Wednesday's Child--Diphtheria epidemic of Pittsylvania County, Virginia

Looking for death records in a small community can quickly reveal the aspects of life which stand in direct contrast to our first-world comfort today. One of my earliest discoveries of this nature was in the family of Richard C. Keatts, when his children passed through the diphtheria epidemic of 1882.

He and his wife Susan E.Bennett are a well-documented family in Pittsylvania County, Virginia. They have ten children together, but the sickness will come to affect nine of them.
  1. Mary Elizabeth (23)
  2. Susan (22)
  3. Charles (20)
  4. James (16)
  5. Sarah (14)
  6. Martha (11)
  7. Richard Jr. (7)
  8. Henrietta Jane (5)
  9. John Thomas (3)
  10. Emma Virter (born in 1884, therefore was unborn at the time)
 I've included their ages in 1882 in parentheses. It helps to put the sickness into that much more of a perspective.

Dr. Chase's Third, Last and Complete Receipt Book and Household Physician from 1891 describes diphtheria this way:


This guide is an interesting look into the germ theory of the late nineteenth century. It covers a variety of illnesses, and the suggested remedies. Whether these remedies prove ineffective, or unknown, it didn't stem the tide of illness that swept through Pittsylvania County in the late summer of 1882. The Halifax Advertiser reported on September 15th, 1882:

“In the neighborhood of Pig River, Pittsylvania county, the diphtheria has been raging to an alarming extent for some three weeks or more. Over fifty deaths have occurred in one week. The doctors are unable to cope with it. Numbers of persons have died within twenty-four hours after taking it.”

Among those dozens who passed away were five of the Keatts children.
  1. Mary Elizabeth (23)
  2. Susan (22) was third, 30th of August
  3. Charles (20)
  4. James (16) died with Henrietta Jane on the same day, 3rd of September
  5. Sarah (14)
  6. Martha (11) was the first to succumb on the 24th of August
  7. Richard Jr. (7) was second to die, on the 28th of Aug
  8. Henrietta Jane (5)
  9. John Thomas (3) [Note: I have been unable to find a death date for little John, so I cannot confirm whether or not he was also taken by the outbreak. The missing 1890 census leaves a gap I haven't filled for him yet.]
 In outbreaks like this, many of the dead were buried in mass graves out of necessity. For this reason, it wouldn't surprise me if don't find individual graves or markers for these children. I simply cannot fathom how a parent can handle losing 5 of their children in less than a month--and two in the same day.

Because I live in the era of DTaP vaccines, I will never need to know what this kind of suffering is like. But that doesn't mean I can't appreciate the tragedy in the loss of life so young, and count my blessings that we live in better times today.

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