Wednesday, February 6, 2013

Death By Chewing Gum

Della Ketterman at the bottom enjoying the beach at Seaside.

            Did your mother ever warn you not to fall asleep with chewing gum in your mouth? She was right; it can be extremely dangerous. That’s what Della Kitterman, 42, found out the hard way in July 1910 while she and her husband Alexander were vacationing in Seaside. Alexander Kitterman was a Portland garden tool dealer and inventor, who would patent a weeding device in 1928. One evening in August Della complained of a dry throat and Alexander offered her a piece of chewing gum. The chewing gum helped Della´s dryness and soon she fell asleep with the gum still in her mouth. In her sleep she aspirated the chewing gum into her lungs and woke up making choking sounds.
            It was fashionable for well to do Portlanders to vacation at Clatsop Beach, where the Necanicum River comes out to the ocean, since the 1860s when The Ocean House opened south of the “new government fortifications at the mouth of the Columbia River.” The Ocean House was advertised for invalids of the over-heated sickly country. In 1871 Ben Holladay, Portland’s earliest railroad baron, who had a summer house on the beach erected a new wharf and hotel. The Seaside House became a fashionable destination in July and August.
            Clatsop Beach was very isolated; it was not even possible to get to Astoria by Road before 1908. To get there from Portland you had to take a steamer to Astoria and then a local river boat south to Skipanon, where Warrenton is now. From there you could go on into Seaside by wagon or horseback. The Seaside House was located right on the beach and offered a beautiful rural setting with excellent hunting and fishing. Tillamook Head, just south of the resort offered hiking with incredible views. Before the 1890s summers at Seaside were idyllic. 
A Seaside beach scene in 1896.

            In 1892 a railroad line connected Skipanon with the budding community of Seaside.  At that time the town’s population fell to less than one hundred for ten months out of the year. Tourists flocked to the beach in July and August, swelling the little town’s population to 5,000-10,000 during the summer, but rarely at any other time. The little railroad soon became known as the Daddy Train, by families that spent summers at the beach and were joined by their fathers on weekends. In the first decade of the twentieth century roads expanded and the full time population began to grow.  By 1910 the full time population numbered 1,600. Dr. W.E. Lewis, a Portland physician and real estate speculator, was one of the founding fathers of Seaside and an early city council member. Alexander Kitterman, wakened by his wife’s gasping struggle rushed to get Dr. Lewis.
            The gum that Mrs. Kitterman had aspirated was doing severe damage to her lungs, causing a type of damage similar to that which occurs in emphysema. Dr. Lewis rushed the suffering woman to the Seaside Sanatorium where he spent six weeks trying to dislodge the gum from the woman’s lungs. Therapies probably included manual manipulation pressure therapy and inhaling various herbs and gases to induce coughing. Finally at the end of August, Della Kitterman coughed up the gum.
            Before the 1870s it was common in Oregon to chew sap from spruce trees, but there was no commercial chewing gum available. Although Tutti-Frutti chewing gum was being successfully marketed on the east coast it was rare to find chewing gum in Oregon before 1894. In that year J.J. Newton, a Portland chemist, and his son George F. Newton imported gum making machinery from New York and hired a practical gum maker from Chicago. George Newton had been working in sales for the Portland Cracker Company for three years and new the local market for snacks. They opened a small factory on southeast Water Street and marketed the product as Newton Brothers Gum. Since national brands of chewing gum didn’t become available until the Great War, it is likely that Della Kitterman was chewing a piece of Newton Brothers Gum.
            By the time Mrs. Kitterman coughed up her wad of gum her lungs had been severely damaged. The treatments had left her extremely weak and the next morning she died. It is not common for people to die by inhaling gum, but oddly enough in December 1909 there was a well publicized case in New York City of a small boy inhaling a wad of gum and dying from it. It made the front page of the Oregonian and Della Kitterman may have seen it. Alexander Kitterman didn’t waste time. He returned his wife’s body to Portland and buried her under a nice grave stone at Lone Fir Cemetery. He remarried before 1910 was over.
Della Kitterman´s grave at Lone Fir Cemetery.


  1. I think Alexander knew exactly what he was doing when he offered Della the gum. When she finally coughed it up he must have taken some other action to be able to move on to his next wife so quickly. I believe a full investigation is in order.

  2. You're not the first one to be suspicious. I have my suspicions too, but I doubt that even Portland's famous Cold Case Squad could do anything with this now.