Death of Children

From Lane Co Oregon

"Mr. Hollis, who lives a few miles west of this city, has lost five children with the Diphtheria this summer,” read the one-sentence news item in Eugene’s Oregon State Journal of September 22, 1877. During a ten-day stretch of that same fatal summer, diphtheria also killed four sons of the Murch family. A pause today at the Hollis family plot in Eugene’s Masonic Cemetery confirms the chilling toll: Catharine, age 4; Laura, 8; Rachel, 10; George, 12; and possibly Orrie, 1 (although his tombstone indicates he died in 1876). The Murch family plot echoes the same: Arthur, George, Emmet and Edward, ranging in age from three to nine. Diphtheria, the “scourge of childhood,” was a highly contagious disease with symptoms of acute sore throat and breathing difficulties. It first appeared in Portland as an epidemic in 1864, leading doctors to declare it the most fatal disease among children. An antitoxin was developed in the 1890s, and gave good results. But it was expensive and difficult to obtain outside the Portland area. As an early settler told a reporter from Portland’s Oregon Journal:

When I was a girl we knew but little about the danger of contagious diseases. When a child had what they called putrid sore throat the neighbors all came with their children to visit, and when the child died, as it frequently did, the neighbors for miles around came to the funeral and took the germs of diphtheria home to their children, and the minister was kept busy preaching funeral sermons for the children in the neighborhood. Diphtheria was not the only disease that claimed the lives of Oregon children in the second half of the nineteenth century. Measles, scarlet fever, whooping cough and typhoid fever also took their share. Respiratory diseases such as pneumonia and croup, along with “cholera infantum” and other diarrheal sicknesses, killed children. Fatal injuries and accidents — chiefly burns and drownings — rounded out the risks.

Again, the story is corroborated in the Masonic Cemetery: Children under ten accounted for over one-third (36 percent) of all persons buried there in the 1860s and 1870s. In the state of Oregon, children under ten represented 41 percent of all the deaths that occurred in 1880, according to U.S. Census Bureau reports.

A primary reason for this was the overall youthfulness of the state’s population. Half of Oregon’s residents were under twenty-two years old in that year. By [1900]], Oregon’s median age had risen to twenty-six, pioneers were dying of old age, and only 22 percent of all deaths were attributable to children under ten. However, this does not imply that death rates among infants and young children in the late 1800s were not staggering. Epidemics, primitive remedies and very primitive sanitation, the lack of hospitals, and the time it took for medical advances to reach a frontier state all took their toll on children’s lives. In Oregon, the death rate of infants (children under one year old) was about 70 for every 1,000 live births in 1880 — ten times as high as the 1994 infant death rate of 7 per 1,000. The first year of life was critical. In 1890, almost half of the deaths of Oregon children under ten were infant deaths. Because a baby’s life was so precarious, parents were warned against becoming too attached to their newborns. Thus, some children were not even named until they were several months or even a year old. Inscriptions on tombstones might refer to “Baby” Noland, “Infant” Witter, and simply, “Son.”

Mothers also died. Frequently married in her early teens, it was common for a woman to have ten to fifteen children during her lifetime. While Census data indicate that the number of deaths of Oregon women due directly to pregnancy or childbirth was not particularly high in the late 1800s, indirect causes can be traced. Death notices in Eugene newspapers reveal that women were often ill during their pregnancies, and their weakened condition led quickly or eventually to their deaths — and sometimes to the deaths of their babies. As the Oregon State Journal reported:

JUNE 3, 1871. In Eugene City, May 30, 1871, Mrs.Phebe A. Folsom (age 27) died of consumption. Just developed into motherhood, she leaves an infant daughter bereaved of a tender mother, and a husband to mourn the almost irreparable loss.

AUGUST 5, 1871. In this city, August 4, 1871, Phebe Mabel, only child of F. W. and Phebe Folsom, died, aged about 6 months.

JULY 8, 1876. Mrs. Martha Ann Hill, wife of W. J. Hill, died at Foley’s Springs on the McKenzie, on the 29th, of consumption. Five days before their little daughter, Effie, died of typhoid pneumonia, aged ten months; mother and daughter were buried together in the Masonic burying grounds.

FEBRUARY 14, 1885. Bessie, infant daughter of Mr. and Mrs. G. H. Park, died at their residence in Eugene City last Monday morning, Feb. 9, aged 17 days. Mrs. Park has been sick several months, but her health is now improving.

MAY 16, 1885. Mrs. Rose Park (age 46), wife of Geo. H. Park, died at the family residence in Eugene City on Tuesday evening, May 12, 1885. She was the mother of eleven children, three boys and eight girls. One girl died when between two and three years old, about three years ago, and the youngest girl died on the 9th of last February.

While Oregon’s pioneer families were forced to cope frequently with the loss of small children to disease and other fatal hazards of frontier existence, they had one great consolation: the certainty that the dead child was in heaven. This comfort had been denied Puritan parents in the seventeenth century, when Calvinist doctrine upheld the notion of original sin and infant damnation, so that the child was not only lost in this life but for all eternity. But this was challenged in the eighteenth century, and Christian theology, long before the Civil War, came around to the position that “God was too good in heart to damn infants, and infants were too good in nature to warrant damnation.” Infants, at the time of Oregon’s early settlement, represented the one exception to the overall sinfulness of the world — and this belief in children’s innocence is manifested in the funeral addresses of that period. The Pastor’s Pocket Manual for Funerals, published in 1902, contains the following suggestions for funerals of children:

The child is not lost to you, that is found in Christ — not sent away, but gone before — a start, not extinguished, but shining in celestial glory. The early loss of the bereaved, the heavenly gain of the child. Surely it is not the will of our Father who is in heaven that one of these little ones should perish. They are lambs of the upper fold, are without fault before the throne and jewels on the Saviour’s breast.

This belief is also confirmed in the art and inscriptions on children’s tombstones, beginning in the mid-1800s. Skulls and crossbones were replaced by winged cherubs, lambs, and doves. Tombstone art also included rosettes and flowers adorning tender and poetic inscriptions that evoke the Biblical verse, Mark 10:14 — “Jesus said suffer little children to come unto me, and forbid them not; for such is the kingdom of heaven.”

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