Death By Ice Cream
The front page of the September 1, 1898 Sullivan County Record bore a troubling headline, “Poisoned By Ice-Cream.”
By the time the paper went to print, three people in the Sullivan County village of Mountain Dale were dead and at least 20 others were seriously ill. How did a simple ice cream sicken so many? Was it a criminal act? Or something else??
On the evening of Sunday, August 21, the guests at Arthur Jones’ cabins sat down for dinner. Most of the men, women, and children were summer visitors or boarders from New York City, but some locals were in the mix as well. The diners had finished their summer meal with a dessert of ice cream flavored with lemon extract purchased from a travelling salesman.
The diners had finished their summer meal with a dessert of ice cream flavored with lemon extract purchased from a travelling salesman.
A few hours later, it was clear that something was wrong.
A few hours later, it was clear that something was wrong. Guests began suffering from nausea and other increasingly severe symptoms. Local doctor J.F. Curlette came to minister to the sick and declared that they were suffering from ptomaine poisoning.
A dated term now, ptomaine poisoning referred to food poisoning caused by putrefied bacteria. While modern medicine has added nuance and words like “botulism” and “E. coli” to our understanding of food-bourne illnesses, the doctor was on the right track. This wasn’t a case of malicious poisoning, but instead a result of improper food storage or preparation. And it was alarmingly common.
In 1909, a translation of German doctor A. Dieudonné’s book Bacterial Food Poisoning: A Concise Exposition of the Etiology, Bacteriology, Pathology, Symptomology, Prophylaxis, and Treatment of So-Called Ptomaine Poisoning hit the American market. That book dedicated an entire chapter to “Poisonings Through Ice Cream and Puddings,” which Dieudonné referred to as “remarkably frequent.” Dieudonné asserted that flavorings were seldom to blame. He cited one case, coincidentally in the same year as the Mountain Dale poisoning, in which the ice cream base “was prepared in the evening, and was then kept, uncovered at room temperature, in the pantry until the following noon.”
Back in Mountain Dale, the ice cream claimed the lives of Mrs. Herman Michaelis, Mrs. William Seder, and Robert Jones over the next few days. Since other bottles of extract had been purchased and used with no ill effect, experts ruled out the lemon flavoring as the cause. Instead, the ice cream base had sat at room temperature in a tin basin for an unspecified long period. The freezer may also not have been cleaned between uses.
Like in so many other ice cream poisoning cases, the freezer, or at least the freezing technique, was the culprit. News stories like these helped raise awareness of the dangers of improperly-made ice cream, but they couldn’t prevent all summer treat-bourne illnesses. A deep irony of the Mountain Dale ice cream incident was that the final page of the September 1 issue of the Sullivan County Record, the one announcing the poisoning deaths, featured an advertisement for home ice cream freezers.
 “Poisoned By Ice-Cream,” Sullivan County Record, September 1, 1898, 1.
 For more information on the history of the increase in ice cream illnesses in the late 19th century, see E. Geist, “When Ice Cream Was Poisonous: Adulteration, Ptomaines, and Bacteriology in the United States, 1850-1910,” Bulletin of the History of Medicine, 86, no. 3 (2012): 333-360.
 A. Dieudonné, translated by Charles Frederick Bolduan, Bacterial Food Poisoning: A Concise Exposition of the Etiology, Bacteriology, Pathology, Symptomology, Prophylaxis, and Treatment of So-Called Ptomaine Poisoning (New York: E.B. Treat & Co, 1909): 84.
 Other ice cream illness outbreaks were attributed to other causes, including the often disproven extract claim. However, an article in the Catskill Recorder claimed that some illnesses were due to manufacturers using glue as a thickener and stabilizer. This does raise a key difference between commercial and homemade ice cream dangers. Both could be susceptible to food-bourne pathogens from improper preparation, but the home cook probably wasn’t adding glue to their family desserts. “Ice Cream Poisoning,” Catskill Recorder, April 22, 1887, 4.
 Sullivan County Record, September 1, 1898, 8.