What a tainted ham can do

A bad ham made it safer to drive in McDowell County.

This month marks the 50th anniversary of the McDowell County Rescue Squad, an organization formed after stunned area residents watched ambulances from neighboring Burke County charge through their streets in response to a Mayday plea from Eugene Cross Elementary School. At 3 p.m. on June 3, 1958, the schools’ students—seized by disabling stomach cramps and retching fits—began collapsing in their straight-backed wooden chairs.

“One little boy got sick,” Mrs. Garland Williams, Eugene Cross’ principal, told the Asheville Citizen the next day, recounting the onset of the epidemic. “Did he throw up at his desk? He surely did.”

Absent a municipal fleet of rescue vehicles, the town of Marion was then entirely dependent on local mortuaries for ambulance services. Funeral homes routinely lent their hearses for patient transport—a pragmatic solution that wrote its own punch line—but there weren’t enough long black cars from Old Fort to Asheville to rush more than 200 sickly children to the hospital.

The crisis quickly hit the airwaves, with deejays calling upon listeners to leave their offices and head to the school. Doctors, lawyers and bankers dutifully converged upon the scene, loading their sedans with as many stricken students as they could carry. The school-auditorium stage was reconfigured as an impromptu triage unit, with glucose bottles strung from floor lamps and students awaiting transport swaddled in blankets.

Dean Wall was standing on South Main Street when the ambulances from Burke County arrived: “I heard those sirens coming,” he remembers. “Because of their quick action, children were saved.”

The squad’s heroics so impressed the town that a group of local Moose Lodge members, including Wall, resolved to form a rescue unit of their own. By the end of the year, 15 men had completed their first-aid training and purchased an aging Navy ambulance, ready for dispatch to car crashes on the recently completed stretch of Interstate 40 that pawed through McDowell County, industrial accidents and medical emergencies.

But that proud achievement was still six months after that scary afternoon in June, when young children lay writhing on the footpaths leading away from Eugene Cross, felled before reaching home. Indeed, so many children required hospitalization that Marion General couldn’t accommodate them all: Patients were roused from their beds to make room for the newly sick.

“If all these boys and girls live, I’m going to pass them all,” Williams vowed.

The students survived. Two days after the incident, only one victim remained in the hospital—the cafeteria supervisor’s husband, D.S. Ayers, a retired mill worker who headed the school’s maintenance department. Ayers, 65, carried sick children to the school’s front door until he fainted from exhaustion. “He just stayed on his job too long,” Williams explained to a Citizen reporter.

As the children’s terrified parents knew, McDowell County got lucky. Food poisoning reached pandemic proportions in the years before processing was well-regulated, refrigeration was reliable and every amateur cook could quote the golden rules of food safety. Newspapers ran breathless accounts of food-borne fatalities on an almost weekly basis, alerting their readers to the hidden dangers of Boston cream pies and egg salad.

What made these reports especially riveting was food poisoning’s propensity to infiltrate the happiest of gatherings. The elements of celebration—warm weather, large groups of people and rich, indulgent foods—formed a tragic troika of ptomaine incubation. Perhaps the dastardliest culprit in mid-century food-poisoning transmission was the custard-filled wedding cake, which took down so many bridal parties that in 1947, Jersey City’s chief health officer was compelled to issue an official warning against displaying wedding cakes in unventilated reception halls.

Skimming these food poisoning stories, it’s hard not to be struck by the apparent frivolity of the American diet. Prison inmates and mental-asylum residents seem to be forever feasting on cream puffs and Italian ices. An éclair scare that swept through lower Manhattan in 1924 began when two Gimbels’ clerks lunched on clam chowder, watermelon and chocolate éclairs, all washed down with tall glasses of milk. Unlike the recent spate of tainted-food cases, which have centered on vegetables chockablock with nutritional value, the deadliest dishes of the 20th century came to the table ready to party.

Few fun foods didn’t wreak violent havoc on stomachs somewhere. In 1934, after eating ice cream, more than 150 Rotarians became critically ill (including the dessert’s manufacturer, who confidently ate a scoop of the frozen treat himself to prove it wasn’t contaminated). Hollandaise sauce, which figured in many New Yorkers’ favorite fancy foods, became such a headache for the city’s health department in 1950 that 20 restaurants were forbidden to prepare it. Pies, cakes and molded salads all turned toxic with frightening frequency.

But no festive food was as reliably troublesome as ham. The most devastating cases of food poisoning—700 teenage girls stricken at the Sunshine Society’s 1958 state convention, 650 lab workers sickened at a company picnic the next year—almost always involved a spoiled ham.

Country ham was the centerpiece of the end-of-the-year luncheon the Eugene Cross students enjoyed before falling ill. “It was sort of a picnic for the school—in the lunchroom, but sort of a party,” Williams said at the time. The menu also included canned green beans, preserves, baked apples and coleslaw, which the State Laboratory’s assistant director first fingered as the transmitter.

“In cases of this sort, we usually suspect the food which requires the most human handling,” Lynn Maddry told the Citizen.

Gerald Little, a sixth-grader, was one of the few students who felt fine hours after the celebratory meal. “I didn’t eat the beans,” he offered.

But McDowell County health officer W.F.E. Loftin immediately focused his investigation on the three baked hams, purchased from a store down the road in Rutherfordton. “In view of the fact that everyone partook of the ham, and since this is the usual offender, this is the agent suspected by local people,” he confidently announced.

Within a week, lab results confirmed Loftin’s suspicions, finding the dreaded staph bacteria in ham samples submitted by the school.

The legacy of the mass poisoning is the McDowell County Rescue Squad, which has steadily professionalized and grown since its members answered calls in a six-cylinder station wagon Wall called “the sick six.” He still remembers the vehicle’s inaugural run in hilly McDowell County: “We had the siren going, we had the red light going, and a boy passed us on a bicycle,” he laughs.

The squad’s inventory now includes a state-of-the-art crash truck, a rescue boat equipped with sonar and underwater cameras, two ambulances, a collection of four-wheelers and a brand new seven-bay garage in which to house all the machinery. “We’ve only had two patients die once we got ‘em in our hands,” says Wall.

Indeed, the squad’s reliability may have inured area residents to the threats posed by just plain living—exactly what Dr. Loftin feared in 1958. “If the world lasts 10 million years, we will certainly have another attack,” Loftin told the Citizen. “Everybody will be careful now for five or six years and then they’ll forget again.”

The McDowell County Search and Rescue Squad will celebrate its 50th anniversary on Sunday, Sept. 14, with a ribbon cutting at its new facility (at 186 State St. in Marion). Call 442-8415 for more information.

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2 thoughts on “What a tainted ham can do

  1. Pollyanna Hester Boyer

    I was a student at Eugene Cross Elementary when the ptomaine poisoning happened. I do not remember a classmate named Gerald Little but I was also in the sixth grade. My family doctor came to the school and searched me and his other patients out to treat us on the spot at the school. He and the other doctors rigged up i.v.s onto lamp poles at the school. I was not as sick as some and he released me to recover at my home. It was a frighteneing time for all of us.

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