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Monday, March 8, 2010

Black Diphtheria

My grandmother's grandparents and their children were founders of Glen Cary Lutheran Church. My aunt had given me the names of my grandmother's cousins. I found most of my grandmother's family are buried in the cemetery by the church but not all.

Several years ago, I purchased a book published in 1977 by the Anoka County Historical Society entitled "Silent Cities: A Survey of Anoka County Minnesota Cemeteries." I had hoped to locate the burial sites of those not buried at Glen Cary. In particular, I was hoping to find the burial site of some of my relatives who died as children. It didn't seem to me to be very likely that these children were buried outside of Anoka County.

A distant cousin sent me copies of pages from a booklet commemorating the centennial of the founding of Glen Cary Lutheran Church. It included a comment concerning the deaths of four children of my grandmother's aunt. The year in which my grandmother was born, her father's sister lost four of her children within one week. They all died of black diphtheria according to the Glen Cary Lutheran Church booklet.

As a child I had vaccinations against diphtheria. It was not called black diphtheria so I wondered if black diphtheria was another disease. A bit of sleuthing later, I learned that people contracted diphtheria. Some survived and others died. It seems that people died of black diphtheria while others survived diphtheria.

JAMA (Journal of the American Medical Association), Vol. 79, No. 16, October 14, 1922, included an article by Malcolm Graham, MD and E. H. Golaz, BS entitled " Milk-Borne Diphtheria." I found a description of an advanced case of diphtheria in which the mucous membranes of the throat had changed from the normal red to a dirty, black appearance.

So now I think I have an idea why my family and others would say that a family member died of black diphtheria. But that still left me wondering where these four children were buried. I found several accounts of people recollecting that normal burials were not permitted as families were being quarantined.

One story I found talked about the quarantined family burying the dead in the middle of the night when other's in the community were asleep. Another story indicated that the undertaker dropped off a coffin and the family placed the body in the coffin. The undertaker removed the coffin. Whether the family knew what happened to their loved one or not I cannot say.

I wonder if my grandmother's cousins were buried somewhere on the family farm or secretly in the Glen Cary Cemetery. I probably won't find out the answer. But more importantly, I am not likely to ever know how my grandmother's aunt and uncle dealt with such a tremendous loss.

As a side note: I visited the cemetery with my father before we moved to California in 1960. I remember the cemetery surrounding the church. I was distinctly impressed with the graves that were outlined with stones or bricks because a number of the graves outlined were very small. Most of these graves were very near the church building.

I made a trip to the cemetery a few years ago with my sister. The church building was gone as a new much larger, more modern building was built nearby. I could not find those graves of the small children that I saw over forty years ago.

1 comment:

  1. I have family notes of three children dying of black diphtheria all in one week. This was in eastern Ohio in 1892. They were removed through the bedroom window to not expose the rest of the family and were buried at night, their graves found in a Pennsylvania cemetery. They were 12, 15, and 18. Thank you for your story and research.

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