Tag Archives: Diphtheria

Diphtheria, the O’Marra Family, and the Rest of the Story

In 2011, I wrote about the O’Marra family, who lost eight of their nine children when a particularly awful strain of “black” diphtheria hit their household in 1903. Their story touched my heart, and it turns out that it touched the hearts of a lot of readers out there, too. Of all of the stories and places I’ve shared, the O’Marra’s story is the most read, most shared, and most discussed.

But many of us wanted to know what happened afterward. What happened after the diphtheria outbreak and the newspaper stories? What happened to the O’Marra family? What happened to Lizzie, once the middle child in a family of nine, and now the only remaining child?

Margaret O’Marra Miller, a descendant of the O’Marra family, reached out to me to tell me more about her family and offer some insight into the rest of their story.

Lizzie wasn’t an only child for long.

Lizzie and her baby brother, John.

Lizzie and her baby brother, John.

Nearly 25 years after the birth of their oldest child, James and Anna O’Marra became parents for the tenth time. John was born in 1906 and would never know eight of his nine siblings. But John would grow up to be healthy and happy and live the life of a farmer. He married and became the father of three children, including Margaret Miller, who told me that John’s lineage now includes 54 descendants. He died in 2000, just a few months shy of his 94th birthday.

Nearly fourteen years older than her baby brother, Lizzie left the family farm not long after John was born.

“Lizzie was a happy-go-lucky person,” Miller told me in an interview last year. Her life wasn’t always easy–Lizzie married, had two children who died young, then divorced. But she kept moving on with her life, leaving the farm to work at a restaurant in Richmond, Kansas, and then a motel in Louisburg, Kansas. She died in 1962 from complications during surgery to remove colon cancer. Yet, despite the loss and hardships, Miller said that Lizzie had a good life and made the most of it.

James and Ruth Ann (Anna) O'Marra.

James and Ruth Ann (Anna) O’Marra.

What happened to James and Anna, the parents who lost almost everyone dear to them?

Born in Ireland in 1855, James came to Kansas by way of Boston and Drexel, Mo. He settled in the Anderson County community of Emerald in 1882, where he met and married Ruth Ann Gillespie, who had been living in Westphalia, Kansas. They moved to Hartford in 1884 with their first-born son, William. William was 21 when he and seven of his siblings died of diphtheria in 1903.

“Grandma never complained,” Miller said. It would have been easy to feel sorry for herself, but she didn’t, and she and her husband both found strength in their faith. After her family’s plight, however, she exhibited a an extraordinary level of compassion for those in need, and she regularly took in those who were too sick to look after themselves.

James and Anna lived in their old house right up until the end, living a hardworking, old-fashioned life. James died in 1938. Miller said that her grandmother never had electricity installed in “the big house,” as the old house was known, and used candles for light right up until her death in 1954, at the age of 92.

I think the reason the O’Marra family’s story resonates so much with modern readers is that we understand theirs was not an isolated tragedy. Somewhere in our family lines, our ancestors all faced this kind of loss to some degree. Children died of so many diseases that we can either prevent or treat today. We exist because those who survived managed to keep moving forward. Many of our great-great-great-greats buried their children. Many of them found the strength to move on.

In just a few days, people all over the globe will be watching the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race, which commemorates the attempt to deliver serum from Anchorage to Nome during a 1925 outbreak of diphtheria that threatened the lives of many Native Alaskan children. Many of those dog sled race watchers will find their way to the O’Marra family’s story when they search for information on diphtheria. Then they will understand why those 20 mushers and 150 sled dogs would work so hard to sled the 674 miles of Iditadrod trail,

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Lessons from a Kansas graveyard: What a 1903 outbreak of diphtheria can teach us today

In a shady corner of St. Mary’s Cemetery, a curious collection of little headstones, all of the same size and age, surround a large hooded monument. Unassuming and unadorned, the large family headstone does not prepare you for what you will read. This little cemetery just south of Hartford, Kansas is the final resting place for the “Children of James & Anna O’Marra,” eight of whom died in 1903.

James and Anna O’Marra and their nine children, ranging in age from six months to 21 years, lived seven miles south of Hartford. Their family was in mourning for James’ brother John, who had died of pneumonia on March 30, 1903. The newspapers are not clear as to exactly what happened next, but John O’Marra’s funeral may be a clue, as family members from outside the area came to Lyon County to pay their respects.

According to the Neosho Valley Times, a cousin visiting from Anderson County might have been the unwitting carrier for the tragedy that would devastate the O’Marra family.

“What’s diphtheria?” my colleague asked me as I told her this story.

“We’re so lucky we don’t know first hand,” I told her.

On April 10, nine-year-old Julia O’Marra was taken down with respiratory “black” diphtheria. As the bacteria grew thick dark membranes around her tonsils and throat, she grew weak, gasping for air, until the membrane completely blocked her airway. On the morning of Tuesday, April 14, Julia suffocated to death. She was buried the same afternoon.

The tiny marker for Julia O’Marra, age 9, the first to die of diphtheria.

Before the last of the earth was shoveled onto her grave, all eight of the remaining O’Marra children were extremely ill. Rumors were circulating that the O’Marras had already infected members of other large families. Though unfounded, the stories prevented many neighbors from offering assistance. Beyond the help of “the old priest,” Father J.W. “Paul” O’Connor and the undertaker, Mr. Holloway, the O’Marra family was on their own.

Thirteen-year-old Anastasia, called Annie, died Saturday morning, April 18, and was buried the same day. Her four-year-old brother James died at 11 o’clock Saturday night, followed by his seventeen-year-old sister Ellen, called Nellie, who died early Sunday morning.

Anastasia “Annie” O’Marra was the second sibling to die.

James and Nellie were buried in the same coffin Sunday afternoon.

James and Ellen “Nellie ” O’Marra died within hours of each other, and were buried in the same grave.

How serious is diphtheria?

Diphtheria is a serious disease: 5%-10% of all people with diphtheria die. Up to 20% of cases lead to death in certain age groups of individuals (e.g., children younger than age 5 years and adults older than age 40 years).

Immunization Action Coalition

On Monday, April 20, 21-year-0ld William and his six-year-old sister, Hanora, called Nora, also passed away. They were buried in the same casket later that afternoon.

William and Hanora “Nora” O’Marra also share a grave after dying the same morning.

James and Anna were beside themselves with grief and worry. Anna grew physically ill herself, and it was feared that she, too, had contracted diphtheria from her children. While the parents looked on, the local doctor, S.P. Reser, administered anti-toxin, a therapy that had only been in use since the late 1890s, to the three remaining children. He was too late. Maggie, the six-month-old baby, died Monday night.

Six-month old Margaret “Maggie” O’Marra was the seventh sibling to die, despite anti-toxin treament.

A nurse from Kansas City arrived to help care for the two remaining children and the heart-sick, exhausted parents. The two surviving children, eighteen-year-old Mary and eleven-year-old Lizzie, appeared to respond to the anti-toxin treatment. Neighbors stepped in to help as they could. It was thought the two girls would recover.

On the morning of May 5, Mary’s heart gave out, most likely from myocarditis.

Thought to be recovering, Mary, the eldest daughter, died on May 5.

Lizzie, the middle child in a family of 11, was now the only surviving daughter to two of the most grief-stricken parents in Lyon County’s history. She would outlive her siblings by nearly six decades.

A confirmed case has not been reported in the U.S. since 2003. Approximately 0.001 cases per 100,000 population in the U.S. since 1980; before the introduction of vaccine in the 1920s incidence was 100-200 cases per 100,000 population. Diphtheria remains endemic in developing countries with low vaccination coverage. During the 1990s, the countries of the former Soviet Union reported >150,000 cases in a large epidemic.

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: Diphtheria

Cemeteries are rich with the history of the people who live in a particular area. They indicate wealth, social status, social and religious affiliations, and ethnicity. They are also a strong indicator of the hard existence our not-so-distant ancestors endured.  For me, the graves of children are both the most heartbreaking and the most honest, because it is our nature as humans to do all we can to protect our young. The headstones and markers of the young tell the stories of those we couldn’t protect from stillbirth, disease, or tragic accident.

Cemeteries that date back a century or more often protect the remains of far more infants and children than most of us are comfortable seeing. The late 1800s and early 1900s brought death to children, death from diseases most of us have never even seen in another living being: tetanus, small pox, diphtheria, typhoid, and polio, as well as others that are beginning to reappear as more and more Americans lose the immunity acquired through vaccination or choose not to vaccinate their children (measles, mumps, pertussis). These families lost children — sometimes many or all of their children — in a matter of days or weeks.

I acknowledge that some of the most important decisions we ever face are those concerning our own health and the health of our loved ones. As thousands of children died all over the world from highly communicable and extremely dangerous diseases, doctors and scientists and other public health officials sought ways to protect the entire population by protecting the most vulnerable: the very young.

In some ways, those scientists and doctors and public health officials were almost too successful. We have forgotten how severe, painful, dangerous, and heartbreaking many of these diseases really are.

Vaccines have always generated dissenters as well as supporters. As the concept of vaccination spread through New England, many argued that to “sicken oneself as a way of preventing God from sickening you…[was] an act of supreme arrogance,” and considered a sin.  (See Vaccine: The Controversial Story of Medicine’s Greatest Lifesaver by Arthur Allen.) Today, many believe that vaccines are physically dangerous, that there is no need to to vaccinate children from diseases that are sometimes mistakenly believed to have been eradicated. Yet we know that unvaccinated children are only as safe as the people around them, completely dependent on the immunity of others to protect them from harm.

As many news stories have demonstrated, in a world where people travel freely from city to city, state to state, country to country, it is very difficult to prevent exposure to some of these extremely deadly diseases. What’s more, there is a tremendous cost, physical and financial, to minimizing the impact these diseases have once they are reintroduced to populated areas.

My reaction is more visceral. When I hear of someone arguing against the benefits of vaccinations, I want to say, “Before you make up your mind, let me show you something.” Then I want to take them out to a local cemetery. “This,” I want to say, “This is why we have vaccines. Because I believe in my heart the O’Marras would have given anything to have protected their children from this. They would have given anything to have had children who lived full lives.”

I believe the O’Marras would have given anything for their children to have more than the occasional stranger standing over their graves, wondering what awful tragedy befell them in 1903.

The O’Marra family plot at St. Mary’s Cemetery, south of Hartford, Kansas.

Author’s note: Two newspapers covered the O’Marra family tragedy: the Emporia Gazette and the Neosho Valley Times. The exact times of death vary slightly between the two papers; I opted to go with the times listed in the Neosho Valley Times, which was the more local paper for Hartford. O’Marra is occasionally spelled O’Mara, though all of the family markers at St. Mary’s Cemetery spell it “O’Marra.” All photos by Diana Staresinic-Deane.

02/22/2015 Update: I’ve often wondered what happened to the surviving O’Marra family members who were left to pick up the pieces of their lives. Margaret O’Marra Miller, a descendant, reached out to me to share their story. Read more about Lizzie, James, and Anna here.