My son who’s helping fight disease in Africa (which I’ll never stop bragging about) has told me that it’s World TB Day, and it occurred to me that it would be a simple matter to do our bit with a little post illustrating the toll of this horrible disease on many of the people (scores, actually) that I’ve written about here, much as we did recently in our earlier post about AIDS.
Naturally, “consumption” as it was then called, was much worse in the 19th and early 20th centuries, but don’t for a minute assume that it has been eradicated. In fact in 2020, for the first time in a decade, worldwide deaths from tuberculosis increased. The CDC has an excellent web site here, with lots of info about the current state of affairs and what’s being done to combat it.
As for folks who died of it whom we’ve written about…
We can’t help but lead with the love of our (fantasy) life, Vivien Leigh, who passed from the disease as recently as 1967. Poignantly, she had once played Camille!
Lots of authors and poets died of the illness: Moliere, Thomas Wolfe, Stephen Crane, Tobias Smollett, Ring Lardner, Paul Laurence Dunbar, Sholem Aleichem, Edward Bellamy, and Artemus Ward (Charles Farrar Browne) all died of it. No one knows what Poe died of, but his wife Virginia died of TB. Those I haven’t blogged about yet but intend to and probably will include Jane Austen, Franz Kafka, John Keats, Anton Chekhov, Alexis de Toqueville, Henry David Thoreau, and the Brontes (five of the six siblings died of TB.)
Silent movie era victims to the disease included Mabel Normand, Larry Semon, Abel Gance, and Keystone comedy director F. Richard Jones.
Stage people (both variety and legit): included Adah Isaacs Mencken (and her treacherous husband, boxer John C. Heenan), Laura Keene, George Fuller Golden (founder of the the vaudeville union the White Rats), Ernest Hogan, Dan Daly, Anita Berber, Alfred Jarry, and Marie Saxon.
We’ve also written about illustrator Aubrey Beardsley and tin pan alley songwriter Vincent Youmans (“Tea for Two”) both of whom perished of the disease. Also dentist turned gunslinger Doc Holliday, whom we’re sure to write about at some point.
I am also related to some historical figures who died of TB. There’s “Rhode Island Vampire” Mercy Brown (it’s thought that the New England vampire panic of the late 19th century was caused by an outbreak of TB. People wasted away and then their exhumed corpses had rosy cheeks and blood coming out of their mouths, It’s the wrong conclusion, but there’s a certain logic to it). I am also relatively closely related to U.S. Vice President William Rufus DeVane King (1786-1853) who died of TB less than a month into his term (I am descended from his sister). John Randolph of Roanoke (1773-1833) also died of consumption. We’re mutually descended from Virginia planter William Randolph. And oh man those are three Goth relations if ever there were three.
But I assure you: we’re not here to glamorize tuberculosis. Leave that to Hollywood! Go here for more on World TB Day.
And New Yorkers, get your local data here from the NYC Dept of Health.
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