Tuesday, December 15, 2015

"Suffer the little children..."

The death of an infant or young child still happens with sufficient frequency to remind us of the poignancy of life too soon extinguished. But in the last years of the nineteenth and first years of the twentieth century, when science had only just begun to grasp the causes of serious illness, infant and childhood mortality was even more common, leaving behind a trail of sadness and family disruption. Evidence of childhood death is easily found in Grinnell:  Babyland, situated along the southern edge of Hazelwood Cemetery, is home to numerous infant and child burials; elsewhere in the cemetery one finds plenty more gravestones remembering children, their memorials usually positioned among the graves of parents and siblings. All deaths of children bring the same piercing sorrow, but especially sad are the several gravestones that recall children who died in Grinnell, but whose families then moved on, creating new lives and new memories elsewhere. In this post we'll look at a few of these more lonesome child graves and tell their stories.
Gravestone of Mabel Ruth Lambirth (1912-1918), Hazelwood Cemetery (2015 photograph)
In West Hazelwood there stands a fairly plain stone onto which are etched both the image of a lamb and an inscription devoted to Ruth Lambirth, who died in 1918 at the age of five. The gravestone communicates nothing about the circumstances of the little girl's early demise, but the official record identified cause of death as influenza, a pestilence that swept across the Plains in 1918. This was the same illness—sometimes called the "Spanish Flu"—that burned through Chicago that autumn, carrying off the biological mother of the twins whom B. J. and Mabel Ricker adopted that year. As with others infected by the virus, Mabel Ruth went quickly: the death certificate reported that Dr. P. E. Somers had first treated her on November 4; six days later she was dead.
Notice (including mistaken family name) from Grinnell Herald, November 12, 1918
Although Iowa's encounter with influenza was not so virulent as Chicago's, records kept by the Iowa State Board of Health prove that 1918 was an especially deadly year for Iowans who contracted the flu. About twenty percent of all Iowa deaths that year were attributed to flu—more than three times as many as cancer deaths. By contrast, the next year influenza deaths dropped significantly, accounting for fewer than half as many deaths as cancer whose mortality held steady.

Ruth's death, therefore, was not an isolated case, but merely one of many that made the year 1918 stand out for families touched by the virus. At the same time, Ruth's encounter with the flu was different: state records reveal that October had been by far the most dangerous month, during which almost 43,000 cases of flu were reported across Iowa. By contrast, in November state authorities counted only thirteen cases of influenza, one of which killed Ruth Lambirth.
Data on Diseases in Iowa, Second Half of 1918, Report of the State Board of Health for the Biennial Period Ending June 30, 1920 (Des Moines: State of Iowa, 1921), p. 19.
Perhaps her parents did not at first realize that their daughter's death had come after the murderous wave had subsided. But if they did, that realization could only have deepened their sadness.

However much the family mourned Ruth's death, her lonely gravestone points to an important postscript: if elsewhere in Hazelwood one meets whole families metaphorically gathered together in adjacent graves, Ruth's stone stands alone, her family having survived the flu and moved on, abandoning her and her memorial. Who were these people, and where did they go?

The Lambirths, as it turns out, moved a great deal in their lifetimes. Joseph Elmer Lambirth, Ruth's father, was born in 1884 in Metcalf County, KY where young Elmer, as he was casually known, grew up. In 1909 he married Lillie Davis of Center, KY, and the following year the couple welcomed their first child, Roland. By 1911 the family was settled in Illinois where Elmer rented farmland and where in 1912 a second child arrived: Mabel Ruth, whom the family called by her middle name. Within a few years, the Lambirths moved again, this time settling in Iowa. No later than 1916 they were living in Poweshiek County where Elmer rented a farm in Chester township from John and Zella Matzen. The Lambirths continued to work this farm after the Matzens sold it to B. J. Ricker in 1920, and remained Ricker's tenants until 1923, when they decided to move again, this time to a farm in Jackson Township (near Montezuma) where federal census officials found them still in 1930. In the meantime, a third child—Lucille—was born.
B. J. Ricker farm, Chester Township, 1921 Atlas of Poweshiek County
In January, 1931, however, the Lambirths confronted tragedy once again when Elmer's brother, Virgil, and his sister-in-law, Laura, were murdered by a man who had worked for both Elmer and Virgil on their farms. According to the Montezuma newspaper, Clarence Brewer arrived at the farm six-and-a-half miles southeast of Montezuma, shot Virgil twice in the forehead, entered the house and shot Mrs. Lambirth (who lingered a while before she, too, died), then turned the gun on himself. Elmer was called to the scene soon after the shootings, but could offer no explanation for the murders. All that he and Lillie could do was to welcome their orphaned nephew Ralph into their home where the 1940 census found him on the Mahaska County farm to which Elmer had moved some years earlier.
Montezuma Republican January 22, 1931
Elmer continued to live near Barnes City until he fell ill, and entered hospital in Oskaloosa in October, 1965, dying a few days later. Lillie Lambirth lived another fifteen years, and died at age 90 in the Grinnell hospital. Her obituary remembered her living children and her nephew, Ralph, and noted that her husband and one daughter, Ruth, had preceded her in death.
Gravestone of Lillie and Elmer Lambirth, Barnes City cemetery
However, despite the fact that Ruth's body lay in Grinnell, neither Lillie, who died just a few blocks from Hazelwood, nor Elmer was buried at Hazelwood with their little girl who had died so many years before. Ruth's gravestone was destined to stand among graves of people she never knew.
Although influenza dominated childhood mortality in 1918, other diseases were more deadly to an earlier generation of children. For some time in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, it was diphtheria that struck down more children than any other illness.  Often misdiagnosed as membranous croup because of the thick mucus visible in the victim's throat, diphtheria in that era was poorly understood, its causative agent having only been identified in 1882. The deadly swath that diphtheria cut through Iowa's young population and the low level of public understanding of the disease help explain why the 1891 report of the Iowa Board of Health devoted so much attention to it. According to data published that year, in the 1890s Iowa suffered more than 3,000 cases of diphtheria annually, over 600 of them resulting in death. One of those 1891 deaths came to the family of Newton Cessna.
Gravestone for Olive Ruby Cessna (1885-1891), Hazelwood Cemetery (2015 photo)
Newton William Cessna was born in Bedford County, Pennsylvania in 1857, but with his family moved to Scott County, Iowa the following year. Raised as a farmer, Cessna himself farmed for some years, tilling 160 acres in section 33 of Chester township, north of Grinnell. In 1882 he married a Muscatine woman, Nancy Skiles, and the couple had three children: Myrtle Pearl, born November, 1884; Olive Ruby, December, 1886; and Maude Opal, November, 1887.
Section 33, Chester Township, 1896 Atlas of Poweshiek County
Tragedy arrived at the Cessna family suddenly and unexpectedly in late June, 1891 when Ruby (as they called their second daughter) abruptly took ill, her condition quickly deteriorating; within a week the little girl was dead. The Grinnell Herald briefly took note of Ruby's death, providing few details and extending condolences to the family.
Grinnell Herald July 3, 1891
For unknown reasons, Ruby's death did not enter the official register until 1894, but Poweshiek county death records report that Ruby, age 5 and one-half, had died of diphtheria July 1st, that she had been ill only one week, and had been victimized by what her doctor—E. B. Wiley of Grinnell—called "blood poison," evidently alluding to the toxins generated by diphtheria. Her parents buried her beneath a log-like gravestone, adorned with a dove.

Nothing survives to explain how the Cessna family dealt with Ruby's death. Perhaps Newton and Nancy Cessna, like some other parents of their era, anticipated the fragility of their children's well-being by delaying the naming  of  newborns. The 1885 Iowa census reveals that the first-born Cessna daughter (later known as Pearl), born November 15, 1884, was still unnamed when the census official inventoried the family early in January, almost two months later. The record for Ruby's own birth in December, 1886, shows a similar reluctance to assign a name: the document identifies her only by gender and surname. So perhaps the Cessnas were alert to the dangers of childhood illness.
"Iowa, County Births, 1880-1935," database, Family Search (http://www.familysearch.org/ark:/61903/1:1:XVHZ-DRW)
As is now well-known, diphtheria is very contagious, so quarantine is essential, but this precaution  was poorly practiced in nineteenth-century rural Iowa. Poweshiek County death records, for example, report that Charles P. Case, age 1 year, 10 months, died of diphtheria September 12, 1880; three days later his older brother, Henry W., just a few days short of four years old and undoubtedly infected by his younger brother, also succumbed to diphtheria, delivering a one-two gut punch to their parents, who had to bury two children in the same week.

The parents of Ruby Cessna did not confront the same terror as was visited upon the Case family. That first-born daughter, Pearl, and her younger sister, Maude, both survived the dangers of diphtheria and other childhood maladies. Nevertheless, their dad, who had been reasonably successful as a farmer, by 1895 decided to move into Grinnell, and the family soon thereafter took up residence at 921 Summer Street. Newton Cessna became meat manager for Grinnell Provision Company, and, to judge by his report to the 1915 census officials, he did very well, earning over $4000 in 1914. But Nancy Cessna was not well, and in 1917 the family—including the two unmarried daughters, both of whom were teachers in their late twenties—moved to California where they hoped the climate would be kinder to Mrs. Cessna. For some years the senior Cessnas lived near Pearl, who in 1921 had married Francis Kellogg, a fellow high school teacher in Eureka. Later, the elder Cessnas moved to Pasadena, close to their other daughter, Maude, who had married Chauncey Traver, a doctor at the Patton State Hospital for the Insane.

And so Newton and Nancy Cessna lived out their lives in California, as did their daughters. Years after having left behind the grave of Ruby Cessna in Hazelwood Cemetery, Nancy died in California, and was interred at Mountain View Cemetery, Altadina, CA in 1934; her husband lived well into his nineties before his 1952 death when he was buried by his wife. Ruby's grave remained far away.
Gravestone of Newton and Nancy Cessna, Mountain View Cemetery, Altadena, California
Despite everything that had followed Ruby's 1891 death, the Cessna daughters did not forget Grinnell. A small item in an October, 1956 issue of the Grinnell Herald Register reported that Pearl Cessna Kellogg and Maude Cessna Traver had recently donated to the Grinnell Historical Museum their mother's wedding dress, several girls' dresses, and a child's book published around 1890. No doubt each of the three Cessna girls, including Ruby, had worn these dresses and had perhaps also handled this book; perhaps as girls growing up in Grinnell, they had tried on their mother's wedding dress, imagining their own futures. Now these legacies provide only mute, indirect testimony to the family's life here and to Ruby Cessna's early death.
If the influenza epidemic of 1918 passed quickly, diphtheria did not depart Grinnell quickly or quietly. As the first waves of the twentieth century washed over central Iowa, the disease continued to inflict loss upon Grinnell families. That history is not visible in the gravestone assigned to Lester Arnold Learned, who, the Grinnell Herald reported in its October 12, 1906 issue, had died from diphtheria. The gravestone, decorated with a small lamb at rest, recalls the boy who died that October, just short of his seventh birthday. An epigraph below the date of death quotes from the W. A. Ogden hymn: "I am Jesus' little lamb, Happy all day long I am." An inscription above the lamb reads, "Our Little Brother."
Gravestone for Lester Arnold Learned (1899-1906), Hazelwood Cemetery
Lester's mother, Lorena Shoffner, had been born in nearby Kellogg, but for reasons unknown had made her way to Miles City, Montana, where she met Grant Learned. The couple married in 1882, and soon began to welcome children to their Montana home: two daughters were born before Lester's 1899 birth, after which a third daughter arrived in 1903. In these years, Miles City could boast a population of fewer than 1000, but the town was a well-known destination for cattle drives, and the beef industry was crucial to the local economy.

What brought Grant and Lorena Learned to Iowa is unknown; perhaps they came east because of Lorena's family in Kellogg, but the 1905 Iowa census has them living not in Kellogg, but in Grinnell at 1138 Elm Street. In Montana Grant had been known as a "stockman," so he probably pursued similar work around Grinnell, but neither the 1905 nor 1908 city directories recalls him, and by 1909 he was back in Miles City, Montana.
Notice from the Grinnell Herald, October 12, 1906
The brief sojourn in Grinnell—arriving no earlier than 1903 and remaining no longer than 1908—offers little evidence of how the family dealt with Lester's 1906 death, but the family's return to Montana seems to have been accompanied by considerable domestic trouble. The 1910 census found Lorena and her three remaining children back in Miles City; the census-taker described Lorena as "widow," but I could find no confirmation of Grant's death. Furthermore, when Lorena remarried in 1912, the marriage certificate reported her as "married and divorced." What does this conflicting evidence mean? Had the death of Lester played some part in moving the family back to Montana and perhaps also in breaking up the marriage?

Unless Lorena or her husband left behind some explanation, we will never know the answer to these questions. Like the Lambirths and Cessnas, the Learned family continued their itineracy after Grinnell, which ended up constituting only a brief chapter in lives for the most part lived out elsewhere. Consequently, the gravestone of Lester Learned, like those of Ruth Lambirth and Ruby Cessna, occupies a lonely spot in Hazelwood cemetery, comforted by the presence of no other member of the family. Parents and surviving children had moved on, leaving Grinnell and its memories visible only in the rear-view mirror.

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