Tuesday, October 18, 2016

Haunting Illnesses of the Past

Halloween is coming up and there is always something fun about the holiday. Mildly gory decorations and stories fill the house and it's a ghoulishly good time!

I have recently been searching the cemeteries and death records of the Wilson family of Clark County, Ohio. I was taken aback by how many family members died of tuberculosis and it reminded me of the many horrible diseases of the past.
Lavina Wilson West died of tuberculosis in 1880.

Some of the old diseases are so uncommon these days that you may never have even heard of them!  Looking at death records can open your eyes to a world of diseases you knew nothing about.

Tuberculosis was one of those diseases that plagued the Wilson family. It was also known as galloping consumption or the white plague. Over 100,000 Americans died every year from the bacterial disease in the early 1900's.[1] It is still among one of the most widespread diseases in the world. Symptoms include a cough lasting up to 3 weeks, fever, pain, fatigue, and coughing up blood from deep within the lungs. Sanatoriums were created for the sick and were sometimes referred to as “waiting rooms for death.”[2] 

One of the difficulties with TB was that a person could be infected, but not sick.  In other words, the TB bacteria could be latent and in this state, not contagious, but a ticking time bomb. Once the TB became active it could pass through coughs, sneezing, and close contact.[3] Family members, because of close proximity, would often catch the disease from an infected loved one. Out of the thirteen children of Lavina and Michael Wilson, at least three children and a son-in-law died of the disease.

Besides tuberculosis, another killer was la gripe, also known as the influenza. It was March of 1918 when the first wave of the Spanish Flu hit America in our military camps.[4] The soldiers had brought it home from the War. Unfortunately, it did not stay in one place and spread rather quickly. By fall, we had a second wave and a serious problem on our hands. The virus killed nearly 200,000 Americans in October of that year, including my great grandmother.

My great-grandmother, Donia Hensley Cole, was born in 1893. She was 25 years old when she contracted the flu. According to her death record, she was also pregnant and sick for nine days before passing. Donia was the mother of three children, all under the age of seven, and I have often wondered about her last days.

The symptoms of the Spanish Flu included fever, aches and pains, nausea, and diarrhea. Occasionally, the afflicted would get dark spots on their cheeks and their skin would turn a bluish hue from lack of oxygen. In many cases, the sick would develop pneumonia which would cause death.

Though, tuberculosis and the flu are awful, it was diphtheria that gave me the heeby-geebies. Diptheria is a bacterial disease that attacks the nose and throat of the infected person. Though there is a vaccine that protects us today, that wasn't the case in the not-so-distant past.

In 1914, diphtheria entered the home of my great-grandfather, Alonzo Walls. Two of his daughters, one of whom was my Grandma Iness, came down with the disease. The oldest daughter, Lulu was fifteen and Iness was just seven years old. Lulu became sick first and it likely went un-diagnosed until it had progressed too far. Lulu and Iness were put in the same bed so they could be quarantined from the rest of the family and receive their treatment. Treatment for diphtheria at that time may have included an antitoxin derived from horses or the disease was left to run its course.

Iness woke one morning to find her sister lying there dead beside her. Lulu's tongue had swollen so greatly, it would not fit into her mouth. Iness was lucky and recovered.

The only known picture of Lulu Walls, child on the left.

The haunting illnesses of the past can make a scary story this Halloween. It may not be in good taste, but if your children like a good gory story, why not tell them what their ancestors died of…after all, it's great to take any opportunity to talk about family history!

Tip: If you have a death record that lists an unusual cause of death, you might find out more about it by using the list of old illnesses and their names found at: http://freepages.genealogy.rootsweb.ancestry.com/~lynda77/illness1.htm. Reviewing that list will be sure to make you grateful you live in 2016!

Happy Halloween, my friends!

Read more fun stories:

Well, That's Weird: Strange Genealogy Records Found Online

"Finished" Family Line Questioned

[1] Sucre, Richard.  “The Great White Plague: The Culture of Death and the Tuberculosis Sanatorium.”  University of Virginia.  Web.  (www.faculty.virginia.edu/blueridgesanatorium/death.htm:  accessed 14 Mar 2015).
[2] Ibid.
[3] “Understanding Tuberculosis.”  American Lung Association.  Web.  (www.lung.org/lung-disease/tuberculosis/understanding-tuberculosis.html :  accessed 14 Mar 2015).
[4] Billings, Molly.  “The Influenza Pandemic of 1918.”  Stanford University.  June 1997.  Web.  (https://virus.standford.edu/uda :  accessed 16 Mar 2015).


  1. My greatgrandfather was a dam tender for the Fernbank Dam. Oral tradition says he injured his leg while trying to free a boat trapped in the ice when the Ohio River was freezing over. About two years later, he died of TB of the bone from that leg wound.

  2. Yes, thank goodness we live in 2016! It's sometimes been a challenge to translate an ancestor's stated cause of death into a current affliction. The link you provide to the list of old diseases is mighty helpful. Thanks!


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