This is a tragic piece of history for the staff of the Elgin National Watch Company and as you'll read, not everything appears to be what it seems and the clincher that confirms it for myself is the article published in 1944 which seems to confirm that there was indeed a cover up of sorts. The following entries are press coverage as reported during the outbreak.
Initial Press Coverage
Typhoid on increase at Elgin.
August 23rd - Additional cases of infantile paralysis were reported at Waverly, Aurora, Forrest and Pekin. There are twenty cases of typhoid fever at Elgin in addition to the forty already reported. This information was sent to the state board of health today. The water supply at the Elgin watch factory is suspected Alton Evening Telegraph, August 23rd, 1916
Sixty cases of Typhoid
Springfield, Ill. August 23rd. There are twenty cases of typhoid fever at Elgin in addition to the forty cases already reported.
This information was contained in the preliminary report of Dr. E. S. Godfrey, state epidemiologist, the the state board of health today. Dr. Godfrey states it is his belief the cause of the outbreak lies in the water supply at the watch factory. State board officials were very reticent today as to whether the sanitary engineering force would be sent to Elgin against the protect of Dr. A. L. Mann, city physician of Elgin.
When asked when the sanitary force would be sent, the board officials declared the time was not for publication. It is believed, however, the force was already on its way to Elgin and will make its examination quietly without apprising the city authorities of its presence.
Dr. C. St. Clair Drake, secretary of the state board, got into communication by long distance telephone with officials here today. Though the officials refused to make know his orders, it is expected he is sending more men to Elgin.The Daily Gate City and Constitution Democrat, August 23rd, 1916
Carl Berggren, the jeweler at 406 East Lincoln Highway, today received an interesting letter from his brother at Elgin. The DeKalb man's brother is one of the employees of the watch factory at Elgin, but thus far has escaped from typhoid fever, which is sweeping the city, and especially the watch factory workers.
The letter states that all the employes of the factory have been vaccinated three times in the last 30 days and that the doctors do not tell them they are immune from the disease. According to the letter there are now over 175 cases at Elgin, and more breaking out each day. The Daily Chronicle, September 15th, 1916
Typhoid Epidemic rages in Elgin.
Presence in Elgin of 175 cases of typhoid fever was revealed tonight. Together with the announcement that eleven deaths from the disease have been occurred since June when the epidemic began. Herald Democrat, September 16th, 1916
In the early weeks of summer 1916 there was an unusual prevalence of inexplicable diarrhoea among the adult employees of the watch factory, then came the outbreak of Typhoid.
The watch factory had dual water supply from both the Elgin city and also the Fox river. It was found that the Fox river supply had mixed with the city's water supply and contaminated the drinking watch supply within the factory.
The company busied itself in relief. They employed physicians and nurses. They took care of every sick employee needing care. When the health authorities came in for investigation they gave them help. When the source of the pollution of the water supply was discovered it was corrected without hesitation.
When the epidemic was at an end the company, on its own initiative, settled with the families of former employees and with the employes. I do not know how much the company paid out. I have heard that it was in excess of $100,000, and I can readily believe it. The employes are satisfied, the feeling is good, the company stands well in the community. Had the company try and resist the payment of claims they might have escaped. It is to their credit that they did not try to escape responsibility by legal technicality, by delays, expenditure of money, or in any other way.
How to Keep Well, By Dr. W. A. Evans, Published in the Chicago Daily Tribune, March 21st, 1917
The Story Changes
Up till this point, everything reported is positive and it appears that the Typhoid outbreak was due to the Fox river water supply being contaminated and mixing with the drinking water supply from the town.
We now have a different view of the events presented by the "The Day Book" which was an adless daily publication and therefore independent and had a little more freedom than the other press.
Elgin Watch Works Scene of Typhoid Epidemic
Twenty dead; 100 seriously ill.
Such is the toll of the typhoid fever among the employes of the Elgin Watch Co.
The infection of typhoid broke out late last fall; it spread from employe to employe until more than 100 were ill.
An artesian well is blamed. The well is deep and of good flow, according to the company, and, it seems, should surely be pure.
A story is told by employes of the watch company of a prevalence of rats, especially near the mouth of the well. This has not yet been investigated, but it is thought by some that the waters of the well may have been infected by the rats.
The company is not attempting to hide the illness and deaths among its workers. It would be of no use. All the little city of Elgin is talking about is the terrible toll death has collected from among the watch workers.
Peter J. Angsten of the Illinois State Industrial Board will go to Elgin Saturday and hold a public hearing in the courthouse at which is expected some startling facts regarding the watch works may be revealed.
The company itself asked for the hearing, which is primarily for the purpose of setting the amount of awards which the survivors of the dead and the families of the ill will receive.
The state lar provides what amounts shall be paid in case of illness or death. Criticism of the law has often been made on the ground that the amounts awarded are mostly scarcely enough to cover expenses.
Families of the 20 dead will receive voluntary settlement from the company under the workman's compensation act totalling $50,000. Claims filed range from $1,650 to $3,5000 each. This is the largest settlement ever agreed to by corporation in this state.The Day Book, January 25th, 1917
Editor's Note - The following story of the typhoid epidemic in the plant of the Elgin National Watch Co. is an example of how the controlled press "covers up" advertising corporations. The Chicago papers in handling the story mention only the fact the Elgin company had "open-heartedly" offered through the state industrial board, to recompense the families of its employes who died "from a typhoid epidemic in the city of Elgin". They didn't mention the fact that bad drinking watch in the Elgin plant caused the epidemic.The Day Book, January 27th 1917
The epidemic broke June 1st and raged until mid-August, when nine victims were stricken in one day. It began to subside when the watch company on June 19th cut off the source of the deadly plague - the old artesian well - and gave its employes pure city water to drink.
Dr. Alban L. Mann, city physician of Elgin, made a report of conditions at the Elgin National Watch Co. factory on August 22nd. He attributed the epidemic to a "deadly sump" in the factory, In part he said:
"I found that the principal supply of water distributed to the institution, both for drinking and industrial purposes, came from an artesian well said to be approximately 2,000 feet deep; this supply was not pumped directly into the service mains of the different buildings and operating rooms as it should have been; but was pumped into a reservoir on Watch street, whence it was distributed to different points by gravity, a part being deflected to the National House for use in operating the elevator service there, after having served which purpose it was piped to a 'sump' or catch-basin about five feet deep, situated underneath the floor of the blacksmith's shop and accessible by means of a trapdoor though this floor this tank also apparently received the main supply from the reservoir, and from this catch basin was distributed to the various drinking founts and taps throughout the factory."
Dr. Mann said the surface of the water in the catch-basin was about a foot below the floor of the building and that fine dust and debris accumulated in this water, which was later drank by the employes. He also found that second supply of water was obtained directly from Fox river without filtration or purifying treatment of any kind. In conclusion, after examining the bacteria found in the water, Dr. Mann said "The result was astounding and clearly established the source of the typhoid infection in the water supply on the premises of the Elgin National Watch Co."
Elgin is a poor place to seek information about the plague that left 22 families in mourning and brought sorrow and, in many cases, poverty to the homes of 40 watch workers.
To tell tales out of the factory is to get fired, and Elgin is a town of practically one industry - watch making.
This is what Mrs. George Parkin of Grove avenue, a former employe of the company and wife of a watchmaker, said:
"I was one of the first victims of the epidemic. We didn't know what the sickness was. The doctors didn't seem to know at first. Many of the boys and girls were stricken at their work tables; they would just topple over; then they would rush them off in taxicabs to the hospitals. It was awful to see the poor things staggering down the steps; we knew many of them would never come back."
"I was home, fortunately, when I was taken sick. I thought I was poisoned. Boils and sores broke out on my back and my face was covered with brown patches. Then the fever came. I had to give up work and go to the hospital. My husband was sick enough to go, too, but he just had to keep at work. I was in the hospital three months and two days. I have been home a couple of months, but I am still very weak and the doctor is still attending me."
"I was dropped from the payroll the day I reported sick. The company is still paying my doctor bills, but the loss of work makes it very hard for us."
A watchmaker named Cruse mourns the death of a daughter, who had been employed in the factory. The family is in destitute circumstances, some of his fellow workers say. Cruse asked the company for aid at Christmas. He was told he should be glad to have his doctors bills paid. He has not claimed damages for her death and he is not on the list of beneficiaries to be paid today.
When the employes of the Elgin company were being stricken down day after day the company announced it would pay all doctor bills, but Att'y Carberry said they made no offer of death damages until the cases were filed before the industrial board. Then they agreed to settle.
P.S. - The Elgin company paid no Christmas bonus. The Day Book, January 27th 1917
In the April 1944 Watch Word edition, there is a small article on the Research Division which is has an image of the Chief Chemist (Tom Boswell) holding a test tube which contains lactose, in which solution bacteria thrive when kept at blood temperature.
What has this to do with watchmaking ? Nothing directly. It is a protective measure taken for the health of employees. Since an outbreak of typhoid fever in 1916, Elgin's chemical Research department has carried out regular weekly tests of water used in the factory.
There are two sources of water at the Main Plant, the city water system and the deep well from which the drinking water flows. The latter system is designed for health and efficiency under the supervision of Engineer George Ensign.The Watch Word, April 1944
This list was originally compiled by Barbara Schock from newspaper articles of the time. It was originally hosted online by the Elgin Genealogical Society and is no longer online. (You can find it via web.archive.org). All credits go to Barbara Schock and the Elgin Genealogical Society for this list.
The list is from a notebook which is available at the Gail Borden Public Library and also the Elgin Area Historical Society, the notebooks are titled "Typhoid Epidemic of 1916 Index Elgin, Illinois".
|Mrs. Edna Ahlgren||6-Sep-1916|
|Mrs. Emma Bell||30-Aug-1916|
|Mrs. Clifford Brandow||2-Sep-1916|
|Mrs. Edward Burns||8-Jul-1916|
|Miss Ella/Edna Burns||18-Aug-1916|
|Mrs. A. Burzell||30-Aug-1916|
|Mrs. A. Canfield||30-Aug-1916|
|Mrs. August Christen||5-Sep-1916|
|Miss Althea Christie||19-Sep-1916|
|Mrs. Rotheny Clendenning||30-Aug-1916|
|Mrs. Nan Comstock||28-Aug-1916|
|Mrs. A.V. Dolby||19-Aug-1916|
|Mrs. Nettie Etnyre||19-Sep-1916|
|Miss Cora Gerberdin||18-Aug-1916|
|Mrs. Edward Gromer||2-Sep-1916|
|Mrs. Fred Hanson||24-Aug-1916|
|Joseph W. Hill||19-Sep-1916|
|Mrs. Matilda Huber||10-Jul-1916|
|Mrs. Carl Hulten||29-Aug-1916|
|Mrs. Timothy Jackman||14-Sep-1916|
|Mrs. Howard Johnson||16-Oct-1916|
|Mrs. Andrew H. Jorgeson||21-Aug-1916|
|Mrs. Chris Klingberg||11-Sep-1916|
|Leonard P. Lasher||21-Aug-1916|
|Mrs. Carl Leming||11-Sep-1916|
|Mrs. William McCarthy||22-Aug-1916|
|Earl J. Mockler||22-Aug-1916|
|Mrs. William Murray||22-Aug-1916|
|Mrs. J.P. Nelson||11-Sep-1916|
|John P. Nelson||5-Sep-1916|
|Mrs. John Oberst||30-Aug-1916|
|Mrs. George Parkin||28-Aug-1916|
|George E. Peterson||2-Sep-1916|
|Mrs. Patsy Phelan||24-Aug-1916|
|Mrs. Lillian Poole||21-Aug-1916|
|Mrs. Kitty Rierdon||17-Aug-1916|
|Mrs. Ida Riley||19-Aug-1916|
|Miss Amy B. Rogers||23-Aug-1916|
|Miss Evelyn Ryan||6-Sep-1916|
|Fred E. Short||7-Sep-1916|
|Miss Bertie Smith||17-Aug-1916|
|Mrs. Millie Thornton||12-Sep-1916|
|Miss Emma Voight||11-Sep-1916|
|Miss Ella Wubbena||18-Aug-1916|
|Name||Date of Death|
|Henry W. Kalbunde||3-Sep-1916|
|James F. O'Rourke||23-Sep-1916|
|Anna Marie Rasmussen||10-Oct-1916|
|Wilbur J. Smith||30-Sep-1916|
This is Elgin's darkest chapter in regards to the the welfare of their staff. While not required by law to pay for medical treatment, they did step up and cover all medical bills associated with the treatment of typhoid outbreak. They also paid out compensation for those that died. What they didn't do and were not obligated to do, was to pay wages during the time that it took staff to recover from the illness. While this doesn't sound like too bad a deal, I have found one staff member that took 3 years to recover and return to work. While all his medical bills were covered by the watch company, it failed to provide any financial assistance for his dependants and if both working parents were affected then the family was in a difficult situation on how to provide for the family.
It is clear that since weekly water testing was carried out on the well at the factory by the research department (the smartest people at the watch factory) that Elgin took it serious to avoid another outbreak from the well. What is of concern is that it clearly it is still in use years after it was stated that Elgin separated it from the water supply as part of the investigation of the outbreak.
The Pension fund and Relief fund would be established in 1918, quite possibly as a direct outcome of having to face the typhoid outbreak head on.
The following people have be gracious enough to contribute further information to this article
Steven Banta - list of victims and deaths information