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Family Botulism Deaths

One of the nation’s deadliest outbreaks of foodborne illness occurred in North Dakota. Just months apart in the early 1930s, there were two separate food poisonings that left 17 people dead. The culprit was botulism linked to improper home-canning. 

Four members of the Zimmer family near Sentinel Butte died within three days of each other. A mother and three children perished. Mrs. Zimmer had had several big helpings of a salad prepared with her home-canned string beans, and soon suffered cramps, a headache and vomiting. She felt well enough to milk cows the next morning, but suffered double vision, and saw “two cows where there was but one.” The family called a doctor from Beach, but Mrs. Zimmer’s condition worsened into choking spells, and she died a day and a half after her first symptoms. The oldest Zimmer son was called back from his honeymoon just in time to reach his mother’s deathbed. 

The three children also fell ill and died in the days afterward. The U.S. Public Health Service investigated, and confirmed botulism. A joint funeral was held for the four family members. On this date in 1930, the Associated Press reported that the surviving family members stood in the yard of the church where three of the victims had just received their first communion the previous Sunday. Their deaths led neighbors to throw out cans of the previous year’s string beans. A Beach woman fed her beans to a flock of 40 chickens. All of them died.

In response to the Zimmer deaths, the state Health Department published a lengthy food safety and home canning bulletin, which concluded: “No housewife should consider the home canning of vegetables and meats or the preservation of meats without first acquainting herself with safe procedure.”

Seven months later, tragedy struck again. Thirteen people died after a dinner party near Grafton, again from botulism resulting from improperly home-canned peas in a salad. Five of the dead were from one family, including a couple who left three young children.

Another episode of foodborne illness came a few months later, in the summer of 1931, when 30 people fell ill after a church picnic near Edgeley. But this time chicken sandwiches were the culprit, and the offending bug wasn’t botulism. Everyone recovered.

Dakota Datebook by Jack Dura


The Bismarck Tribune. 1930, June 25. Page 6

The Bismarck Tribune. 1930, June 28. Pages 1, 7. 

The Hope Pioneer. 1930, July 24. Page 6

The Bismarck Tribune. 1931, February 2. Pages 1, 7

The Bismarck Tribune. 1931, February 9. Page 1

The Fairfield Times. 1931, February 13. Page 1

The Bismarck Tribune. 1931, June 22. Page 1

The Bismarck Tribune. 1931, June 23. Page 1

Whittemore, A.A. (1930). Twenty-first biennial report of the state department of public health of North Dakota for the biennial period ending June 30, 1930. Allied Printing: Fargo, ND

Whittemore, A.A. (1932). Twenty-second biennial report of the state department of public health of North Dakota for the biennial period ending June 30, 1932. Allied Printing: Fargo, ND

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