Susan Sawin: Lost to the White Death

It is clear this portrait was taken before Susan slipped into the final downward spiral of Tuberculosis.

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Susan F. Kimball Sawin. Albumen carte de visite by the studio of A. B. Eaton, Manchester, New Hampshire. Ann Longmore-Etheridge Collection.

Written on the reverse of this carte de visite, of which above is a closeup, is “Mrs. Susan F. Sawin, Died April 23rd 1863 aged 29 yrs 10 mos 23 days.” Susan, née Kimball, born 31 May, 1833, was the daughter of farmer Ruben Kimball and Abigail Spaulding. A native of Manchester, New Hampshire, she died of consumption—Tuberculosis (TB)—in Townsend, Massachusetts, only a little more than a year after her marriage.

In the United States, TB was the leading cause of death during the 19th and early 20th centuries. The University of Virginia notes, “It was estimated that at the turn of the [20th] century 450 Americans died of tuberculosis every day, most between ages 15 and 44.” Susan Kimball Sawin was just one of these. Her simple life as a New England housewife was lived long ago and cut off in its prime, but her memory—and the memories of all the White Death’s victims—should be honored.

Susan was the third of four spouses of Elisha Dana Sawin. He was 5  born January, 1824, in Sherborn, Middlesex County, Massachusetts, and was the son of Bela Sawin (1789-1858) and his wife Rebecca Barber (1789-1827).

Elisha, who was as a cooper—a maker of casks and barrels—had taken as his first wife Hannah Campbell, daughter of farmer Daniel Campbell (1792-1873) and Susanna Colburn (1787-1859). Hannah was born 6 November, 1821, in Townsend. The couple married 12 November 1846—he a “bachelor” and she a “maid”—but the marriage lasted less than a year. Hannah died 12 August, 1847, in Milbury, Worcester County, Massachusetts, of an inflammation of the bowels.

Sawin’s second wife was Elmira Bartlett, born 21 May, 1826, in Townsend. Elmira was the daughter of Martin Bartlett (1786-1849) and Elmira Graham (1797-1882). The couple had a daughter, Ella F., who arrived in 1851. A second daughter, Anna M., was born in 27 August, 1853, but died of the croup aged 4 months and 9 days. It was a staggering loss, but worse was to come. As the decade waned, it became clear that Elmira had contracted the White Death and that she was waning, too.

“It is arterial blood. I cannot be deceived. That drop of blood is my death warrant. I must die.”

When, in 1820, the poet John Keats (who was schooled in medicine) coughed a spot of bright red blood, he told a friend, “It is arterial blood. I cannot be deceived. That drop of blood is my death warrant. I must die.” Within a year, aged 25, he did just that.

At the time of Keats, Elmira, and Susan’s deaths, TB was believed to be hereditary or arose spontaneously. By 1868, a french doctor, Jean-Antoine Villemin, ascertained that the disease was spread from one victim to another by a microorganism.

“In 1882, Robert Koch discovered a staining technique that enabled him to see Mycobacterium tuberculosis. What excited the world was not so much the scientific brilliance of Koch’s discovery, but the accompanying certainty that now the fight against humanity’s deadliest enemy could really begin,” states Rutgers Global Tuberculosis Institute at the New Jersey Medical School.

Meanwhile, the variable course of TB only served to make it more baffling and terrifying. Physicians could not easily predict whether a consumptive patient would succumb within months, linger for years, or somehow manage to overcome the disease altogether.

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A “premortem” tintype of a woman dying of consumption taken about 1870. Like postmortem images, premortems were often made to mark the moment, especially if the individual had never been photographed before. Ann Longmore-Etheridge Collection.

According to the 19th century American physician Dr. William Sweetser, the first stage of consumption was marked by a dry, persistent cough, pains in the chest, and some difficulty breathing, any of which could be symptoms of less dire illnesses. The second stage brought a cough described by Sweetser as “severe, frequent, and harassing” as well as a twice-daily “hectic fever,” an accelerated pulse, and a deceptively healthy ruddy complexion.

In the final, fatal stage, wrote the doctor, “The emaciation is frightful and the most mournful change is witnessed… the cheeks are hollow… rendering the expression harsh and painful. The eyes are commonly sunken in their sockets… and often look morbidly bright and staring.” At this point, throat ulcers made eating difficult and speech was limited to a hoarse whisper. Once the distinctive “graveyard cough” began, the diagnosis was certain and death was inevitable. Rarely, wrote Sweetser, “life, wasted to the most feeble spark, goes out almost insensibly.” More typically, severe stomach cramps, excessive sweating, a choking sensation, and vomiting of blood preceded the victim’s demise.

Elmira Sawin rasped her last breath on 21 August, 1860, when her daughter Ella was only four years old. The widower took almost two years to court the little girl’s new mother.

Pretty Susan Kimball, aged 27, became Ella’s stepmother on 10 June, 1862. Sadly, in short order, Susan began to exhibit the telltale signs of TB. Her fight was brief, and with the greening of Spring 1863 she joined Elisha’s previous spouses at Townsend’s Hillside Cemetery. However, unlike Hannah’s and Elmira’s graves, today Susan’s is unmarked. It is uncertain whether there was a headstone that has now vanished or whether Elisha Sawin chose not to have one made.

Elisha, now aged 40, waited only until Autumn to take as his fourth wife, Mary Jane Gilson. Born 19 May, 1830, in Brookline, she was the daughter of William Gilson (1802-1887) and Eliza Ames (1806-1841). The couple married 26 October, 1863, in Townsend. Elisha, Mary Jane, and Ella appear together on the 1865 Massachusetts State Census and the 1870 Federal Census.

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Obituary of Eliel S. Ball, Fitchburg Sentinel, 2 January, 1892.

On 4 August, 1875, Ella Sawin married the superintendent of schools in Westerly, Rhode Island, Eliel Shumway Ball (1848-1892), whose obituary (above) details his life. Together they had four children: Rose Julia Ball was born in 1876, but died in 1880 at age four; Arthur Watson Ball was born in 1878 and lived only two years; Laurence Sawin Ball was born in 1882 and Alfred Tenney Ball in 1886. The two youngest sons lived to adulthood.

After her husband’s death from acute Bright’s disease on New Year’s Day 1892, Ella lived on as a widow for another 36 years. She died 3 February, 1918, and is buried at Hillside Cemetery.

The union of Elisha and Mary Jane produced no children of its own but appears to have been a busy and happy one. By the enumeration of the 1880 Census, Elisha Sawin was no longer a cooper, but had become a peddler in Townsend. He was also deacon of the Townsend Congregational Church and his wife was involved with its mission, too. The 17 July, 1890, Fitchburg Sentinel notes that Mary Jane, in the company of other Townsend ladies, was “gone to Framingham to attend the Chautauqua meetings there.”

The couple, however, entered into serious decline in the last months of 1899. On 20 October, the Sentinel reported, “E. D. Sawin, who has been ill several weeks, was able to be out Saturday last, but has since had a relapse and is now again confined to his bed.” His sickness was almost certainly chronic cystitis, a bacterial infection of the bladder by Escherichia coli. The illness plagued him throughout the remainder of his life. On 17 November, Mary Jane Sawin died from pneumonia. Elisha outlived her by not much above a year, dying of chronic cystitis, age 77, on 7 January, 1901.

Susan Sawin’s photograph was probably trimmed for insertion into a mourning brooch.

My CDV of Susan Sawin is likely a copy of an original ambrotype or daguerreotype, as the fashions Susan wears could date to as early as about 1853, when she was about 19, or may be late in the same decade. Without seeing more of her clothing, it is hard to pinpoint, but it is clear that this portrait was taken before Susan slipped into the final downward spiral of Tuberculosis.

Susan’s albumen paper image was cut into a small circle probably meant for insertion into a mourning brooch. Multiple copies may have been made for several mourning pieces, and mine was a spare glued onto a CDV card. Ω

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The image of Susan Sawin may have been meant for a similar mourning brooch. The hand-tinted image is trimmed from a CDV dating to the early 1860s. Ann Longmore-Etheridge Collection.

Author: Ann Longmore-Etheridge

Writer, journalist, editor, historian.

2 thoughts on “Susan Sawin: Lost to the White Death”

  1. With 2 wives dying one wonders if the bacterium was living in the plaster in the house. I know Al worked for a company that was tearing down old houses from the 19th century and they used to have to wear regulators and be tested for TB regularlly because the bacterium could live in the plaster for long periods.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Really? I did not know that was possible! What an incredible fact. I actually went through the mortality roll for the entire years in which both Elmira and Susan died. Townsend was not a big place, but many, many people were dying of consumption. It was definitely the biggest killer of people who should have been otherwise healthy. Heart problems and disease were number one, but that was with older folks. I also found a heartbreaking series of entries of a family who lost five kids to Scarlet Fever in one week.

      Like

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