Thursday, October 11, 2007

Using the New York Times for Family History

When I was 12, I did a sixth-grade research paper on genealogy. It really was an incredible experience, as it was both the first time I wrote anything longer than a couple of pages, and the first time I found myself completely overwhelmed with information. In a genealogical sense, I'm blessed in that my ancestors are very well documented — great-great aunts have done the legwork already and written books about my family. One of those home-published books I read for my sixth-grade research paper was From the Fruit of the Garden, by Jubal Early Toler. Apparently my adolescent self stumbled across the story "Juby" tells and was shocked enough to remember it:
To round out the Keatts family history with the full impact of the emotional details involved, a second look at the diphtheria epidemic of 1882 is necessary. In that year a peculiar weather phenomena occurred. The summer season was progressing as usual with the tree leaves growing worn and pale for an early fall. The earth in general had that usual summer scorched-out look and there was no indication of the impending change.

Then an unusual, if not strange, thing happened during a prolonged late summer rainy spell. The vegetation seemed to take on a second growth. It turned to a deep abnormal green, as though it was suddenly spring again. Vegetables and crops sprang to new life and the rains kept coming like spring showers. People noticed the change was not alarmed. In fact, it may have been regarded as a blessing to late gardens and crops.

Suddenly, throughout the communities, children everywhere began coming down with sore throats. A child would be playing apparently healthy in the morning and by night time be running high fevers and at the point of death. The few doctors were helpless, but carried on, often night and day without sleep. One doctor claimed that all the sleep he got for weeks was in his buggy going from one patient's home to another. Children died while parents stood by in utter desperation. Often, as was the case on the Keatts family, the family members had to bury their own dead. Those who had escaped the illness were afraid to go into the homes where it was.

In the home of Dick Keatts on Monday, August 28, 1882 Martha Keatts, age 11, died. While she was being buried Tuesday August 29th Richard Keatts, age 7 died. Then the second day after she was buried James Keatts, age 16 died about sunrise. He always looked after his young sister, Henerita[sic] Keatts, age 5, and she was devoted to him. When he died that morning, Henerita came to her father at the fireplace and told him she was going to die too so she could be with James and she asked him to bury her with James. At that time she was apparently untouched by the illness. She went and got in James' bed by him and was dead before night. They were buried in the same grave and a double tombstone was erected as a marker.

Sometime during that day the doctor came by the Keatts home and made them take all the dead childrens clothes and bed clothes and burn them. It was said that old man "Dick" Keatts never spoke a dozen words during the entire week. For a long time afterwards he would sit by the fireplace with his Bible in his lap and read or sleep, or just stare into space. An examination of his worn bible revealed that the book of psalms, the proverbs, the gospel according to St. Mark and Revelations showed the most frayed leaves. Each of those books were worn to the degree that the leaves were deteriorating. His wife was sad to the point of quiet despair, and she never got over the loss although she did give birth to one more child, "Virter". She died July 16, 1890, fifteen minutes before 12:00 midnight.
I've remembered this gruesome story since I read it, even though the Keatts family were only collateral ancestors, so my 12-year-old self skimmed through their section of the book. Upon the discovery that national history provides a backdrop for one's family history, I've been looking for the diphtheria epidemic of 1882. I hadn't found any mention online or in popular historical epidemiology, until the New York Times opened the doors on its archives. I did a search for "Pittsylvania", the name of the county in Virginia my family is from, and was rewarded with this article from September 9, 1882:

Lynchburg, Va, Sept. 8. -- The diphtheria is raging to an alarming extent in several of the border counties of this State and North Carolina. In a territory in Pittsylvania and adjoining counties, embracing 50 or 60 miles, over 100 cases have been reported and about 50 deaths. In one week 28 fatal cases have occurred in the radius indicated. There were five deaths from this cause in one family. The malady is also reported in Lunenburg, in this state, and in Alamance, Orange, and in other counties in North Carolina. It is asserted that the physicians have been unable to successfully cope with the disease. About this time last year the same fatal type of diphtheria made its appearance in the same section of North Carolina, but did not extend to this portion of Virginia.