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Rheumatism as Euphemism

Some alcoholics ‘hit bottom’ (i.e., reach a point where they become teachable, where they are sick and tired of being sick and tired) sooner than others.

I knew it was the end. I didn't even catch a buzz the last time I had a drink. Source:

I didn’t even catch a buzz on the day of my last drink. The romance was over. Source:

For myself, it came after about 30 years of moderate to occasional heavy drinking. At the end, it wasn’t as if I was having blackouts or medical issues related to the drinking (other than massive hangovers and nausea), but I was tired of feeling ‘this way.’ In fact, my last drink was awful: It was White Zinfandel from a wine box. Nothing sexy, fun, or exciting about that. Just gross. I had only one or two glasses of it that night, no buzz. The relationship was done.

For Emmett, I know he hit absolute bottom twice: First, on December 15, 1914, while he was a congressman in D.C. Second, on May 29, 1918, when he died.

But when he first hit bottom in 1914, it was called “rheumatism.” At least, that’s what the papers were told.

Rheumatism. Really? Source: Ocala Banner, Dec 22, 1914.

Rheumatism or alcoholism? Source: Ocala Banner, Dec 22, 1914.

In reality, Emmett had several other serious medical conditions, all of which found their common starting point in alcoholism. According to a friend who is helping me with the medical research, Donna the Nephrologist, a physician was required to list the physical problem on the medical report as the primary issue, even though it may have been brought on by alcoholism. Alcoholism, then as now, was considered a psychological disorder.

“But you can be sure those closest to him knew the real scoop,” she added. “There were other things going on with him outside of a general rheumatic diagnosis. For instance, if you are in complete kidney failure (which is what Emmett’s official diagnosis was in 1914), and experiencing neurological problems, and are comatose (which he was at this point, on and off), very likely cirrhosis was present.”

So, why the rheumatism diagnosis? Donna told me that at the turn of the century, rheumatism was used all the time as a safe public diagnosis for patients who were alcoholics. “Then, as today, people didn’t want to be called alcoholics. It was shameful, and there is still a stigma about it. Because of who he was, it was probably easier to keep out of the papers, and call it ‘rheumatism’ than for someone who was not a congressman.”

In Emmett’s day, there wasn’t much available from the medical community, in terms of pharmaceutical help. Psychotherapy was still new, and mostly suspect. Most people, when ill, would turn to their drugstore and purchase over-the-counter medications to treat themselves.

Even if you weren’t an alcoholic back then, it was easy enough to become one, innocently, just by taking OTC medicines.

In this example, Radway's was 27 percent alcohol. Source: Nostrums & Quackery, JAMA, Google Ebook, 1921.

In this example, Radway’s was 27 percent alcohol. Source: Nostrums & Quackery, JAMA, Google Ebook, 1921.

The government fined Radway's for false and fraudulent claims. Source: Nostrums & Quackery, JAMA, Google Ebook, 1921

The government fined Radway’s for false and fraudulent claims. Source: Nostrums & Quackery, JAMA, Google Ebook, 1921

(By the way, if you are interested in reading about some of the cure-alls Emmett and his peers had available to them as over-the-counter medication, you can read all about it for free, online via Google Books. The book is: Nostrums and Quackery: Articles on the Nostrum Evil and Quackery, reprinted from the Journal of the American Medical Association, Vol. 2 [Google ebook].)

N&QtitlepageWhat’s interesting in this book is the sheer number of over-ther-counter ‘medicines’ that included what we, today, know as controlled substances. I mentioned this to Donna; she confirmed that many of the OTC products he likely took, just to get some kind of relief, probably damaged his liver and kidneys further.

For instance, lithium.

At one point during 1914, Emmett did try to sober up at a spa that was well known for its natural ‘lithia water’ spring. Donna said that lithium, today a controlled substance, probably did make Emmett feel better (it is used in treating manic depression), but it was another chemical, not a true solution to his problem. Lithium also wreaks havoc on already-damaged kidneys, she added. With Emmett, lithia water might have played a role in hastening his death.

Lithia water was touted as a 'cure' for 'rheumatism.' Literature from the spa Emmett visited 1914 also claimed to 'cure' alcoholism with their healing waters. Image source: MyFWBS

Lithia water was touted as a ‘cure’ for ‘rheumatism.’ Literature from the spa Emmett visited 1914 also claimed to ‘cure’ alcoholism with their healing waters. Image source: MyFWBS

“I’m sure he was feeling rheumatic,” she said. The toxins would settle into a person’s joints because if your kidneys aren’t processing toxins out of the body, the toxins have to go somewhere, she added. “It was awful, painful for him, and it didn’t just go away after a day or so.”

Something else Donna said: Back in the early 1900s, if you had serious kidney problems (i.e., episodes of complete kidney failure), there was little that could be done for the patient. So, she added, as of 1914, Emmett was on borrowed time. “The damaged kidneys can still function; but, they are never again 100 percent healthy. Any minor illness he would pick up along the way would compound his problems.”

So, that cold he picked up at the football game? That could have been the start of the problem that landed him in the hospital in December, 1914?

“Very likely,” she said. “Your boy was a lot sicker than probably he, himself, realized.”

Did you know you can actually still purchase lithia water? One lithia water website will ship it to your door. Interestingly, it includes a background information link to “Wikipedia”, not to a vetted medical journal or more credible resource. I’m not sharing that link. Caveat emptor, people.

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