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The Tragedy Of Thomas Rabbitt
Tuberculosis And The Ottawa Tent Colony
Hello, everyone, and welcome to another edition of Canal Stories, a series brought to you by the Canal Corridor Association to celebrate the 175th anniversary of the Illinois & Michigan Canal and the communities that were shaped by its legacy. The America West has always glamorized the story of Doc Holiday, known for being a dentist, gambler, gunslinger, and friend of Wyatt Earp. The fascinating life of this legendary rogue was tragically cut short on November 8, 1887, when he passed away from consumption at a sanitarium in Glenwood Springs at the age of 36.
While it’s easy to mourn the loss of such a larger-than-life historical figure, it’s important to remember that the tragedy of tuberculosis devastated people from all walks of life, including an everyday family man from Ottawa, Illinois. Today, we’re remembering the life of Thomas Rabbitt, who, like Doc Holiday, found himself face to face with the dreaded disease. This story comes to us from the LaSalle County Historical Society in Utica, Illinois.
Born in 1838, in Rochester, New York, Thomas Rabbitt was the firstborn of loving Irish immigrants. His parents and seven siblings were close knit, living together and working hard to make a living in the mid 1800s. At 22, Thomas became an iron molder for the Bennett & Company Iron Foundry in Rochester. Molders were considered artisans, skilled workers who boasted a high amount of training and could demand higher wages.
When the Civil War broke out in 1861, Thomas quickly enlisted in the New York 1st Artillery, where he rose to the rank of Ordnance Sergeant. After 52 months in battle, he was ready to make a new life for himself, and so, in 1865, he ventured west to the town of Ottawa, in LaSalle County, Illinois. It was there where he met the love of his life, Ellen Duffy. Her father, Patrick Duffy, was an Irish immigrant who settled in Ottawa in 1840. He had worked on the Illinois & Michigan Canal and had eventually earned enough to purchase a 120-acre farm in 1877. Thomas and Ellen married six months later, and moved to St. Louis, where Thomas worked as an iron molder for Mississippi Iron Works. They returned to Ottawa in the early 1870s to raise their family of two daughters and four sons.
In the 1880s, Thomas knew something terrible was happening in his body. One of the leading causes of death during this time was phthisis, also known as consumption or tuberculosis. Thomas probably began with chronic coughing, fevers, and night sweats. As years went by, the lingering symptoms worsened with bloody sputum, chest pains, weakness, and weight loss. There was no treatment or cure.
The stigma of tuberculous was a psychological burden for those who found themselves infected. Communities would often shun families with the disease, for fear of catching it themselves. Thomas knew there was no cure for him, and for the sake of his children, he decided to separate himself from his family, an extremely difficult and heartbreaking decision. In the fall of 1888, he departed for his final destination of Clinton, Iowa, 100 miles west of Ottawa, knowing full well that he would never see his family again. He rented a room in a house with boarders at 216 1st Avenue, where he stayed until his death almost two months later. Dr. James Keho recorded his death as Phthisis Florida, an acute, rapidly fatal pulmonary consumption, also called “galloping consumption.” His body was quickly buried the same day in an “undetermined burial site” in St. Boniface Catholic Cemetery in Clinton.
His oldest son, Thomas Edward Rabbitt, was 17 when his father died. He would later work in the Ottawa Tent Colony, which opened in 1904, on a beautiful stretch of Illinois River Valley scenery. “Rows of tents went up, and patients stayed outside there, even in the freezing Ottawa winters.” In a photo postcard sent to his children, Thomas proudly wrote of bringing “hot dinners to the tents for the sick people.” It was more than a job for him; it was an emotional connection. Maybe it was his way to help stamp out this terrible disease that had stolen his father from him.
In the 1900s, sanitariums, like the Ottawa Tent Colony, knew tuberculosis patients must be cared for, but also recognized the danger they posed to the general public. “It has been the aim to provide every convenience, every requisite, for the scientific application of the most modern methods of treatment.” The Tent Colony opened in Ottawa, Illinois, on July 1st, 1904, with just two patients. Soon enough, that number grew to thirty. Their treatment consisted of “out of door life, a carefully selected diet, regulations of exercise, and mediation for the improvement of nutrition. Each patient was expected to take no less than three quarts of milk and six raw eggs a day, in addition to the regular meals.” A fatty diet was always prescribed to help patients gain weight, but tuberculosis would literally consume the lungs and body of the afflicted.
In the years ahead, there were more sanitariums and numerous medical procedures aimed at treating a disease that couldn’t be killed. The desperate search for a cure was not realized until 1949, with the groundbreaking discovery of streptomycin.
That concludes today’s Canal Story. Thank you so much for joining us as we continue our journey through the history of the Illinois & Michigan Canal. If you’ve enjoyed this episode, pass it along to your family and friends, leave us a like or a comment, and we’ll see you again very soon.
Note: Sharon Page, author and genealogist, and her husband, Thomas Page, descendant of Thomas Rabbitt, have explored their family history since they were young. Older members of the family handed down written stories and photographs, which have been cherished throughout the years. They continue avid research today, learning more about their ancestors’ lives for their children.
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