Friday, July 1, 2016

Poisoning People for Fun and Profit—Part 11: White Snakeroot

White Snakeroot is a deadly poison
White Snakeroot (Ageratina altissima) is a poisonous plant I'd never heard of before starting this series. Not a lot of deaths from white snakeroot have been reported in the last 100 years or so, but it was a major killer in the American Midwest in the early days of European settlement.

That's because the poison contained in its leaves and flowers (tremetol) can be passed on to humans in the milk and meat of animals who have ingested it. The indigenous Shawnee people knew of its dangers, but the settlers did not.

The plant is native to the Americas and grows all over the Midwestern United States. It grows in woods and brush thickets where it blooms from midsummer into the autumn.

It looks like a harmless wildflower, and the root is used to treat snakebite. (Hence the name.) 

Ageratina altissima
But it is a deadly poison when ingested. It causes tremors, vomiting, thirst, delirium and death. It is toxic to most mammals, especially horses and cattle. Goats are affected too, although their digestive systems fight the toxin more easily so their milk is not affected.

Animals poisoned with White Snakeroot will tremble, show an odd placement of hind feet close together, and have difficulty breathing. But they may not die immediately, so they continue to produce milk.

The fact that the toxin tremetol can pass through cattle into their milk was the cause of many deaths of early settlers in the American Midwest. They called the cause of death "milk sickness" and didn't discover the cause for many decades.

Abraham Lincoln's mother, Nancy Hanks Lincoln, died of milk sickness at the age of 34, when Abe was only 9. 

Dr. Anna Pierce Hobbs Bixby, the original "Medicine Woman," revealed the cause of milk sickness in 1830, having learned it from a Shawnee woman, but her findings were not accepted by the medical establishment until 1928.

BTW, Anna's second husband, Eson Bixby was a notorious outlaw who led a double life. According to local Illinois legend, when Anna discovered who he was, she hid her life savings, which apparently were substantial, in a local cave, for fear he'd try to kill her for her money. And he did just that, but she escaped, only to die a short time later. The treasure is supposedly buried in Rock Creek, Hardin County, Illinois and has never been found. Anna's ghost is said to haunt the area. 

There's a great novel in that story!

There has to be a good story in white snakeroot, too. Maybe a vegan wife on a Midwestern farm kills off her husband by feeding his favorite milk cow some of the toxic herb. Nobody would suspect, since this kind of poisoning is so rare these days.

What about you, readers? Have you ever heard of White Snakeroot poisoning, or "Milk Sickness." How about Dr. Anna Bixby? Isn't that a story that needs to be told? 

Here are links to the other posts in this series. 

Reading about pioneer doctor Anne Bixby reminded me of my own pioneering great, great grandmother, Roxanna Britton. My mom wrote Roxanna's story into a gripping novel that brings that period of American history to life.  


by Shirley S. Allen  (my mom)

"Jane Austen meets Little House on the Prairie"

The true tale of a powerful woman who pioneered the American West: Anne's great-great grandmother,  Roxanna Britton, born in Western Reserve, Ohio in 1833. This gripping novel based on Roxanna's extraordinary life was written by Anne's mother, novelist and scholar, Shirley S. Allen.

Widowed as a young mother, Roxanna breaks through traditional barriers by finding a husband of her own choice, developing her own small business, and in 1865, becoming one of the first married women to own property. We follow her through the hard times of the Civil War to the Great Chicago Fire of 1871 to a homestead in Nebraska to her final home in Elsinore, California. 

"This has become one of my all time favorite stories of "real" people. Ms. Allen's adept use of dialogue and her clear eye for drama and suspense kept me compulsively turning the pages. Her evocation of a bygone era, rich with descriptive details--the historical Chicago fire is one vivid example--is absolutely brilliant. I will never forget Sanny and her family, especially her struggle and her daughters' struggle to become individuals in a male dominated world. 

"But it is family that triumphs in the end; and the need for it to survive resonates most deeply in my mind and heart. An excellent novel that I highly recommend to anyone who enjoys reading true stories about people who not only overcome adversity with grace and integrity but through strength of character also prevail. Well done, Ms. Shirley Allen!" Ann Carbine Best

Roxanna Britton is only $2.99 as an ebook at all the AmazonsKoboiTunes, Inktera, and Scribd.


  1. I first heard the story of the death of Abraham Lincoln's mother when I moved to southern Indiana a number of years ago, to a little river town not far from where the Lincolns once homesteaded. I couldn't remember what plant had caused the "milk fever" until you published this post. However, now that I am back in Texas and take regular walks along the shore of a north Texas lake, I have discovered that many of the wild plants I see in my rambles (which I notice because I take pictures of wild flowers) are toxic. What I thought was Queen Anne's Lace, for instance, is actually water hemlock.

    The Anna Bixby story would definitely make a great novel. I can imagine a modern intrigue involving the discovery of her lost treasure stash, or maybe a treasure hunt that goes awry.

    BTW, your mother's novelization of great-great grandma Britton reminds me of stories my mother unearthed doing the family geneaology. One great-great-great grandmother became a circuit-riding physician -- we have an old daguerrotype of her wearing trousers and boots under her dress, and a copy of part of her diary that recounts how she literally got up off her deathbed to ride a buckboard across the county in mid-winter to deal with a breach birth. I think most novelists can find some useful material if they root around in the family tree.

    1. Lisa--That is a fabulous story of your great great great grandmother. Wow. It's amazing how many women were physicians in the pioneer days and don't get much recognition today. That would make an excellent novel, too.

      You're right that the Anna Bixby story could be written a number of different ways. Contemporary treasure hunting, ghost story, or historical.

      I wrote about hemlock in one of my early posts in this series. It grows wild almost everywhere. When I first saw it in CA I thought it was Queen Anne's Lace, too, but I guess that doesn't grow in the west as much. But there's hemlock in ditches all over the place here in my town. I'm amazed more poisoning don't happen.

  2. I knew of milk poison, snakeroot, ageratums of all sorts, as I, myself, am an amateur herbalist, landscaping my yard with herbal plants that happen to be pretty, but not the poisonous ones, since grandchildren know they can eat my plants. They love the chocolate mint. ;) Also, we home educated our children and were particularly familiar with the stories of the lives of historic home scholars. So this post is a double hit for me.
    Speaking of family history, one poison plant that does NOT figure in our family is poison ivy--both my parents were not allergic and neither am I.

    1. Katharine--How marvelous that you have an edible garden! So perfect when you have grandchildren. I once hoped to do some edible landscaping (I love putting nasturtiums and rose geraniums in salad!), but now that coastal California seems to be in permanent drought, I'm going to have to re-landscape with cacti and succulents.

      I don't react to poison ivy either. I grew up in New England and got very cocky about it. But when I moved to California, I discovered I do react to Pacific poison oak. Sigh. Thanks much for stopping by!

  3. Hi, Anne. First, I want you to know I think of you as an old friend. You were blogging back in 2010 when I began, and when WiDo published my memoir In the Mirror in 2011, you reviewed it in some post way, way back. Seems like a hundred years ago in some ways. I stopped blogging, for good I thought, a few years ago because of my disabled daughter. I still care for her, I'm now 76, but Denise Covey, my adopted Sis, won't let me go, and I seem to have gotten a dose of energy enough to motivate me back to re-visit old friends. And to set up a WordPress site. I came across Wealthy Affiliate last December while surfing the net, signed up for their course (it was legit) that taught me how to set up WordPress, I learned about SEO, and recently even signed up for Amazon's Affiliate program. But I have come really to see this all as a challenge. I did it, but didn't get messed up the way you did.

    Which brings me to your recently "woeful" post on your other blog. It was Denise who told me about the post a few days ago, and that's how I found your new blog here, and the review I posted way back sometime (how time seems to fly as I get old-er. Do you feel this way, too?). I remember how good that book was, how well written.

    As for your woes with Wordpress...I'm now heading over to that post to leave my reaction. Thank goodness I never tried to transfer years of posts to WP (in fact, I deleted that first blogspot blog and really don't miss it; but you do have a brand you've developed, and I can see that therein lies the trouble you've had :(

    Anyway, being here reminds me of your short story collection that I bought...sometime back. Read the first story and loved it, and then got bogged down in life, probably my daughter's care or whatever. Now I really want to finish the stories and write a review for you. I will...but I've learned never to promise when :)

    And...I have checked into your blog these past few years to see what you've written. Always something interesting. And have marveled at the books you've completed.

    I do have a blogspot blog set up for the Blogger group with a link to my current WordPress website, hosted through the Wealthy Affiliate people: my goal to share personal stories on it.

    Take care. Until later... Cheers!

    1. Ann--How fantastic to hear from you! I remember that you reviewed my mom's book and that review was such a bright moment for her in her last days. She really, really appreciated it.

      My problem was moving the whole blog. If I'd just left the blogspot blog as is and started over, I probably would have been fine (also if I hadn't partnered with somebody who did not share my "Golden Rule" worldview.) Or I would have been more fine if I'd just stayed with the old blog as is. But I learned a lot.

      And all's well that ends well. The new blog has fewer readers, but it is building up a new fan base. I'm sure it will do fine in the long run.

      Plus now I have this fun little blog to play with.

      Now I'll go search out your new blog. I'm so glad you're still blogging and writing! Hi to Denise!

  4. We do learn from the journey with making friends one of the great perks. We think "if only" but are wise to let go and move on. Hooray for you. I know your dear mother watches over you. So glad she liked my review. It's a story to read and reread.

    1. Ann--That review meant so much to my mom. It was one of the last things I read to her.

  5. Love these posts on plants.
    There definitely sounds like there's a book in that legend. :)

    1. Tyrean--Doesn't it sound like a great premise for a historical novel or a treasure hunt mystery?