Friday, March 15, 2019

Anna Pierce Hobbs Bixby (1812–1873) was a midwife, frontier doctor, dentist, herbologist, and scientist in southern Illinois.

Anna Bixby
Anna Pierce was the daughter of farmers who had moved from Philadelphia and, in 1828, settled in southeastern Illinois, close to Rock Creek's village. After finishing school, Anna traveled to Philadelphia to train in midwifery and dentistry. Still, she became the first physician in Hardin County and, consequently, a general practitioner for her community on her return to Illinois. 

Anna Bixby may also have been the first female doctor in Illinois; others claimed she was a midwife from Tennessee. She married her first husband, Isaac Hobbs.

She researched milk sickness, causing a good deal of fatality among both people and calves, including Anna's mother and sister. Noting the seasonal nature of the disease and the fact that sheep and goat milk were not affected, she reasoned that the cause must be a poisonous herb. 
Dr. Anna Pierce Hobbs Bixby discovered that White Snakeroot (Ageratina altissima) and Milkweed (Asclepias) were the cause of milk sickness from grazing cows eating the wild plants, which fatally poisoned the milk consumed by frontier settlers.

However, she could not determine the precise cause when she met an elderly Indian woman in the woods whom the local people called "Aunt Shawnee." 

Shawnee." She was a herbalist and healer and showed Anna a plant, White Snakeroot (Ageratina altissima), and "Milkweed," which had caused the same symptoms as the milk sickness did in her own tribe. The plant had killed many Shawnee cattle, and she told Anna it was probably what she was looking for.

Experiments on a calf confirmed the toxic effect of 
White Snakeroot and Milkweed. When cattle consume the plant, their meat and milk become contaminated and cause the sometimes fatal condition of milk sickness. The milking cows did not fall ill, but the other cattle and those who drank their milk fell victim to the toxin.

One of the most notable and tragic cases of the "milk sickness" was Abraham Lincoln's mother, Nancy Hanks Lincoln, who died at 34 years old in 1818. As hard as Bixby worked, she could not stop the scourge. When Louis Pasteur discovered pasteurization [1] in 1856, non-toxic milk began.

The plague was finally wiped out. However, despite Bixby's efforts, it was not until 1928 (55 years after her death) that research confirming her discovery was published. Her position as a frontier doctor and a woman would have made it hard for her to gain the respect of the medical profession of the time. 

After Isaac Hobbs died, Anna Pierce Hobbs married her second husband, Eson Bixby, who became a notorious outlaw around Cave-In-Rock on the Ohio River.

Anna Hobbs Bixby died in Rock Creek, Hardin County, Illinois, in 1873.

Ghosts & Buried Treasure
According to local legend, Anna Bixby left a treasure trove concealed in a cave named after her. The treasure is supposedly buried in Rock Creek, Hardin County, Illinois, and has never been found. 
Cave-in-Rock, Illinois.

The following significant incident in Anna's life, during her second marriage to Eson Bixby, is believed to be involved in several criminal enterprises. The legend does have some elements of truth, which originated in the book "The Ballads of the Bluff" by Judge W.M. Hall, who allegedly had a diary that belonged to Anna Bixby. Historians have since disputed much of the story, although it was believed that Hall was simply passing along reports that he had heard. Here is the basic version of the story:
Legend holds that John Murrell and his gang, along with James Ford and other disreputable characters, distilled whiskey and made counterfeit money (coiners) in Cave-in-Rock in Hardin County that has since become known as Bixby’s Cave. Enos Bixby, Anna’s husband, took over after these men were driven out or killed and continued their operations, along with committing robberies (river pirates) and stealing timber. Bixby married Anna when she was an old woman because he hoped to steal her money from her. Finally, he attempted to kill her by tying her up with ropes and heavy chain and pushing her off a bluff. As it happened though, she fell into a tree and managed to escape. Not long after, Anna died suddenly and she was buried with the rope and chain that her husband tried to kill her with. Her ghost has haunted her burial site ever since, often appearing as a shimmering light.
But, despite the tale's popularity, it only contains elements of the truth. The period when all of this allegedly occurred is the biggest problem with the story. Bixby's cave did (and does still) exist. However, after 1811, it needed to be bigger to house a moonshine distillery and, indeed, a counterfeiting operation. The cave was heavily damaged in the 1811 earthquake that rocked the New Madrid Fault and afterward was much less accessible than before. Several of the men involved in the story's criminal aspects were dead long before Anna married Eson Bixby, and others who allegedly worked together were children during the time of the opposite criminal's heyday. If the story had involved these men, it would have happened in the 1820s. This seems odd since Anna's first husband died in 1845, and Anna survived until 1873. 

On the other hand, recent historians believe that the story may have occurred in some fashion, but it was told and re-told using well-known outlaws as the key players in the tale when the real culprits may have been much lesser known. Counterfeiters (coiners) were operating in Hardin County at the time, and it has been learned that Anna's second husband was involved with criminals. 
Counterfeiters used a coin die to make counterfeit coins from cheap metals or restamping Mexican coin denominations.
In 1935, the Hardin County Independent newspaper published what was likely a more accurate account of Anna's escape from her murderous husband. The writer of the account, Charles L. Foster, had left Hardin County in the 1880s but had grown up in the Rock Creek area, a few homes away from Anna Bixby. He was born in 1863 and vaguely remembered Eson Bixby when he was alive, which dates the escape to the late 1860s, in the years following the Civil War. 

According to the account, a rider came to the Bixby household late during a terrible thunderstorm. He called out to the house that someone needed Anna's medical skills, and she immediately came out. She mounted the rider's second horse, and they rode into the woods. Thanks to the heavy storm clouds overhead, the trail was shrouded in darkness, and Anna soon became disoriented and unsure of their route. However, at one point during the ride, she looked over. When a flash of lightning illuminated the night, Anna saw the identity of the mysterious rider — it was her husband, Eson.

When he realized that she had discovered his identity, Bixby brought the horses to a halt, and he quickly bound her hands and gagged her. Evidently, he intended to do away with her, and Anna panicked. When she heard the jingle of chains being removed from his saddlebags, Anna became so frightened that she began to run, dashing into the dark woods. As she plunged into the forest, her fear became even more vital as she realized she had no idea where she was. The storm continued to rage, sending rain lashing down on her and causing the wind to whip through the trees in a wild fury. Anna ran for some distance, and then suddenly, the ground beneath her vanished, and she tumbled over a large bluff and crashed to the ground far below. The fall broke the ropes that bound her hands and broke some of her bones, seriously injuring her. Nevertheless, she crawled a short distance to a fallen tree and slithered behind it.

A few moments later, a light appeared in the darkness at the top of the bluff, and Eson Bixby came into view carrying a burning torch. He climbed down from the top of the rocks and searched for Anna, but he did not find her. After a few minutes, he returned to his horse and rode away. 

Once he was gone, Anna began crawling and stumbling out of the forest. It took her until sunrise to find a nearby farmhouse, but when she reached it, she found herself at a friend's doorstep — only a few houses away from her own. They quickly took her in, and she told them what had happened.

Bixby was soon arrested and taken to jail in Elizabethtown. He escaped through and vanished for a time. He was later captured again in Missouri, but once again, he ran. This time, he disappeared for good and was never seen again.

Anna lived in the Rock Creek community of Hardin County until 1873; when she died, she was buried next to her first husband, and only a simple "A" was inscribed on her headstone. But some believe that Anna, or at least her spirit, lives on.

The legend of Anna Bixby states that her husband wanted to do away with her because of a fortune that she had amassed over the years. What may have amounted to a "fortune" in those days may have been much smaller than what we would consider a fortune today, but most believe it was a large amount of money. The legend further states that when Anna learned of Eson's greed, she hid the money somewhere just before he attempted to do away with her. It is believed that the hiding place for the treasure was the cave beside Rock Creek in Hooven Hollow, which was also said to have been the hiding place of outlaw gangs. 

The cave is still known as Anna Bixby Cave today. Over the years, people have reported seeing a strange light appear along the bluff in the cave's vicinity. The significant, glowing light moves in and out of the trees and among the rocks, vanishing and reappearing without explanation. It is believed that the light may be that of Anna Bixby, still watching over the treasure that she hid away years ago.

Folklorist Charles Neely collected one of the most detailed accounts of the Bixby ghost light in his 1938 book Tales & Songs of Southern Illinois. The story of the spook light was told by Reverend E.N. Hall, a minister who once served the Rock Creek Church and had several brushes with the uncanny in this part of Hardin County. One evening in his younger days, Hall and a friend named Hobbs walked over to a nearby farm to escort two girls to church. When they got to the house, they found no one home. It appeared that the girls left without them, and the two young men stood around for a few moments, wondering what to do. 

They stood at the edge of the yard as they talked and looked toward the darkened house. The house stood on a short knoll with a hollow that ran away from the gate to the left for about 100 yards and then joined with another hollow that came back to the right side of the gate. Hobbs was looking eastward along the bluff when he saw what appeared to be a "ball of fire about the size of a washtub" going very fast along the east hollow.

At first, the young men thought that it might be someone on a horse carrying a lantern, then realized that it was moving much too fast for that. The light followed the hollow to the left of the gate along a slight curve where one cavity met the other. It followed the opposite hollow and came right up the bank where the two men were standing. It paused, motionless, about 30 feet away from them, and began to burn down smaller and smaller and then turned red as it went out. Finally, it simply vanished.

The two young men decided not to go to church. They went directly to the farm where they had been working and went to bed. The next morning, at the breakfast table, they told Mr. Patten, the farmer they had been working for, what they had both seen the night before. He laughed at them and said it had just been a "mineral light" carried by the wind. He had no explanation, though, for how fast the light had moved or that there had been no wind the previous evening. He could also not explain why the light seemed to follow the two hollows and then stop in place and burn out.

Later, Hall had the chance to speak with the woman who owned the farm, Mrs. Walton, and asked her what the light might have been. She then told him the story of Anna Bixby, who had owned the property before she had, and explained that to protect her money from her criminal husband, she had hidden her fortune in a cave that was located on the property. Mrs. Walton always believed that the spook light was the ghost of Anna Bixby, checking to see that her money was still hidden away. She had seen the light herself on many occasions, always disappearing into the cave.

If she knew so well where Anna's money was hidden, Hall asked her why she had never bothered to go and get it. "I would," Mrs. Walton answered, "if I thought that Granny Bixby wanted me to have it."

A historical marker has been mounted in Anna Bixby's honor at Cave-in-Rock, Illinois, near her home. In southern Illinois, the Anna Bixby Women's Center in Harrisburg, Illinois, provides shelter and services to abused women and children.

Compiled by Dr. Neil Gale, Ph.D.

[1] Pasteurized vs. Homogenized

Louis Pasteur discovered pasteurization in 1856 when an alcohol manufacturer commissioned him to determine what was causing beetroot alcohol to sour. Pasteurization does not kill all microorganisms in milk but is intended to kill some bacteria and make some enzymes inactive. 

But who first suggested that milk be pasteurized to make it safer for consumption? 

It was Frans von Soxhlet, a German agricultural chemist. He was the first person to suggest that milk sold to the public be pasteurized in 1886. 

The term "pasteurization" is derived from Louis Pasteur's pioneering work on the destruction of microbes through heat treatment, but Pasteur's area of interest was wine and beer, not milk. Pasteur didn't even invent pasteurization. Heat treatment that made foods safer was known long before Pasteur, but the French chemist was the first to explain the phenomenon. Pasteur realized that spoilage was due to chemical reactions initiated by living microbes, and heat treatment prevented spoilage because of its destructive effect on these living organisms. If wine or beer turned sour, Pasteur maintained, it was because of contamination by acid-producing rogue yeasts after the alcohol-producing yeast had done its job. The heating of wine would then destroy these invaders and preserve the beverage.

Milk presented an altogether different scenario from wine. Typhoid and scarlet fever, diphtheria, tuberculosis, and various diarrheal diseases were transmitted through milk consumption. The pasteurization process kills those microbes like what's found in White Snakeroot and Milkweed.

How is milk pasteurized? Chilled raw milk is heated by passing it between heated stainless steel plates until it reaches 161° F, and it's then held at that temperature for at least 15 seconds before it's quickly cooled back to its original temperature of 39° F.

Homogenization is an entirely separate process that occurs after pasteurization in most cases. The purpose of homogenization is to break down fat molecules in milk so that they resist separation. Without homogenization, fat molecules in milk will rise to the top and form a layer of cream. Homogenizing milk prevents this separation by breaking the molecules down to such a small size that they remain suspended evenly throughout the milk instead of rising to the top.

The homogenization process was invented and patented by Auguste Gaulin in 1899 when he described a method for homogenizing milk. Gaulin's machine, a three-piston thruster outfitted with tiny filtration tubes, was shown at the World Fair in Paris in 1900.
Homogenization is a mechanical process and doesn't involve any additives. Like pasteurization, arguments exist for and against it. It's advantageous for large-scale dairy farms to homogenize milk because it allows them to mix milk from different herds without issue. By preventing cream from rising to the top, homogenization also leads to a longer shelf life of milk, which will be most attractive to consumers who favor milk without the cream layer. This allows large farms to ship greater distances and do business with more retailers. Finally, homogenization makes it easier for dairies to filtrate out the fat and create two percent, one percent and skim milk. 


  1. I never heard of this. I went to school at SIU and I know there are several tales about Southern Illinois told by word-of-mouth among the inhabitants. Thank you for bringing this one to light.
    Mary Linne

    1. Anna Bixby is my Great Great Grandmother

    2. She is my great great great great grandmother and I was named after her, I would be very interested to chat with you!

    3. TO: Anonymous, Saturday, October 29, 2022


The Digital Research Library of Illinois History Journal™ is RATED PG-13. Please comment accordingly. Advertisements, spammers and scammers will be removed.