Several times Joann and I have talked about how lucky we are that nothing tragic happened to any of the children in our family working on the family farm. There were many opportunities for one of us to become hurt or maimed. Luckily nothing severe ever happened to any of us.
Gravestone of John Lehner, 1903-1909, (Died of Diptheria), Old St. Luke's Cemetery, Plain, Wisconsin
But on a trip to Spring Green in 1992, Joann photographed the grave of our great-uncle John who died at the age of six during an outbreak of diphtheria in 1909 in the Spring Green area. Our grandmother was 13 when her brother died. Joseph, another of her brothers, also came down with diphtheria, but he survived. The family was very traumatized by the disease and his death. Our great aunt Katie was only four but she could recall the strong smell of disinfectant used to wrap the body in.
We usually don’t think about those outbreaks that befell people in the earlier days of our country. When we visit cemeteries, we often see old family sections with many children’s headstones among the graves, and we are saddened and wonder about the circumstances of their deaths.
Then in the fall of 2012 on our way north, we drove down a country road that had two small unique cemeteries on it. One was named Small Pox Cemetery and the other Diphtheria Cemetery. They are only a couple of miles apart along this country road.
The Smallpox Cemetery is a small cemetery surrounded by a white fence. Some of the grave markers were small white crosses with no names, yet there were flowers planted at the crosses.
The Diphtheria Cemetery had a sign by the road and wooden steps going up the hill to the cemetery. Only a couple of gravestones in the cemetery were legible.
During these early outbreaks of disease, it was often the custom to have the burials during the night so that few people were around. Only one person from the family would be allowed to go to the cemetery and observe where their loved one was buried. And it couldn’t be someone who had attended the sick. For this reason, parents often could not attend their own children’s burials. Our great grandparents could not attend the burial of their six-year-old son, John. So his 15-year-old sister, Elizabeth, went. What a huge and sorrowful responsibility for a teenager!
Sometimes a crier was sent before the casket to warn anyone along the way that someone who had died of small pox or diphtheria was on the way to be buried. Burials took place as soon as possible after the death. A vaccine for small pox became widely available in the late 1800’s, while the first diphtheria vaccine wasn’t available until the 1920’s.
Many families lost multiple children during these outbreaks, and oftentimes one or more adults who attended the sick children would also succumb to the disease.
The stories of these two cemeteries show that this was the case in this area for these diseases. Two families lost ten family members to smallpox, while another lost five children to diphtheria.
If you pass an old cemetery along the road, and you have a few minutes to spare, walk among the gravestones. You may feel the same feeling of peace that we do.