But in 1871, Catherine suddenly sold her home and business and moved to New Mexico Territory. She’d been diagnosed with tuberculosis.
According to The Remedy: Robert Koch, Arthur Conan Doyle, and the Quest to Cure Tuberculosis (via Daily Beast), TB was a standout in a century rife with epidemics. But what made TB so scary was it was instead endemic, meaning “its presence was constant, pervasive, and persistent.” The disease wasn’t new — it had been killing humans for thousands of years — but it exploded in the 1800s, becoming the leading cause of death in the United States.
Billy would have seen his mother suffer horribly. Catherine would have coughed constantly, often expelling blood and making a disturbing crackling sound each time she struggled to take a breath. Even though they would’ve known the white plague didn’t spare people, the whole family suffered the agony of hope. Moving to New Mexico meant Catherine was following standard medical advice, which said drier climates could cure you.
And once again, Billy was lucky to escape. The real cause of TB wasn’t discovered until 1882. When Catherine was ill, people thought it might be an inherited disease, and they didn’t worry about infecting other people. Billy was certainly in much closer contact with his mother than would be allowed just a few years later. He probably got coughed on. The fact that he didn’t catch TB himself was another piece of karma he’d eventually have to pay back.