February 14, 1863: Dangers of rye coffee

Claviceps purpurea

The blockade of the south caused a lot of hardships, but perhaps none so keenly felt on the home front as the shortage of coffee. As we’ve seen before, a variety of substitutes were developed, most of them pretty disgusting. Apparently coffee was scarce even in the North, or perhaps substitutes were simply cheaper. Here the Richmond Daily Dispatch reports on one that could have been fatal. Grains such as rye can be parasitized by ergot fungus, which produces compounds that can cause gangrene and death, as well as hallucinations. Some sources blame the Salem witch incidents on ergot-tainted rye; the “frightful dreams” of one of the victims in this story are consistent with ergot poisoning.

Rye coffee — its Dangers.

A case of some interest to the drinkers of “rye” coffee has occurred in Brooklyn, N. Y. Several members of a family there were seriously affected by poison, alleged to have been contained in the coffee they drank. An examination was made by the Health. Officer of Brooklyn, who discovered that the sickness was caused by the continued use of coffee made by rye, and he was confirmed in his opinion by making experiments upon a dog. He therefore ordered the police to seize the packages on sale in the store from which the family alluded to had procured the coffee. The following is the statement of the Health Officer in regard to the matter:

Health Department,
Brooklyn, Feb. 5, 1863.

On the 1st inst, Dr. M. Palmedo, of this city, reported that the entire family and the servant of a German merchant had for some time previously, and still suffered from the effects of vegetable poison, alleged to have been taken with their food. I entered immediately upon the investigation of the case. I found Mr. George C. Croft, his wife, two of his daughters, and one son, more or less under the influence of the supposed poison, the rest of the family being convalescent. The servant had been removed to other quarters.

One of the young ladies was very sick; her face was bloated and disfigured like the dropsy; her eyelids were greatly distended, and could scarcely be opened; her eyeballs were bloodshot, and the pupils considerably dilated; she was then under violent fever, and very restless; she complained of headache and great dizziness; she was tortured by frightful dreams, and became at times delirious; besides this there was great pain in the back and extremities, the latter were moreover benumbed; she was very weak. Learning that every member of the family had been thus affected, I could not hesitate in lending my official assistance in the discovery of the alleged poisonous cause. Dr. Palmedo had already instituted the most searching inquiry, and at last has fixed his suspicious upon the so-called rye coffee, which the family had made use of for the last three or four weeks. After due deliberation on all the attending circumstances I could not help sharing in the suspicion, as no other cause could be assigned.

Ascertaining the places where the suspected articles had been bought. I possessed myself of some samples, suspended the further sale of said articles at those places until its composition and effects could be fully examined into. Chemical analysis and microscopical examinations being utterly impracticable, I resorted to experiments upon dogs. In preparing a strong decoction of the sample, I noticed its strong, disagreeable, and nauseating flavor, very similar to that emanating from a decoction of ergot, yet stronger in the former. The animal exhibited great restlessness and weakness; his movements and position were infirm; his pulse rose within an hour from 100 to 160, and even, for a short time, to 172 per minute; pupils became dilated; he was evidently sick at the stomach; very thirty. It seemed to be conclusive that the samples used for the experiment contained noxious ingredients of a poisonous character. The case of Mr. Croft’s family is not a solitary one. I had become cognizant of numerous instances in which the rye coffee had the same or similar effects, and such complaints had been made at the store from which the samples had been purchased. I have therefore, considered myself justified in condemning the stock of the article, and have ordered its destruction.

Nobody should be surprised at the obnoxious effects of rye coffee, for with the rye itself grow ergot and other poisonous plants, and unless their seed be carefully separated from rye, poisoning is inevitable. Pure rye is certainly a cheap and innocent substitute for coffee — the adulterations alone are to be feared in the article. I hope this disclosure will teach manufacturers of the article to be more careful in the selection of the new material, otherwise the public will protect itself more effectually.

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