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 what would become the village of Rock Creek. After finishing school, Anna traveled to Philadelphia to train in midwifery and dentistry, but on her return to Illinois, she became the first physician in Hardin County and consequently, a general practitioner for her community. Anna Bixby may also have been the first female doctor in the state of Illinois. Others claimed she was a midwife from Tennessee. She married her first husband, Isaac Hobbs.

She did thorough research on milk sickness, which was 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. However, she was unable to determine the precise cause.
Dr. Anna Pierce Hobbs Bixby discovered that White Snakeroot (Ageratina altissima) or Milkweed was the cause of milk sickness from grazing cows eating the wild plant which fatally poisoned the milk consumed by frontier settlers.
The solution to the problem came almost by accident when she chanced to meet in the woods an elderly Indian woman that the local people called “Aunt Shawnee.” She was a herbalist and healer and showed Anna a plant, White Snakeroot (Ageratina altissima), that we now call “milkweed,” which had caused the same symptoms as the milk sickness did in her own tribe. The plant had killed many of the Shawnee cattle and she told Anna that it was probably what she was looking for.

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

One of the most notable and tragic cases of the "milk sickness" was that of Abraham Lincoln's mother, Nancy Hanks Lincoln, who died at 34 years old in 1818. As hard as Bixby worked though, she was unable to stop the scourge.

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 respect from the medical profession of the time.

After Isaac Hobbs died, Anna Pierce Hobbs married her second husband, Eson Bixby, who turned out to be a notorious outlaw around the region of Cave-In-Rock, on the Ohio River.

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

THE LEGEND OF ANNA BIXBY: Buried Treasure & Ghost
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. 

The next great incident in Anna’s life, which took place during her second marriage to Eson Bixby, is believed was involved in a number of 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 stories 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 popularity of the tale, it only contains elements of the truth. The time period when all of this allegedly occurred seems to be the biggest problem with the story. Bixby’s Cave did (and does still) exist, however after 1811 it is unlikely that it would have been big enough to house a moonshine distillery and certainly not a counterfeiting operation. The cave was heavily damaged in the 1811 earthquake that rocked the New Madrid Fault at that time and afterward was much less accessible than it had been before. Several of the men who were involved in the criminal aspects of the story 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, then it would have had to have taken place 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. There were counterfeiters (coiners) 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, for the making counterfeit coins from cheap metals or restamping Mexican coin denomination.
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 had been born in 1863 and vaguely remembered Eson Bixby when he was alive, which seems to date 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 one night during a terrible thunderstorm. He called out to the house that someone needed Anna’s medical skills and of course, she immediately came out. She mounted the rider’s second horse and they rode into the woods. The trail was shrouded in darkness, thanks to the heavy storm clouds overhead, and Anna soon became disoriented and unsure of their route. However, at one point during the ride, she looked over and 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. It was obvious that he intended to do away with her and Anna began to panic. 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 stronger as she realized that 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 but also broke some of her bones, seriously injuring her. Nevertheless, she managed to crawl a short distance to a fallen tree and slithered in 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 around 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 the doorstep of friends -- only a few houses away from her own. They quickly took her in and she told them the story of what had happened.

Bixby was soon arrested and taken to the jail in Elizabethtown. He escaped through and vanished for a time. He was later captured again in Missouri, but once again, he escaped. 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 there are those who 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 managed to collect over the years. What may have amounted to a “fortune” in those days may have been much smaller than what we would consider being a fortune today, but most believe that it was a large amount of money. The legend further states that when Anna learned of Eson’s greed, she hid the money away 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. Along the bluff, in the vicinity of the cave, where people have reported seeing a strange light appear over the years. The large, glowing light moves in and out of the trees and among the rocks, vanishing and then 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.

One of the most detailed accounts of the Bixby ghost light was collected by folklorist Charles Neely 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 who had a number of the brushes with the uncanny in this part of Hardin County. One evening in his younger days, Hall and a friend of his named Hobbs, walked over to a nearby farm to escort two of the girls who lived there 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 itself 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 and along a small curve where one hollow 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 that it had just been a “mineral light” carried by the wind. He had no explanation though for how fast the light had moved or for the fact 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, a Mrs. Walton, and to ask 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.

Hall asked her, if she knew so well where Anna’s money was hidden, 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, gives shelter and services to area abused women and children.

Compiled by Neil Gale, Ph.D.

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