The Mad Hatter by Lewis Carroll (Wikimedia Commons)
Most of us are familiar with the often nonsensical, flamboyantly dressed Mad Hatter from Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland. Most of us are also, no doubt familiar with the expression “mad as a hatter.” Now this expression is not based upon Lewis’s tea drinking, top hatted character, but it may come from a real phenomenon that occurred amongst 18th and 19thcentury hat makers.
Men’s hats of this period often contained animal skins that were turned into felt through a process called carroting, which, among other steps, included the pelts being specially treated with a heavy metal called mercury (or more specifically mercuric nitrate). Mercury, when it accumulates within the body, will frequently lead to debilitating illness, disfigurement (especially of the face due to excessive salivation), death, and, of course, “madness.”
Now, despite all of these foreboding symptoms, mercury was a commonly prescribed medication at the time of the Civil War for soldiers and civilians, and many notable people took doses of mercury, such as author Louisa May Alcott, President Abraham Lincoln, and, you guessed it, Clara Barton. None of these historic figures fared well from their treatments.
While serving as a Union nurse in Georgetown for six weeks in late 1862, Alcott contracted typhoid fever and was treated with mercury chloride, also known colloquially as calomel. Calomel was taken internally and was popular as a purgative and diuretic treatment in the age of ‘heroic medicine,’ forcing patients who were ill to cleanse their body of impurities thought to be causing the sickness. After her letters from this time were published as “Hospital Sketches” in 1863, she remarked “I was never ill before this time, and never well afterward.” Many historians have contested as to whether her exposure to mercury was eventually what ended her life in 1888, nevertheless her encounter with the toxic drug certainly did not help her constitution.
President Lincoln also took mercury in the form of “blue mass.” The ingredients of blue mass varied, but all contained mercury either in elemental form or in compound form (such as calomel). It was administered in either pill or syrup form for a wide variety of ailments such as tuberculosis, syphilis, toothaches, and constipation (often the result of a poor soldiering diet lacking in fruit, fiber and freshness).While we don’t know if Lincoln suffered from mercury poisoning, we know that he took blue mass before and for some time during his presidency, potentially for constipation and/or “melancholy.”
Martin & Pleasance’s Podophyllin Pilules (www.downies.com)
Clara Barton also was a recipient and victim of mercuric medicine. In late 1868, the year Clara Barton left the site of the museum at 7th Street NW, she was feeling poorly. In March of that year she took ill, reporting first hoarseness, then coldness and cramping, fevers, and fainting, and then took sick again in August and September. On October 20th, 1868 she writes: “Mr. Ramsey called this evening and gave me a prescription for my bilious difficulty.” Bilious refers to being sick to ones stomach. Mr. Ramsey prescribed her mercury, a local remedy dubbed “Hubbels ferated eliscer Calijasa,” and what I could decipher from her handwriting to be “phodophellan.”Using some creative search engine inputs, I came up with what I believe she meant: podophyllin. Podophyllin is a substance from the plant Podophyllum, more commonly known as a May apple.Used to treat warts and as a laxative, the entirety of the plant is poisonous when ingested orally.What little I know about this Mr. Ramsey concerns me. She writes in that same October 20thentry, on an unrelated tangent, that he is not a doctor, but a farmer! As you will read, this farmer’s remedy is nearly fatal to Clara Barton. She obtained the medicines prescribed by Mr. Ramsey on the 21st of October and by the next day she reported “losing strength” and by the 23rd she is “exceedingly weak” and “went to walk at evening to see if it would improve me, but grew worse and returned home with some difficulty and in great pain.”
Calomel Pills from Abbot Laboratories, Chicago (From the collection of Dr. Gordon Dammann)
She grew worse quickly, even after she finished her prescribed dosage of medication, becoming “exceedingly weak” and bedridden and “nearly fainted” on the 25th. She did, however, recognize that the medication was causing some of her distress, commenting on the 26th that she had a “great deal of pain in [her] chest and limbs- the latter the result of medicine.”By the end of the month, she wrote very little, could not move from her bed, ate nothing, began to hallucinate, and was “alone with my house in great confusion.” Fortunately she thought enough is enough. She decided “to go North for treatment” after she was unable to walk home from her sister Sally’s lodging on November 7th. She first went to New York City, where soon after her arrival, she “went to call on Dr. Fuller” (notice Dr. Fuller and Mr. Ramsey!) This doctor examined her and concluded that she was “not bilious and had not been” but her “medicine had greatly injured me.” He gave her a more benign, if potentially ineffective, prescription of “roots and herbs.” She still felt poorly as of the 15th of November, so she headed north again, this time to Boston, where another doctor, Dr. Snow Small of Newtonville, examined her and finds that she has a “polypus.” She wrote that he will remove it the following week, however I find no mention of the operation in her diary, only that she was feeling better by the 22nd of November.
When she returned to Washington in December of 1868, she very abruptly left 7thSt. NW for another lodging on Capitol Hill by New Years Eve of that same year. Was this due to her illness in any way? More research to be done on that front!
Mercury’s toxic properties became more fully understood as the century wore on, but it continued to be used in the form of skin lightening creams, teething powders, and treatment for syphilis (which would be phased out in favor of arsenic!) Some of you, dear readers, may have mercury inside of you right now in the form of dental fillings!
To learn more about all the medicines used during the Civil War be sure to visit our flagship museum, the National Museum of Civil War Medicine.
The Clara Barton Missing Soldiers Office Museum is open on Fridays and Saturdays from 11:00 AM – 5:00 PM for walk-ins. All other times, the Museum will be open only to groups of 10+. Click here to reserve a group tour.
Opens at 11:00 AM
Last Admission at 4:30 PM
437 7th Street NW
Washington, D.C. 20004 Looking for our Mailing Address?
The preserved rooms are accessible by both stairs and elevator.
[She] toiled as few men could have done, stanching wounds which might otherwise have proved fatal, administering cordials to the fainting soldier, cheering those destined to undergo amputation, moistening lips parched with thirst [and closing the eyes of the dead].
An eyewitness account of Clara Barton at Antietam
The patriot blood of my father was warm in my veins.
I may sometimes be willing to teach for nothing, but if paid at all, I shall never do a man’s work for less than a man’s pay.
I don’t know how long it has been since my ear has been free from the roll of a drum. It is the music I sleep by and I love it.
Clara BartonIn a letter to her father, March 19, 1861
I ask neither pay or praise, simply a soldier’s fare and the sanction of your Excellency to go and do with my might, whatever my hands can find to do.
Clara BartonLetter to Massachusetts Governor Andrew, seeking permission to go to the front, March 20, 1862
Though it is little that one woman can do, still I crave the privilege of doing it.
Clara BartonLetter to I.W. Denney, seeking permission to go to the front, March 30, 1862
I only wish I could work to some purpose. I have no right to these easy comfortable days and our poor men suffering and dying thirsting … My lot is too easy and I am sorry for it.
Clara BartonIn a letter to Mary Norton, July 4, 1862
It was a miserable night. There was a sense of impending doom. We knew, everyone knew, that two great armies of 80,000 men were lying there face to face, only waiting for dawn to begin the battle.
Clara BartonWriting about the night before the battle of Antietam
When I reached [home], and looked in the mirror, my face was still the color of gunpowder, a deep blue. Oh yes, I went to the front!
Clara BartonUpon returning from the battle of Antietam