This day in 1926 started out with much excitement for the sisters of Saint Joseph’s Hospital in Dickinson. An expansion had just been completed, and upon the sisters’ inspection, especially of the woodwork in the new chapel, the new addition was deemed satisfactory. According to a History of St. Joseph’s, “That evening during recreation, we were all so happy and gay because we knew we would be able to move into the new chapel in two weeks time. Little did we know what great tragedy was to befall us in the near future!” The tragedy mentioned was of the illnesses and deaths of Sisters Ambrosina, Anacleta, Fidellis, Succundia and Deocara.
Within just one day of the inspection, Sisters Ambrosina, Anacleta, Fidellis and Deocara had fallen ill. They complained of feeling very fatigued and began vomiting. Although sick, some “laughed occasionally because they felt so funny.” But, as tired as the sisters were, they could not sleep. Doctors were summoned and the cause of the illnesses was attributed to fumes they were exposed to while painting the beds for the new hospital wing. Doctor Bowen said their conditions would only be passing illnesses, but before long, the nuns’ conditions became considerably worse. The doctors were perplexed. Even if the nuns’ illnesses were caused from the paint and varnish fumes, why weren’t the woodworkers ill, since they had been in the same room and exposed to the same fumes?
Within the next three days, Sisters Ambrosina, Anacleta and Fidellis died, as Sister Succundia became ill. She died just six days later and two days after Sister Deocara.
Dr. H.M. Banks, Dean of the University of North Dakota Medical School was requested to assist in the investigation to find the cause of death. He performed an autopsy on Sister Deocara and concluded the cause was encephalitis, or inflammation of the brain, not poisoning from fumes. Dr. Banks believed the condition was caused by an unknown infectious agent or a toxic condition, but what he did not know.
This diagnosis, however, had its inconsistencies with the symptoms the nuns suffered. In addition, although the nuns may have been exposed to a toxic agent that might have caused the encephalitis, it seemed unlikely. It was even more unlikely to have been caused by an infectious agent. As doctors struggled to match all the symptoms to one illness, the cause of their deaths seemed as though it would always remain a mystery.
In cases of mysteries, however, conspiracy theorists seem to find their own explanations, and the nuns’ deaths were no different. As it happened, the five sisters who died all served at a supervisory capacity. Theorists within the Catholic community in North Dakota believed the five sisters may have been poisoned by a lay nurse who was jealous of the nuns’ authority. They said arsenic causes many of the symptoms the nuns suffered, and rumor said a Bismarck pathologist found arsenic, although nothing was ever documented. In addition, deliberate poisoning would explain the delayed onset of Sister Succundia’s illness.
According to Dr. Stephen McDonough, author of The Golden Ounce, the theories were passed down only by word-of-mouth, but “as intriguing as the murder theory is, it must remain as a theory and not fact. The deaths will continue as a mystery, as perhaps they should.” From a medical standpoint, the case was closed, but from a spiritual standpoint, the dedication, sacrifice and courage of the nuns who helped run St. Joseph’s hospital are still felt there today.
By Tessa Sandstrom
McDonough, Stephen. The Golden Ounce: A Century of Public Health in North Dakota. 1989.