November 2007

Boils, Buggies and Bullets

We worry about our personal safety and that of our families. We are dismayed by the amount of misery and mayhem in our society. Some times we wonder if we will ever feel truly safe again.

When did we ever feel truly safe? Can you remember? Perhaps when we lived at home and our parents shouldered the responsibilities and kept their worries out of our hearing. Safety has never been an absolute. Life, as the advertisement on TV says, “Life comes at you fast”!

For our ancestors safety was not a niggling worry that caused them to seek out yoga or meditation or exercise to relieve the tensions. Safety was something to be concerned about all the time.

And there were certainly enough things that could change their lives in an instant. Their health was constantly under siege. If typhoid, scarlet fever, whooping cough, pneumonia, diphtheria and flu were not enough to worry about (and to flee from if one had the means), there was always the danger of sepsis and infections. All they had for treating these ills were the home remedies that were passed down by their grandmothers, and whisky or laudanum for pain. There was no penicillin, no insulin, and only limited anesthesia. The chances of surviving an operation were less than 50%.

Did you ever have a boil or an abscess? I had one once. Nasty, painful things that one went to the doctor to have lanced. But first you had to let it “ripen” so hopefully the doctor could get the core out. Abram Dorr, a music teacher, died of an abscess at the base of his brain six months after he and Flora Douglass were married. He died at home, age 26.

Besides diseases and infection, there was always the danger of accidents. Have you ever marveled at how your ancestors accomplished the prodigious tasks they did? The cost was often high. Read any of the old time newspapers and you will find simple one-to-three-line statements, like this one:

“On Monday, while J. Hubert Douglas of Pillar Point was riding down hill on a big load of cheese, the horses became unmanageable, and he was thrown under the wagon. His arm was broken, and the shoulder crushed by the wagon wheels. Doctors Jewett and Spencer attended the man.”

There was no health insurance, no operation to clean out broken fragments of bone, no nursing care in the hospital. The family coped as best they could. And neighbors pitched in and helped; they never knew when they might find themselves in similar straights.

“Mr. Jones horses ran away on Bridge St. and just as it neared the end of the bridge, the buggy overturned and Jones was thrown out. He was severely hurt and the doctors do not expect him to recover.”

And then what happened to his family? Women had no legal rights beyond what safeguards their husband or father left in his will – if he had one. Little wonder they married quickly, finding the best situation they could for themselves and their children. Can you imagine the conversation among the supporting womenfolk after the funeral, listing off the eligible men in the area, looking for a replacement? Men found themselves in similar dire situations when their wives succumbed, and they had a family of young children to care for.

They lived in hard times and whisky was readily available to fuel their angers and resentments. Violence came upon them suddenly and went away as quickly, leaving in its wake all kinds of wounds, physical and mental.

Nadine married Harold when she was 15 and in a couple years their family included two babies. Harold was belligerent when drunk and was known to treat Nadine badly. She left him and took her babies home to her father’s house. Harold tried unsuccess-fully to get Nadine to come back to him. At 4 a.m. one morning, Harold came to his father-in-law Lige’s house and barged in, demanding to see Nadine. She was scared and held the door of her room against him. He shot a couple times through the door, which brought Lige out with his revolver and a gun fight ensued. When both Lige and Harold were down, family members ran to the neighbors to call the sheriff. Both men were taken to the hospital. Harold died of his wounds and a coroner’s court cleared Lige of any wrongdoing.

Can you imagine the scene? Four a.m. in the morning, the family is awakened by a loud, gun-wielding, drunken man who forces his way into the house. It’s pitch black. I am sure the whole family (14 of them) were all up and cowering. Perhaps someone lit a lantern. Harold yells for Nadine and she won’t see him. He shoots; the family scatters out of the house like bees from a hive. Lige runs for his revolver, afraid for his daughter, and shoots at Harold. His first shot glances off Harold’s rifle. Harold shoots back and runs for the yard, where the two men continue to trade shots. What must have been going through the minds of the women and children who witnessed this terrible battle?

Family was all you had. There was no network of social services, no homeless shelters, no way to survive outside of a family unit. And family responsibility reached further than your own household. It included aunts, uncles, cousins, in-laws and all those “related by marriage”.

Today when we talk about the “breakdown of the family unit”, we need to think about the responsibilities that are thrust upon the government and social agencies. They have been required to take over what years ago the family did. And in spite of all the violence that is reported in the news, I know that I am much safer today than my ancestors were.

But safety has never been an absolute. ###

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *