Ernestine Huckleby, revisited

Color Photograph of Ernestine Huckleby from National Geographic (photographer?)

  • Ernestine

I will keep on revisiting Ernestine Huckleby, who in 1969 sat down with her family to a meal of home-raised pork in Alamogordo, New Mexico. The hog had been fed grains that had been treated with the pesticide Panogen, which contained methyl mercury. Two months later, three of the children fell ill. Ernestine, just 9, was by far the worst off.

As icons – warnings against the health threats of mercury and the negligence of big corporations – Ernestine and her family are still alive and well (cf. William’s comment). But Ernestine the child has been forgotten.  What happened to her? A search on the internet reveals nothing.

Today I got access to some old articles in the New York Times. I can tell you some of the rest of her story.

  • 1970: First year

The long article “Mercury in Food: a Family Tragedy, a Federal Nightmare,” written by Waldron for the NY Times on 10 August 1970,  mostly deals with the history of the poisoning and the aftermath in government institutions, companies and courts of law. But there is some information about how the children fared, and interviews with their mother and caregivers.

We learn that, soon after exhibiting the symptoms of mercury poisoning, Ernestine complained of feeling sick and pain in her back. As she was taken from doctor to doctor, she got worse quickly, going into convulsions, losing her sight, and ultimately falling into a semi-coma. Then her older siblings, Dorothy Jean and Amos, started showing the same symptoms, and also slipped into comas. They were finally diagnosed with mercury poisoning and treated.

When they ate the meal, Mrs. Huckleby was 7 months pregnant. In March, baby Michael was born. On August 10, when this article was written, the baby still seemed fine.

The article is clear about the two older siblings. Dorothy Jean, who was the least affected, was the first to show signs of improvement, regaining most of her sight and learning again how to walk and speak. Amos too awoke from his coma, and was learning to talk and walk again, but he would never see again.

After informing us that “with Amos and Ernestine, the outlook is not so good”, Ernestine is no longer mentioned.

  •  1971: Ernestine awakens from coma

The article “In 18 Months, Mercury-Poisoned Girl Is Almost Well”, written by Ralph Blumenthal for the NY Times on 6 June, 1971, reports on Dorothy Jean’s almost miraculous recovery. Amos is said still to be confined to a wheelchair and having difficulty speaking. At 14 months, baby Michael, who was thought to be normal at birth, turned out to be blind and severaly mentally retarded.

Ernestine, who was 10 at that time, remained in the hospital, having awakened from a more than year-long coma. She was still blind and unable to move except for rolling over and moving her arms a few inches. Probably it was around this time that the photo of her that heads this entry was taken.

But what was the extent of her brain damage? In other words, was she thinking and feeling? Was she conscious?  The article does not say.

  • 1974: Ernestine goes home

Another article informs us that in 1974, Dorothy Jean and Amos were doing very well. Dorothy Jean lived in her own apartment with her 6-year-old son, and had two clerical jobs. Amos lived at home and attended a high school for the blind. He could walk again, though not for long distances, and spoke with difficulty.

Ernestine, we learn, returned home to be cared for by her parents.

  • 1974-76: In court

Next there is a whole slew of articles on how the case fared in several courts.

The family lost its suit against the Federal Government, for $3.9 million, in August 1974. But they won the $3.6 million lawsuit against three companies, in that they settled out of court in February of 1976, just a few hours after the trial started. The figure of the settlement was never revealed,  except that it was “very generous”.

  • The end?

That’s it! I could find nothing more. Are you as disatisfied as I am?

I’ll keep digging. I believe she deserves our recognition as a person – I was almost going to write, “as a child”, but today she would be 47 years old, if indeed she is still alive.

Join the Conversation

11 Comments

  1. This was my Aunt. Her and Micheal have both passed on. They were both a joy and we all loved and still love them!

  2. Dear Letitia,

    Thank you for your comment! It was a great surprise!

    Could you tell us a little bit more about your Aunt? That is the intention of these entries: to get to know more about her, beyond what the newspapers and institutions chose to focus on for their own purposes. To get to know her as a person who lived beyond the time when the media stopped being interested in her…

    You didn’t leave an email, so I hope you read this request.

  3. I am one of Ernie and Micheal nieces. I was young when all this happened with them. They are my aunt and uncle and I still Love them even though they are not with us. Thank you for remembering them when the media stop.

  4. xxx is my email address. Lora McGlaun is one of my sisters. My mother is Earnestine and Micheal’s older sister.

  5. Hello;

    My name is Dorothy Jean, Ernestine was my sister…..Ernie was like any kid, full of life, I remember a fond memory of her, one day she came to where I was n she had on a white tee shirt on n I asked her what did she want n she said, nothing, I just wanted to come where you was, so when I think about her, one of the fondest memories of her, is her standing in front of me in that white tee shirt n holding her hands, as my son would say, just wanted to give me some love, that is all.

    Thanks for remembering her.

  6. I am the eldest of the nieces to Ernestine and like my sisters have stated above we loved and still do love Ernestine and Michael even though they have since went home to be with God. I reiterate what my sisters have written concerning thanking you for remembering. Correction on the age of Ernestine. If I am not mistaken she was a year older than myself. She would be 46 year old.

  7. I apologize for my silence on Ernestine. Every time I write an email to her family members with questions, I hesitate and put it aside for later. I am not cut out to be an investigative journalist, that’s for sure!

    The main problem is that I don’t want to intrude. I want to be sensitive and not sensational. That’s the whole point: to pay homage to the girl, not to revive the icon.

    I should just get over it and try again, because so many people have written to ask me about what happened to Ernestine. She may not be newsworthy anymore, but she is still worthy of our attention!

  8. Ernestine died at the age of 30. An autopsy was performed which found large amounts of inorganic mercury in her brain, the result, researchers believed, of a process of demethylation. I have started a page on Ernestine in Wikipedia, and invite you to add to it.

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published.