Wednesday, September 9, 2015

Five Daughters Suddenly Gone

Middle Interval Meetinghouse and Cemetery
At the beginning of September 1861, my 3rd great-grandparents, Elias & Rebecca (Williamson) Carter, had eleven children. By the end of the month, they had only six children. The household was struck by a diphtheria epidemic and five young daughters died in between September 13th and September 30th. Julia Elizabeth (age 11) died on September 13th followed by Helen Louise (age 7) who died on the 20th. Emily Jane (age 14) and Sarah Lillie (age 9) and died on the 25th and 26th, respectively. On September 30th, Anna Grace (age 4) was their youngest child and the final one to die in this household. 

The girls were buried in the family plot in the Middle Intervale Cemetery across the road from their home. 

One can only imagine what life must have been like in the household during that month. Two older daughters survived. The oldest, Frances Ann was 23 and Mary Elizabeth was 18 and surely helped care for their ailing sisters. There were four sons including my 2nd great-grandfather Augustus Mellen. He was twenty at the time and would soon be going off to fight in the Civil War. Edward Lawson was 16, Timothy Cullen was 15 and John Herbert was 7. John and Helen were twins.

"Throat distemper" is what diphtheria was often called in the death records of the 17th and 18th centuries. It was particularly lethal among children under the age of ten. In addition to local outbreaks, New England suffered a major regional outbreak between 1735-1740. Fortunately, today there are vaccines to prevent diseases like diphtheria that once took many lives each year. In the 1920s, there were about 150,000 cases with about 13,000 fatalities annually ( The diphtheria vaccine became available in 1926 and has been in widespread use since the 1940s. However, recently the number of children who are not properly vaccinated has increased. Hopefully, there won't be more outbreaks in the future. 

Diphtheria under the microscope - read the description below
Diphtheria: an acute infectious disease caused by the bacteria Corynebacterium diphtheriae. It is spread by respiratory droplets of an infected person or someone who carries the bacteria but has no symptoms. It can also be spread by contaminated objects or foods. The bacteria most commonly infect the nose and throat. The throat infection "causes a gray to black, tough, fiber-like covering, which can block the airways...Once infected, dangerous substances called toxins, produced by the bacteria, can spread through your bloodstream to other organs, such as the heart, and cause significant damage" (PubMed Health). 


  1. This is such an important post! Three of my mother's young brothers died of diptheria in the early 1920's. Though she was a young girl herself, she could vividly remember their sufferings. Thank you for writing this.

  2. What a tragic loss for the family. Wow! Five children passing away in one month. I'm grateful that we have the Diphtheria vaccine and other benefits of modern medicine today.

  3. Poignant story. Thanks. I still am wondering how my Carters and your Carters are related - if at all.

    1. Dan - My Carters came from Massachusetts to Maine. They are descendants of the immigrant, Rev. Thomas Carter of Woburn. I can be found on ancestry as historyteacher63 and I have one public tree of direct line ancestors. I'd love to hear more about your Carters.

  4. Pam,

    I want to let you know that your blog post is listed in today's Fab Finds post at

    Have a wonderful weekend!

  5. This was a terrible tragedy! How does a family ever recover from such a loss.

  6. How heart-breaking! One of the reasons we do genealogy... to dig up these stories so they can be remembered. This family needs to be remembered.