For Shame: Syphilis, Marriage, and Trauma in Gilded Age America

Lane History Corner, Room 307

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This paper will explore the impact of syphilis on American families from the Civil War to 1900, treating the war as a superspreader event. At least 200,000 Union soldiers--mostly unmarried men in their twenties--contracted venereal disease (gonorrhea and syphilis) during the Civil War. Some sufferers died from it, but many others survived the war and brought this slow-killing and highly contagious disease home. Doctors prescribed mercury and cautioned syphilitic men to delay marriage for between 4 and 6 years, so as to avoid infecting their wives and children. But by the turn of the twentieth century, health authorities estimated that approximately one in six urban Americans had the disease and attributed most infant deaths to syphilis, suggesting men did not follow doctor's advice. Most wives and mothers lived in quiet shame about their illness. But as syphilis cut a quiet and destructive path across the nation, it became increasingly important in divorce proceedings--used as evidence of infidelity or other types of immorality--and a key feminist issue.

Presenter: Kathryn Olivarius