Bad Medicines: Mercury and Self-Medication in the Civil War

During the Civil War, George Washington’s Ferry Farm was the site of Union Army encampments that included some defensive works like a trench dug into the crest of the ridge overlooking the river.  In that trench and throughout Ferry Farm’s landscape, Union soldiers lost and threw away a wide array of military gear and personal belongings, which our archaeologists frequently excavate.

Civil War Trench

Excavated area containing the footprint of the 18th century Washington house at Ferry Farm and showing a 19th century Civil War trench running the length of the house and beyond.

This blog post highlights an intriguing artifact excavated from the trench: a diminutive glass bottle.  This bottle is not so much interesting because of what it is – it’s a very common medicine style bottle for the mid-19th century– but rather what’s inside.  Clearly visible within the bottle is a hard black substance and for years we’ve wondered what the substance may be.

Medicine bottle containing mercury residue

Medicine bottle excavated by archaeologists at George Washington’s Ferry Farm and containing an mystery residue.

Enter Ruth Ann Armitage, our amazing chemist friend from Eastern Michigan University.  Over the years, she and her colleagues have generously used their extremely fancy equipment to analyze many of the residues we’ve recovered archaeologically. So we chipped off a little fragment of the substance in the bottle and sent it to her lab.

The sample was analyzed using scanning electron microscopy (SEM).  SEM works by shooting a beam of electrons at the sample, which gives you an image of its surface topography.  Backscattered electrons (BSE), collected in a different detector, tell you about the elemental composition.  In a BSE image, the contrast in the image is related to the atomic number of the material, with brighter areas showing high number elements (usually metals) and darker areas representing low number elements (like carbon). X-rays are also produced when the electron beam hits the sample, so an x-ray detector allows the chemist to do energy dispersive x-ray spectroscopy (EDS) to map out specifically what elements are present in the sample.  To put it simply, all of these techniques are good at alerting the chemist to the elements within a residue.

Our sample was also run through DART (direct in real time) mass spectrometry.  This technique is good at detecting organic components within a substance.  It’s important to note here that this is not an episode of CSI and a reading does not automatically tell you what is in the bottle.

Mercury residue analysis 1

A magnified image BED of sample, which is clearly stratified with darker low atomic number elements such as carbon at the top. The brighter areas represent higher atomic number elements, in this case, mercury.

That being said, almost immediately, Ruth Ann responded and we weren’t disappointed: “Did you know there’s mercury in this?”  Nope, we did not.

However, this discovery was not too surprising given the use of mercury in many medicines for thousands of years.  Now a days it’s common knowledge that you shouldn’t drink mercury…or touch it…or inhale it.  Believe it or not many people did not accept mercury’s dangers until well into the 20th century.  Some people born in the 1980s and before might even remember playing with the little balls of mercury from a broken thermometer, am I right?  As weird as it seems this wasn’t that dangerous because mercury is not toxic in such small concentrations.  However, if you were born a little further back you may remember a substance called calomel (mercury chloride), which was marketed as a cure all. Perhaps most tragically, it was as a common teething medication for children until the 1950s.  For a long time, mercury was seen as a potent healing metal and it was readily rubbed on skin, consumed, and vaporized for immediate effect on the lungs.

And while all of these treatments using mercury did little to address the body’s medical problem, mercury still caused an immediate bodily response, which convinced people it was working to cure their ailments.  When applied topically, it burned. When introduced into the body, it caused a person to sweat, salivate, and have diarrhea. The mucous membranes also went into overdrive, leading many to believe that the bad stuff in your system making you sick was being purged by the mercury.   The reality, of course, was that the body was trying desperately to rid itself of poison, the mercury.  That being said, mercury does actually have a place in the medical world and can be useful, it just took a little while for people to learn how to properly utilize it.

So, if the residue inside our bottle was medicine, what medicine was it?  Initially our archaeology lab thought it was calomel but the chemical analysis didn’t show any chlorine.  The most interesting components were mercury and sulfur, which could possibly indicate cinnabar, the ore from which mercury is obtained.  The image below is a close up of the mercury and shows the sulfur (dark circles) surrounded by the brighter mercury.

Mercury residue analysis 2

Other elements detected include carbon, oxygen, and trace amounts of iron, silica, and aluminum.  A closer look at the DART analysis suggests that the mercury compound might be in the dried remains of a fat or oil based on the presence of substances that form when fats decompose over time.

What does all this mean?  Unfortunately, without more research, it’s hard to say what was in the bottle other than the basic components already detected.  Because it’s a medicine bottle, our assumption is that the residue it contains was a treatment of some sort in which case we’re dealing with a soldier who had an ailment.  Common Civil War-era uses for mercury-based medicines were treating skin sores and lacerations, internal and external parasite infections, syphilis, and constipation, to name but a few.

What is even more interesting is that a nearly identical bottle which also contained a hefty amount of mercury was recovered across the river just a few years ago by Dovetail Cultural Resource Group from another Civil War context.  Read more about their discovery here.

Soldiers throughout history are known to have carried their own medicines with them so it’s very cool to see actual physical evidence of that.  As to the exact medicine, perhaps we’ll know someday but for now let’s just say it was definitely bad medicine.

Mara Kaktins, Archaeologist
Archaeology Lab Supervisor

When a Toy Hatchet is so Much More: Trench Art at Ferry Farm

Lead Hatchet - Flat Side

Lead toy hatchet excavated at George Washington’s Ferry Farm.

This is a Memorial Day story of a tiny hatchet excavated at George Washington’s Ferry Farm.  For such a diminutive object it speaks quite loudly to our local history in Fredericksburg, Virginia.  Initially, archaeologists at Ferry Farm assumed it was a pewter toy souvenir given out or sold in 1932, when our country and Fredericksburg celebrated the 200th anniversary of George’s birth.  Indeed, cheap pewter toys were very popular during the time period.

 

A closer look at the provenience, or the location on the Ferry Farm landscape, where the artifact was recovered paints a more complex picture.  Provenience is very important in archaeology because whatever is excavated around an artifact paints a more complete picture than one object all by itself.  A reexamination of all the artifacts from the context where the hatchet was found revealed that nothing from that strata (we excavate in layers) had any 20th century artifacts in it, nor did the two strata above it.  In fact, the youngest artifacts from these strata were all mid-19th century.  Additionally, although the archaeologists who excavated the hatchet didn’t know it at the time, the excavation unit from which the hatchet came sat right inside the Civil War-era trench that runs across the property.

Civil War Trench

Excavated area containing the footprint of the 18th century Washington house at Ferry Farm showing a 19th century Civil War trench running the length of the house and beyond.

This revelation shut the door on our ‘it’s a 20th century souvenir’ narrative but opened the door to an even cooler one.  A close examination of the hatchet showed that it didn’t have mold seams, which are always present on cast pewter toys.  Furthermore, for some reason, it had one smooth side and one textured side leading us to believe that it was handmade, not machine cast.  This was supported by a thorough internet search to find an identical toy hatchet, which came up empty, further supporting our new theory that this piece was a one of a kind.  The textured side resembled the grain of wood so we surmised it had been cast in a simple hand carved wooden mold.  All of these clues, combined with its location within a Civil War trench, made us suspect that the hatchet was crafted by a soldier, possibly from a lead minie ball.  The hatchet is likely ‘trench art’.

Lead Hatchet - Mold Side

Textured side of the lead hatchet. See photo at the start of post for at image of the smooth side.

Trench art is defined as objects either made by soldiers and POWs or by civilians using military items such as brass shell casings or lead bullets.  This simple lamp, owned by the author, was made using a 105 millimeter brass artillery shell casing.

Lamp - Artillery Shell

Lamp fashioned from a portion of a 105 millimeter brass artillery shell casing.

To further support our identification of the hatchet as trench art, we took the artifact to the Virginia Department of Historic Resources where the amazing Katherine Ridgeway analyzed it using XRF or X-ray florescence analysis.  This non-destructive technique determines the composition of metal.  We also brought along a few minie balls recovered from the same unit for comparison.  It turned out that what we thought was a pewter hatchet was actually a lead hatchet with a similar compositional profile to minie balls, which are mostly lead with trace amounts of other metals such as tin and nickel.  While minie balls vary in their composition due to their imprecise method of manufacture, the hatchet was still a close match.

Minie Balls

Minie Balls – rifled musket bullets. From left to right: .557 Enfield Minie Bullet, Burton Pattern Minie Bullets .58 Springfield (x 2), Williams Bullet missing zinc base, .69 Caliber Minie Bullet for modified 1843 Springfield Musket. Credit: Mike Cumpston / Wikipedia

One can just imagine a bored Union soldier whittling the mold and then melting down some of his bullets to pour into it.  He likely chose the hatchet form because of the famous cherry tree story, in which young George Washington owned up to hacking his father’s cheery tree with a hatchet by proclaiming ‘I cannot tell a lie’.  The soldier would have been well-versed in the Washington cherry tree myth, which was set at Ferry Farm by Mason Locke Weems in his first biography of Washington, published in 1800. By the 1860s, the story was nationally known.  Additionally, letters Union soldiers wrote while encamped at Ferry Farm indicate they knew the site’s connection to Washington. They even went so far as to send home cherry seeds for their families.

While the identification of the hatchet is now secured, we have so many more questions.  Who was this soldier?  How many hatchets did he make and why did this one come to be left behind in his trench? Was it a souvenir for himself or did he send one home to his family or share with fellow soldiers?  Did he survive the war?  Unfortunately these are mysteries that will likely never be solved but that make for great pondering on this Memorial Day.

Mara Kaktins, Archaeologist
Archaeology Lab Supervisor

A Thimble of My Love

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A sample of the 30 historical thimbles found to date by archaeologists at George Washington’s Ferry Farm.

Thimbles were once a popular token of affection given to ladies by family members, close acquaintances, or sanguine suitors. These essential tools formed an ideal gift for a beloved family member or an appropriate token of affection during those early, initial stages of a budding romance.  They were considered a less intimate gift than perfume or jewelry – all of which had more serious, romantic connotations. Gifting thimbles to cherished daughters or sweethearts developed as an esteemed tradition by the 1500s in Europe.

Thimbles served as an emblem of female domesticity and skill.  Thimbles possessing a domed end were employed to protect the tip of the finger as a seamstress pushed a needle through cloth. Such thimbles typified domestic use, where tasks were dominated by sewing and mending. These duties were associated with a well-run home, and these skills grew to define womanhood.

Thimbles came in a variety of graduated sizes to accommodate the young as well as the experienced. Accomplished girls were expected to produce elaborate samplers and embroidery by the age of seven. The products of these young artisans were ostentatiously displayed throughout the house, where prospective suitors and visiting families could appreciate the budding skills and diligence of their daughters. Thimbles were such essential tools in the daily lives of women that they were part of everyday dress, often worn on the body as part of a chatelaine or belt-hung tool kit that included scissors, needles, and a thimble (think of Downton Abbey’s Mrs. Hughes).

FF-Graduated Thimbles-shoptSmall

A variety of sizes accommodated a child’s growth to adulthood. These examples were uncovered by archaeologists at Ferry Farm.

Commercially-used thimbles were typically open ended and known as thimble rings. They proved to be popular amongst tailors who used these special thimbles “sideways” to protect the side of the finger. An open ended, ‘thimble ring’ provided a better option for use with thicker materials, such as leather. Such sturdy fabrics were associated with upholstery manufacture. Products that employed leather, such as saddles and tack, also required thimble rings. Tailors were often male, and many assert that thimble rings were used by men exclusively. Like all assumptions, they should be made with care: no doubt women who worked in industries associated with thicker materials employed thimble rings, and men who needed to mend their clothes in the absence of female family members made ready use of thimbles (soldiers in camp, for instance).

Archaeologists have recovered over thirty functional (not souvenir) thimbles from the soils surrounding the Washington home. The majority date from the 18th and 19th centuries and – given their context – likely represent those used by women and girls for sewing hems, mending tears, and stitching. These historical examples from Ferry Farm were typically made from brass, reflecting both the popularity of that metal for manufacture, but also its durability and stability over time. A few examples feature copper sides with steel tips. Iron thimbles were also popular, but they decompose quickly and are rarely encountered by excavators.

Sometimes, when given as gifts, thimbles were enhanced with mottos, a tradition that was especially popular during the 1800s. They might be friendly, such as “Live Happy,” or didactic: “Pray and Work.” Slogans included “Remember Me,” “I Live to Die,” “A Friend’s Gift,” “Amor,” and “Pray and Prosper,” to mention a few. Two thimbles embossed with the sentimental idiom “Forget Me Not” were unearthed at Ferry Farm, each recovered from layers dating from the antebellum era (the time before the American Civil War). During this time, the ownership of the Ferry Farm lands was dynamic, and the property changed hands frequently.

Chatham resident, and Commonwealth of Virginia Supreme Court of Appeals Judge, John Coalter purchased the property in 1829. However he never resided at Ferry Farm. Less than a decade later, in 1838, John Teasdale and Joseph Mann attained the property. Just five years after that, the land was transferred to Lewis G. Sutton. By mid-century, in 1846, John R. Bryan owned the farm and in December of that same year Winter Bray purchased Ferry Farm.

FerryFarm20Dec1862

“Fredericksburg, Virginia — [From a Drawing by Mr. A.R. Waud]” in the December 20, 1862 edition of “Harper’s Weekly.” This image was drawn on the Ferry Farm side of the Rappahannock looking across the river into Fredericksburg. Buildings of the Bray farmstead can be seen along the river bank in the image’s left middleground. Public domain.

Bray engaged an overseer at Ferry Farm to manage the property. Importantly, they constructed a dwelling on the property in 1851, where the overseer resided. The George Washington Foundation’s archaeologists unearthed this structure as well as a kitchen related to this occupation in 2004. The construction of these dwellings is significant, since it demonstrates that people were residing on the land. Thimbles are more likely to derive from such a residential occupation as opposed to an absentee owner who devoted the land to pure farming.

We know from their method of manufacture that the “Forget Me Not” thimbles date from the 1800s. Given the dynamic history of property ownership and occupation that characterizes Ferry Farm at this time, it might at first seem challenging to determine which land owner – or rather which land owner’s family of resident workers – purchased these touching thimbles. However one thimble was found in the center of one of the Bray era dwellings, from a stratum dating from sometime between 1800 and 1860. The other thimble was discovered in the yard east of the Bray era structures, recovered from a layer that also dated from the antebellum era. It’s possible that both of these thimbles relate to the Bray era of ownership, and specifically to the overseers who occupied the property on the Bray family’s behalf.

FF.2794-NOT-2SmallLines

Look closely and you can read the word “NOT” upon this unconserved “Forget Me Not” thimble found in 2014. It was found in the yard east of the Bray era structures in a layer dating from sometime between 1800-1860.

FFForgetThimbleBlogLines

It’s easier to see the letters “FORGE…” of the phrase “FORGET ME NOT” upon this conserved Ferry Farm thimble. It was found in 2004 in direct association with one of the Bray era dwellings.

Over the centuries, sentimental tokens similar to the thimbles excavated from the Bray dwelling cemented relationships, expressed affection, and inspired diligence among sisters, daughters, and sweethearts.

Laura Galke, Archaeologist
Small Finds Analyst