 10, 1842, version of Louisville, Kentucky’s Courier-Journal. “I expectorated an awesome amount of pus … had problem respiration, and was very weak and feeble. After making an attempt numerous well-liked cures for my illness, with out receiving any profit, I concluded to attempt the consequences of a residence within the Mammoth cave. I went within the cave on the twentieth of Might, and took up my residence about three-fourths of a mile from the doorway. For some few days I felt worse in each explicit, although in the midst of every week I grew to become a lot higher. I may breath [sic] with the best of ease.”

Christian McMillen is a historian and affiliate dean on the College of Virginia and the writer of Discovering Tuberculosis. “It was a comparatively widespread notion that air—whether or not it is altitude, winter air, desert air, or what have you ever—was resolution for tuberculosis,” he says. “Typically it did assist. However there was a form of mistake in correlation with causation. TB is contagious, so on this case, my guess is that you just take 5 individuals with TB, and 5 individuals with out TB, and put them collectively in a cave, and also you’re going to wind up with 10 individuals who have TB.”

With sufferers like Mitchell reporting improved situations, Croghan drew up plans for an excellent bigger resort sanatorium inside Mammoth Cave.

“Tuberculosis is a persistent lung an infection brought on by mycobacterium tuberculosis, a micro organism that spreads within the air from individual to individual,” says Bradley Wertheim, a pulmonologist at Brigham and Ladies’s Hospital and teacher at Harvard Medical Faculty. “The one factor that is going to make these sufferers higher definitively, is to kill the mycobacterium with the correct chemotherapeutic agent. Nevertheless, from a psychosocial perspective, for those who simply take a bunch of sick sufferers and supply for them, if they’ve fellow sufferers they’ll commiserate with, you possibly can see how some would possibly initially really feel a bit of higher. However from a medical standpoint, will that deal with that tuberculosis? No.”

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Croghan’s household owned the property till the Twenties. 20 years later, on September 18, 1946, Mammoth Cave Nationwide Park was devoted.

(Jackie Wheet/Nationwide Park Service)

Mitchell’s constructive report was wired throughout the nation, although not everybody believed his account, together with fellow docs. “I used to be additionally knowledgeable by numerous individuals who reside there, that no particular person, to their information, had acquired any everlasting profit from the Cave,” wrote Omri Willey, an Ohio physician, within the December 29, 1842, version of the Boston Put up. “The profit which Dr. Mitchell is meant to have acquired from it, and which most likely induced him to publish his communication, was solely momentary—that he was then quick declining, and couldn’t be induced to return to the Cave, however it possessed such highly effective sanative properties.


Through the winter of 1842 and 1843, as fires and lard oil lanterns consistently burned, illuminating the pitch darkish, meals had been ready or introduced in from exterior. However smoke and ash from the fires and lanterns, mixed with the cave’s chilly, dank air and lack of daylight, slowly remodeled Croghan’s sanatorium right into a dwelling hell.

“I left the cave yesterday beneath an impression that I might be higher out than in as my lungs had been consistently irritated with smoke and my nostril offended by a unpleasant effluvia, the required consequence of its being so tenated [sic] with out air flow,” wrote Oliver Hazard Perry Anderson, one in all Croghan’s sufferers, in a January 12, 1843, diary entry. “The thermometer stood at 40 levels within the shade once I got here out, and I can’t inform you how pleasant the higher world was to all my senses. The air was candy, pure and agreeable and the sunshine to my shock didn’t harm my eyes.”

Mammoth Cave
Mammoth Cave was first found by Europeans round 1790.

(Mark C. Stevens/Getty Photographs)

Whereas Croghan was housing his consumption sufferers, he continued to function Mammoth Cave as a vacationer vacation spot. When guests occurred upon the ghostly, skeleton-like sufferers, once they heard them hacking up blood within the distance, they had been terrified.

“The thought of an organization of lank, cadaverous invalids wandering about within the terrible gloom and silence, damaged solely by their hole coughs—doubly hole and sepulchral there—is horrible,” wrote Bayard Taylor, a mid-Nineteenth-century customer to Mammoth Cave, in At Dwelling and Overseas: A Sketch-book of Life, Surroundings and Males.

Croghan’s experiment was horrible. “The sixteen or so sufferers began trickling in over the course of 5 to 6 months—from 1842 till the start of 1843,” says Wheet. “Lots of them began complaining about how chilly they had been. The longest anybody stayed was about 4 and a half months, and practically each one in all them died inside days or perhaps weeks of exiting the cave.”

Twenty-five years later, in its December 1867 version, The Atlantic Month-to-month wrote, “Like crops shut out from the beneficiant, fostering solar, they paled and died. The looks of those that got here out after two or three months’ residence within the cave is described as frightful. ‘Their faces,’ says one who noticed them, ‘had been solely cold, eyes sunken, and pupils dilated to such a level that the iris ceased to be seen; in order that, it doesn’t matter what the unique coloration of the attention may need been, it appeared solely black.’”

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Vacationers discover Mammoth Cave within the Nineties.

(Library of Congress/Corbis/VCG by way of Getty Photographs)


By the point Croghan ended his medical experiment in early 1843, a number of individuals had been useless, together with Charles Marshall, a New York reverend whose spouse stayed by his aspect till the top. At the least 5 sufferers by no means exited Mammoth Cave alive—the withering foliage alongside the limestone sanatorium supplied a becoming image for Croghan’s failed train. Oliver Hazard Perry Anderson was one of many few who survived.

“I might not have left the cave had I calculated on something however higher climate,” wrote Anderson in January 1843, “however ’tis over now and I shall attempt to be as cautious of penalties as I might be, I’m positive I’m higher out than in if I take no heavy chilly to decide on my lungs and I really feel some appreciable hope from the nice impact to this point that I’ll. No sense of chills annoy me and my energy is nice. I do not look in addition to once I entered the cave. Others will go away the cave quickly, I believe; two lately died. I’m the fifth one who has left.”

Anderson died on Might 17, 1845, of unknown causes. Croghan himself would succumb to consumption on January 11, 1849. Whether or not the physician contracted the illness inside his sanatorium is unknown, however upon his dying, his household tended to unresolved payments and lawsuits from his medical follow. All through 1849, the identical Courier-Journal advert appeared at the very least eight occasions:

“NOTICE—All individuals indebted to the property of the late Dr. John Croghan are requested to make cost. These having claims in opposition to stated property will current them to GEO. C. GWATHMEY, Executor”

In his will, Croghan left Mammoth Cave to his brother George and his nephews and nieces; his household owned the property till the Twenties. 20 years later, on September 18, 1946, Mammoth Cave Nationwide Park was devoted, and in 1981, the pure marvel was designated a Unesco World Heritage Website.

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Oliver Hazard Perry Anderson etched “OHPAnderson Dec twenty third 1842” on a wall in Mammoth Cave.

(Jackie Wheet/Nationwide Park Service)

Deep inside Mammoth Cave, previous the quarter-acre-size Rotunda, the place troopers manufactured saltpeter gunpowder in the course of the Conflict of 1812; previous The Church, the place the native Methodist congregation gathered on sweltering summer time days, their singing voices echoing like cherubim off chilly cave partitions; previous Gothic Avenue, the place weddings had been as soon as held beneath the Gothic-esque dripstone rock formations; previous Big’s Coffin, a colossal rock that seems like an outsized casket; and on about 100 yards, stay the vestiges of the 2 limestone huts that housed Croghan’s tuberculosis sufferers.

“When individuals see them, they normally ask, ‘Who lived right here?’ ‘What had been these for?,” says Wheet. “That’s once we inform them a physician owned the cave within the early 1800s, and sick individuals lived right here in hopes that respiration the cool cave air would possibly assist them really feel higher.”

Immediately behind one of many huts stands Corpse Rock, a thick slab of rock the place useless sufferers had been purportedly laid out earlier than being carried out by family members. Croghan’s consumption experiment had a weak basis, however greater than 175 years later, the physician’s stone sanatorium nonetheless stands upon the agency ground of Mammoth Cave.

Simply earlier than Christmas Eve 1842, Oliver Hazard Perry Anderson took a rock and, along with his ailing arms, etched his title upon a close-by wall, stone upon stone: “OHPAnderson Dec twenty third 1842.” Anderson stays immortalized deep inside Mammoth Cave, one of many solely sufferers to flee John Croghan’s care alive.

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