Anna Bixby, the angel of the bluff country in Hardin County in the mid-1800s, is the subject of plays, poems and a ballad.
She also is the subject of some controversy. Was Dr. Anna truly a well-read medical doctor? Or was she an illiterate midwife? So says her Hardin County biographer, Elihu Hall, in "Ballads from the Bluffs":
"After spending two years in study,
Mainly in schools of nurse training,
As they would admit a girl to,
In Philadelphia pioneer days,
Anna came home to the Ozarks.
People hailed her coming gladly,
Reports spread in all the settlements,
That a great and learned doctor,
Was among them praying her Savior,
While she used her herbs and tonics."
Her Eastern schooling occurred after a fracas in Hardin County involving a drunken suitor and gunfire. According to Hall, the "Tomboy Pierce Gal" disappeared, turning up in Philadelphia, from where her pioneering parents brought her.
Doubters of Bixby's medical training point to an 1866 legal document, listing her role as a midwife, signed with an X. Bixby signed the document with an X rather than writing her own name.
Hall, in the introduction to his ballad, stated that he grew up hearing the stories over and over again of "brave blue-eyed Anna."
In fact, he describes his ballad as "prehistoric and historic romance dealing with the aboriginal and later races who lived in the Ozark bluffs and mountains, and it is written down to the days of the bloody-handed and wicked river pirates, and cave bandits fought by brave blue-eyed Anna."
In the book, Hall wrote in the forward that his ballad is not fiction nor strictly history, "for that deals in dry general events, leaving out the love, folklore, adventures and everyday life. ‘Ballads from the Bluffs' is a romance, told as it was told to me by truthful pioneers."
According to Hall, part of Bixby's story goes as follows:
Bixby, at the age of 16, traveled with her parents to the wilds of Southern Illinois from Philadelphia, where she had been educated. Several attempts were made to rob her family before they settled. Afterward, she educated people academically and spiritually through her church work - in an area where river pirates, thieves and counterfeiters thrived and even tried to drive her and her fellow religious folk from the area.
She married a childhood playmate, Isaac Hobbs, who helped her solve the milk sickness epidemic. Her loving husband died during a pneumonia epidemic.
She later married a ne'r-do-well Eson Bixby, a "roving Irishman" she apparently thought she could reform. Eventually they became estranged. He kidnapped her by disguising himself and told her his sick wife needed help.
He told her he would keep her in a cave until she told him where her family gold was. She decided to jump off a cliff rather than have her gold gambled and drank away. So she jumped!
Trees broke her fall, one after the other, 60 feet down. She landed, cut and bleeding, but alive. Her estranged husband tried to burn her out of the woods, but a roaring rain-storm put out the flames and white-robed spirits led the wounded and weary Bixby to safety.
This battered-wife element of her story partly inspired the founders of the Anna Bixby Center to choose her as their namesake. The Harrisburg center, founded in 1979, has facilities and services to help domestic violence victims and homeless people.
Bixby's name was chosen also because she was not prejudiced and she helped families. Her role in curing the milk sickness was the subject of medical journal articles written by physician William Snively of Evansville, Ind.
Snively wrote in the Journal of the American Medical Association of a time in 1834 that Bixby had suspected the milk sickness was caused by something cattle had eaten. She sleuthed around, following the cattle, watching what they ate. Snively and Hall wrote that she also met an Indian medicine man who told her that white snake root was the cause of the illness.
Snively wrote that Bixby and her husband, Isaac Hobbs, fed the root to some of their cattle. He wrote that she encouraged men from the area to go into the woods to rid the area of the poisonous herb and that she died in 1869 without receiving any recognition for her work in protecting her neighbors from the deadly milk sickness.
Not until 1928 did medical literature establish white snake root as the cause of milk sickness.
Bixby's life - legend and all - has been the subject of works other than Hall's ballad. One play was written by Goreville native Pam Kelley and was performed in Carbondale and North Carolina.
- Reprinted from The Southern's Legacies of Little Egypt