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1878 Harper’s Weekly cartoon by Thomas Nast depicting a ghoulish figure dispensing “swill milk” to an unknowing mother and her children. Cows who subsisted on this rotten mixture lost their teeth, developed skin ulcers, running sores, and rotted tails that fell off. Hundreds of infants died each year from drinking cow’s milk that had become spoiled, adulterated, or contaminated with bacteria.

By the time Agnes reached the age of five months and 21 days, she had died. According to her April 20, 1869 death certificate, Agnes died of marasmus, a form of malnutrition in which the person gradually wastes away, while living at 97 Orchard Street. She could have contracted marasmus in two ways: through lack of food, or through contaminated food. Although Museum researchers will never truly know, Agnes could have developed marasmus because she was fed “swill milk,” cheaply produced from cows fed distillery waste and lacking sufficient nutrients to sustain growing children. Constrained by income, immigrant mothers had limited options for purchasing clean, pure milk. Next
In sickness and health
a sad passing
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