Forgotten History

Plague of the past

By Beverly Belcher Woody

While we are in the midlist of a seeming incomparable pandemic, this isn’t the first time Patrick County has seen a plague. Diphtheria once swashed over the land and with-it death.

In August of 1862, John Bishop Cockram and Mahalia Nannie Cruise Cockram had nine beautiful children, ranging in age from 14 years old to a one-month old baby. In six weeks, all their children would be dead, every single one. Diphtheria took them all.

The first one to die was their infant baby girl, yet to be named, on the 4th of August 1862. On the 30th of September 8-year-old Mary died. On the second day of October 13-year-old Martha, 6-year-old Ann, and 3-year-old Nancy died (yes, all the same day). On the 10th of October 10-year-old Lucinda died and on the 15th, 9-year-old John passed away. On the 18th, their oldest child, James, age 14, passed away, and on the 20th, 3-year-old Sarah Jane went to Heaven to be with all her siblings, including her little twin Nancy, who had passed away 18 days before.

Sadly, this was not an isolated incident in Patrick County. James Rutledge was the miller at the Langhorne Mill in Meadows of Dan. In the 1860 census, James and Susannah have 15 children. When the war broke out in 1861, 46-year-old James Sr. and 21-year-old James Jr. joined the 50th Virginia Infantry. Diphtheria arrived in the fall of 1862 and took its’ first Rutledge child, 8 year old Martha on the Oct. 28, 2 year old Doctor on Nov. 1, 14 year old Sarah on Nov. 4, 17 year old Susan on Nov. 9, 10 year old William on the 13th, 4 year old Peter on the 19th, 6 year old John on the 2nd of December, and 5 year old George on Dec. 30.

The next year 1863 was no kinder to the Rutledges. 23-year-old James Jr. was killed at the Battle of Chancellorsville and his father James Sr. was killed at the Battle of Gettysburg. Although six children survived the terrible epidemic, by 1900, only the mother Susannah and one daughter were left.

Diphtheria touched almost every family in Patrick County, including my own. James and Mary Ann Belcher Cruise had six children. James joined the fighting in 1861 and died shortly after of camp fever. Mary had to face the loss of her children as a widow when diphtheria came to her door. First, it was 10-year-old Mary on Sept. 24, 1862, then 12-year-old Henry on Oct. 3. Six-year-old James and two-year-old Martha both died on Oct. 16. Nancy Cassaday, another widow, also lost four children, as did Henry and Polly Burnett and James and Elizabeth Harris.

Charles and Delilah Barnard, Peter and Ruth Finney, Nathan and Deborah Hall Mc Alexander, John and Mary Clark Hanby, James and Lucy Hatcher, Isaac and Sarah Jones, David and Elizabeth Hill Knowles, James and Roxanna Reynolds, and Henry and Susan Webb each lost three children. Elder Sparrell and Ona Williams lost three little girls in three days’ time.

Diphtheria did not only take children, sometimes it took their parents. Rufus Turner, the 28-year-old Sheriff of Patrick County, died of diphtheria that fall, along with his two daughters. Elizabeth Epperson, a widow.

William and Susan Critz, Robert and Catherine Radford, and William and Sarah Stanley each lost two daughters. Jesse and Sarah Freeman, William and Mary Tatum, John and Mary Turner, and James and Catherine Wade each lost a boy and girl. Charles and Nancy Mary Nowlin and John Yates each lost two sons.

A list of those losing one child to diphtheria in 1862 looks like a who’s who of the settlers of Patrick County: Isaac and Exoney Adams, Austin and Eliza Agee, William and Susan Blackard, James and Sarah Blancett, John and Nancy Bowman, Hearon and Susan Cockram Boyd, David and Exony Burnett, John and Lucinda Bryant, William and Jane Cassaday, Martin and Frances Childress, Andrew and Martha Clifton, Jack and Permilia Corns, John Compton, James and Frances Compton, James and Susan Craddock, Nicholas and Martha Dalton, William and Exoney DeHart, John and Sarah DeHart, Peter and Lucinda Dillon, C.J. and Elizabeth Dillon, John and Jane Duke, James and Ruth Ferguson, Stephen and Nancy Foley, Abram and Mary Foster, William and Stella Goard, William and Ruth Hagood, William and Mary Handy, John and Melinda Hensley, James and Milly Hubbard, J.W. and Sarah Hubbard, James and Elizabeth Jefferson, Peyton and Louisa Jefferson, Richard and Mary Joyce, George and Mary King, John v Elizabeth Lawson, John and Lucinda Light, William and Harriett Mankins, Joseph and Martha Martin, Fleming and Jane Plasters, Jacob and Sarah Puckett, John and Ellena Puckett, Elijah and Sarah Puckett, Braxton and Mary Purdy, Charles and Mary Reynolds, Peter and Mary Reynolds, William and Mary Rorrer, Thomas and Lucinda Scott, Wiley and Julia Shepherd, James and Judith Smith, George and Sarah Smith, John and Susan Smith, Joseph and Sarah Smith, John and Jane Taylor, William and Sarah Thompson, Stephen and Ruth Turner, T.B. and Sallie Woolwine, and Henry Yates.

Charles Barnard Jr. and Moses Harris both lost their wives to diphtheria. My 2x grandfather’s brother, Alexander Conner, was killed in battle on Sept. 20, 1862 and his two-year-old son, William, succumbed to diphtheria five days later.

Although there were nearly 100 deaths from diphtheria in Patrick County in the last three decades of the 1800s, thankfully, it never came back with the cruelty and devastation of 1862.

(Woody enjoys researching and chronicling the rich history of Patrick County.)

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