Lockjaw is a terrifying disease with a terrifying name. Also known as tetanus, it is caused by a toxin that is made by a bacteria. It causes a variety of symptoms, including muscle spasms that can be strong enough to break bones. It can kill, and in the past it killed a lot.
Tetanus was common in tropical areas like the Caribbean. Perhaps the warmth helped tetanus bacteria stay viable when lying dormant in tropical soils. Or maybe people just had more contact with the dirt, working barefoot. Review of historical records from Brazil found that tetanus rates were higher for enslaved persons. This was likely to be true on St. Martin as well. Enslaved persons were doing dangerous jobs and in constant contact with soil.
In a little brown notebook Pierre Beauperthuy’s collection at The Old House, a cure for tetanus is described: “Make the wild tobacco in a strong bath, take out a little of it to make injections, which must be given frequently.” This herbal treatment was combined with some of the popular medicines of the day: “Give the child two grains of calomel immediately, with a grain of antimonial powder.”
This cure reflects another terror of tetanus: it was often a killer of infants. In the 19th century, when this cure was likely written, we did not yet understand germs. There was no vaccine for tetanus, and the umbilical cord was often a site of infection. Today, tetanus in infants is much less common. Most mothers are vaccinated, which gives immunity to newborns.
The handwritten cure for tetanus continues with a variety of other measures. Oil is taken to evacuate the bowels. Camphor, opium and candle grease are mixed together and spread along the spine, from the throat to the temples, and around the wrists. The bath and injections are repeated five or six times a day. “Remember to keep the child sitting in the bath until it appears sick at its stomach, but great care taken that it does not take cold.”
Would any of this have worked? Probably not. Even today there is no cure for tetanus. The toxin created by the tetanus bacteria is one of the deadliest and most powerful toxins in the world. Both then and now, working to ease the symptoms during months of recovery is a big part of treatment. Luckily, today we are much less likely to get tetanus in the first place, as long as we are up to date with our vaccinations.
Have you heard stories of diseases or conditions that were once more common on St. Martin? Tell us by writing in to The Daily Herald or email@example.com.