By Kimberly Everson, DVM
My kids are finishing up their final doses of amoxicillin, affected as they all were, from an epidemic of Strep throat running through their school. This period of inconvenience and discomfort coincides with my attendance at a genealogy seminar, where I learned how to use archives to unravel mysteries of long dead forebears. My genealogy goals are grand. Eventually I want to create narratives from my ancestors’ perspective, something colorful and historical to share with my children’s children. But first I decide to try out my new investigative skills on a project smaller and closer to home: the little cemetery just outside my back door.
Although there is no signage, the cemetery is referred to blandly as the Ridge Road Cemetery in a 1914 obituary in the Oshkosh Northwestern. A document from the Fond du Lac Genealogical Society designates the site as “M.E. (German) Cemetery,” and lists the occupants of twenty-three graves. In the farm field adjacent to the tiny cemetery once stood a church, erected in 1859. A June 11, 1930 Fond du Lac Commonwealth Reporter article refers to the church alternately as Ridge Road Evangelical Church and Eldorado Evangelical Church. The church building is long gone, removed decades ago to function as a chicken coop on a nearby farm. I believe it has burned down. Some of the foundation of the church pops up every spring as variably-sized boulders in the fallow field, but most of the foundation was dumped in front of the feed and seed shed that was transformed into St. Bernard’s Animal Medical Center veterinary clinic in 2011. These boulders are now part of the stone wall here.
Like all cemeteries, the Ridge Road Cemetery gives us a glimpse into the past, headstones announcing (in German) lives lived to a ripe old age as well as tragic losses of children. There is a sublime beauty here. In the springtime, the aged head stones are nestled within fragrant mature lilac bushes and blossoming crab apple trees. You can see where the old Ridge Road used to pass beside the cemetery; it is now just a wide grass-covered runway ending abruptly at the edge of northbound Highway 41.
Our intersection is confusing because of the cemetery, I was told. Ridge Road stretches north from County Road N, its initial uphill path seeming to be the northbound entrance ramp to Highway 41. In fact, northbound traffic must turn south off County Road N and curve back north on a long ramp. The strange design of our intersection, a local resident informed us, stemmed from the State’s inability to relocate the Ridge Road Cemetery not only because some living relatives disapproved but also because of a vague fear of disturbing the graves of “plague” victims buried there.
Even before visiting the cemetery, the “plague” statement bothered me. True, plague is a real contagious disease that has historically decimated huge populations of humans and continues to cause sickness worldwide. Plague is caused by a bacteria called Yersinia pestis, and involves infected fleas which are brought into contact with people via rodents and domestic animals. Plague is not a bacteria like Bacillus anthracis (a.k.a. anthrax) that hibernates in contaminated soil, waiting to be stirred up and made infectious. Conversely anthrax does not spread from person to person like a “plague.” The casual reference to “plague” spurred on my curiosity, but it took no time to find the source of this local myth.
At the center of the lilacs is a plot of graves surrounded by a wrought iron fence. Here are buried four children from a single family–Walter (9), Martha (16), Emma (6) and Edwin (12)–whose dates of death span the course of two weeks in February 1894. As a mother, visiting their graves (even just writing these lines) makes me feel heavy with dread. I need to know the cause of this tragedy. It is not as simple as locating death certificates. It is rare to find birth and death certificates prior to 1906, when recording such vital statistics was mandated. Not unsurprisingly, no death certificates are available for the Lemke children at the Fond du Lac courthouse.
Amazingly, local newspapers back then recorded incredibly personal and mundane details of daily life that help to fill in the gaps of a biographer’s research. I began searching Newspaper Archive online for obituaries of the children, but found nothing. Broadening my search in various ways but still finding absolutely nothing, I began to feel desperate. Then I stumbled upon a news brief in the February 25, 1894 issue of Cudahy Times that says so much in such few words: “Reports from Oshkosh state that the schools in the town of Eldorado have been closed on account of the prevalence of diphtheria there.” I will continue my search for details of the Lemke tragedy in library holdings, but this nugget of information is truly a gold mine. Diphtheria makes sense. And boy is it ironic, that as I’m making my discovery, my children are battling Strep throat, a shadow of the horrible diphtheria.
Diphtheria is caused by a highly contagious bacteria Corynebacterium diphtheriae that causes a thick covering in the back of the throat. Infection can lead to difficulty breathing, heart failure, paralysis and even death. Diphtheria is spread through sneezing and coughing. The Center for Disease Control reports before treatment against diphtheria was discovered, over half the people who contracted the illness died from it. In fact, the CDC states that diphtheria was so deadly it “wiped out entire communities, sometimes killing all the children in a family.” Vaccination programs since the 1920s have dramatically reduced the incidence of this disease in the U.S., but it still exists worldwide.
While fascinating, can I tie the strands of this historical medical mystery into my veterinary blog? You bet!The Alaskan Iditarod Race commemorates The Great Race of Mercy, the 1925 mushing run of diphtheria antitoxin from Anchorage to sick children in Nome. The isolated city of Nome could not be reached by air, sea or rail. Instead twenty of Alaska’s best sled dog drivers who delivered mail along this route were charged with delivering the life-saving medicine. The trip usually made in 15-20 days was accomplished in 5 days and 7 hours in spite of blizzards and sub-zero temperatures. One of the many things this veterinarian finds beautiful about this event is that history has recognized not only the efforts of the mushers but also of the sled dogs. Almost 90 years later, we know and honor the names of lead sled dogs Togo and Balto. In fact, Balto‘s story was made into a great animated movie in 1995.
From all I have learned, it is very likely that a diphtheria epidemic claimed the lives of the four children in Ridge Road Cemetery. Having watched each of my children come down with a contagious illness in the midst of a school epidemic, I feel a little better trained to put myself in Mrs. Lemke’s shoes, but I sure don’t want to wear them. I imagine her hearing that diphtheria has broken out in her children’s single room school house, fearing her babies have been exposed and waiting for an illness against which she is helpless. In my mind’s eye I see one child becoming sick, then another and another and another. I see her tending to them first through exhaustion and then agony as one after the other is laid to rest in the cold February ground of Ridge Road Cemetery. Although I can’t begin to understand how she survived such grief, I also envision her stooped and aged above the graves nurturing the lilac bushes I love so much.