The Consumptives’ Cave

“It occurred to a medical man some years ago that the uniform atmosphere of this cave might be a specific for consumption.

“Possessed with this theory, the doctor had a dozen small houses constructed in the cavern, about a mile or two from its mouth, and to these he conveyed his patients. From the appearance of these places of abode, the only wonder is that the poor invalids did not expire after twenty-four hours of residence in them. They, however, contrived to exist there about three months, most of them being carried out in extremis. The houses consisted of a single room, built of the rough stone of the cavern, – which, in this part, bears all the appearance of a stone-quarry, – and without one particle of comfort beyond a boarded floor, the small dwelling being constructed entirely on the model of a lock-up, or ‘stone-jug’. The cells of a modern prison are quite palatial in comparison with them. The darkness is such as might be felt; and it is impossible to realize what darkness actually is until experienced in some place where a ray of sunlight has never penetrated…

“The houses – or rather detached stone boxes – were so small that without vitiating the air only one person could remain in them at one time; so that, besides the darkness, – in case of any accident to their lamps, – these poor creatures must have endured utter solitude. Their food was brought from the hotel, two or three miles away, on the hill, and consequently must have been cold and comfortless. They were kept prisoners within their narrow cells, for the rough rocks and stones everywhere abounding rendered a promenade for invalids quite impracticable. The deprivation of sunlight, fresh air, and all the beauties of the earth must have been the direst punishment imaginable. No wonder these poor creatures were carried out one by one to die.

“The last one having become so weak that it was deemed unsafe to move him, his friends resolved to stay with him in the cavern till the last. What transpired is now beyond investigation. Whether some effect of light, which in this cavern has a most mysterious and awful appearance, or whether the death-bed was one of terrors, owing to some imp of mischief having laid a plan to ‘scare’ them, as they say in this country, is not known; but they rushed terror-stricken from the cave, and on reaching the hotel fell down insensible. Subsequently they declared they had seen spirits carrying away their friend. Mustering a strong force, the people from terra firma, with the guides and plenty of torches, sallied down to the lower and supposed infernal regions. The spirits, however, had fled, leaving nothing but the stiffening corpse of the poor consumptive. This ended all hope of the cavern as a cure for consumption.”

Thérèse Yelverton, In The Mammoth Cave, collected in With The World’s Great Travellers, Volume One, edited by Charles Morris and Oliver H G Leigh (1901)

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