This article, written by the American Ground Water Trust was originally published in




Had it not been for contaminated well water, America’s First Lady in 1861 might have been Ann and not Mary!  Before Abraham Lincoln married Mary Owens it was speculated that he had a romance with Ann Rutledge.  In 1832 when he moved to New Salem, Illinois, the future President stayed at a tavern where Ann worked.  Initially, Ann was engaged to John MacNamar.  Sometime during 1832, MacNamar told Ann he had to travel to New York but would return to marry her.  He never returned. 


As one might expect, much of the information about the relationship between Ann and Abraham Lincoln following MacNamar's departure is not well documented.  However, most reports indicate that Lincoln and Ann became very good friends.  Unfortunately, Ann Rutledge became ill during the late spring of 1835 and in August finally succumbed to the illness at the age of 22.  It is suspected that she died of typhoid fever, which is caused by a bacteriologic pathogen found in human and animal feces. 


Ann Rutledge probably contracted her illness from the tavern’s well water.  The seepage from a nearby outhouse could have infected the well water.  In the early 1800’s people commonly fetched their water by bucket from open dug wells.  Pumping systems were not available to transport water from wells to buildings.   Water was deemed safe to drink as long as it didn’t smell, taste, or look bad.  “Modern” bathrooms were not available to flush wastes to home septic or public sewer systems. Instead, outhouses located near homes and businesses were commonly used. 


We now know that dug wells are highly susceptible to contamination from septic system and outhouse seepage.  This drinking water/health connection was unknown in the early 1800’s because many disease-causing organisms are odorless, tasteless, and colorless and could pass ineffective "nose, mouth and eye" tests.  At that time, people had no way of knowing whether or not their water was safe to drink.  Bacteria were discovered in 1676, but the link between bacteria and disease was not confirmed until 1876 when Nobel Laureate Robert Koch confirmed the connection through his work with the anthrax bacterium.


In Lincoln’s time drilling rigs were not available to drill wells. Drilling machines did not appear on the scene in America until the 1870’s.  Today, drilled wells with well casing protecting the supply from near surface contamination are much safer, and yield a more dependable supply of water than dug wells.  Private well owners (15 million of them in the U.S.), still have the responsibility to test their well water and ensure that the supply is free from contamination.  Our knowledge of health protection and hygiene in the U.S. has come a long way since 1835.  Wells are a safe daily drinking supply source for 150 million Americans.  Unfortunately in some developing countries, the health risk to millions of people from unsafe supply sources has still not improved much from the conditions in rural America 170 years ago.


[© American Ground Water Trust.  This article may be reprinted for non-commercial educational purposes provided it is used in its entirety and that reference is made to its source as an article in THE AMERICAN WELL OWNER, 2001, Number 2]