Question of the Week: What epidemics or pandemics did your ancestors experience?

+17 votes

What epidemics or pandemics did your ancestors experience?

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in The Tree House by Sarah Callis G2G6 Pilot (114k points)
I meant sources on Elizabeth's profile.  As an aside, this is one example of when WikiTree's idiosyncratic naming practices don't serve us well, as her WikiTree profile didn't come up in a Google search.

Is there a source that says Elizabeth erected a gallows and ordered the hanging of anyone from London?  According to her profile, she lived from 1533 to 1603, ascending the throne in 1558.  So when did her retreat to Greenwich occur?
Sorry correction - it was Windsor Castle in 1563. The Writ of Prorogation of Parliament, dated 2 Oct 1563, from Windsor. Source - The Parliamentary or Constitutional History of England, Vol IV, (1763) pg 52. Many references to erection of gallows on the net but haven't found a near reliable one yet. One possible source could be Stowe.
Thanks.  Their version of our quarantines, I guess, with penalties more severe in keeping with the times.

Just found John Stowe, pg 123:  Three Fifteenth-Century Chronicles with Historical Memoranda by John Stowe, ed. James Gairdner (London, 1880), British History Online

"This years 1563, in Septembre, the Quenes Majestie lyenge in hir castell of Wyndsore, ther was set up in ye markyt place of Wyndsore a new payre of gallows to hange up all suche as shuld come ther from London, so that no parson or eny kynde of warrs mought come or be browght from London to or thurughe, nethar by Wyndsor, not so myche as thrughe ye ryver by Wyndsor to cary wood or othar stuffe to or from London upon payne of hangynge with owt eny judgment, and suche people as reseyvyd eny wares out of London in to Wyndsor were turnyd owt of theyr howsys and theyr howssys shut up."

Yes very effective …….she survived.

One of my great-aunts died of Yellow Fever in 1880 in Toledo. One great uncle had it but survived. An aunt and uncle both died of measles on the same day when they were pre-school age. I think one was three and the other was five.

My interest is a Lane family living in the coastal regions of North Carolina from 1720-1800.  This area was very marshy with lots of stagnant water...a great breeding ground for mosquitos. I am sure that malaria was very common.  See  Curiously most of the original Lane men who arrived in NC from VA lived long lives (69-87 yrs). One son, John b. 1720, son of John Lane (1698-1776) and Mary Unknown died at age 46.  Cause unknown. He died less than 2 months after he wrote his will. 

Of course, malaria was endemic, but it reminds us that earlier times were much more precarious.

Betsy, that is interesting.  As I mentioned above, when I was a child in the 1950s, it seemed that everyone around me sooner or later got the measles and chickenpox.  I don't recall ever hearing of anyone in my school or neighborhood dying of them, or even suffering lasting damage.  I imagine that in earlier times, some people's vulnerability was increased by relatively poorer nutrition and living conditions.

Your post reminded me that I do have some relatives (not direct ancestors) who died of disease while serving in the Army during the Civil War, and I recall that in one case the cause was measles, or measles combined with dysentery, but I can't seem to find him in my tree right now.

There is an interesting table of the mortality rates of various diseases on Wikipedia.  

My great uncle died in the epidemic of 1880. Along with him died his mother and his baby.
My grandfather died of Typhoid Fever in 1919. He was a city boy but went to visit family in the country. I believe he may have drank from a stream in the pasture, because no one else got sick.

My first year of school I came home with measles and bravely passed it on to my three younger siblings one after the other. A couple of weeks back at school and I brought home chicken pox. To say my Mum was not pleased, was an understatement! Just to make hat trick, I brought home mumps the following year. blush

47 Answers

+16 votes
I imagine all our ancestors everywhere saw the effects of the 1918 flu pandemic, even if they didn't experience it personally.

Of course, you can Google it, but here are some links:

Edited to correct typo.
by Julie Kelts G2G6 Pilot (458k points)
My father-in-law was in the Army in San Antonio, TX getting ready to ship out to Europe when he got the Spanish Flu.  He told family that he was placed in a tub packed with ice.  By the time he recovered, the War (WWI) was over.  

He later served in the CCC to help rebuild the church in Goliad.  He was a tough man. His mom had survived as a widow with 5 children and lived to be 94 years old.
+19 votes

My second great grandmother Jane Walker McCullough died at age 39 in New Orleans of yellow fever.

 The story I heard many times from my grandmother was about her mother Clara McCleery. In Feb 1902 Clara's cousin's child died of a flu type illness, and the family had the child "lay corpse". It was tradition in my family to visit at this time, so Clara took the buggy to their home. Two weeks later Clara herself "lay corpse" in her own home. Clara was 46, and grandmother was only 15. My grandmother's life was never the same, since she was responsible for the care of her little two brothers, who were 6 and 3.

by Alexis Nelson G2G6 Pilot (446k points)

My 3x-great-grandfather Whitfield Brown died of yellow fever in 1853, along with his son George.

Jessica, that is certainly sad, and George was only 20. Our ancestors faced so many terrible deceases.
+15 votes

My great-great-grandfather Sands died of influenza in October 1918.

by E. Compton G2G6 Pilot (151k points)
+18 votes
My father had polio and was crippled from it. One great grandfather d. of TB in the U.S. and another d. from a malaria outbreak in the U.S. Both in their early 50's.
by Leigh Anne Dear G2G6 Mach 6 (69.9k points)
+18 votes
My grandmother nursed both her parents through the spanish flu. They both survived as her father died in 1938 and mother in 1965.

When i was about 11 years old came down with scarlett fever and one night hallucinated about giant snakes in my bed. Got up and ran into the hall, whare i looked back and relalized what just happened.

Came down with chicken pox along with both my siblings. that lasted about a month. Brother had it three times.
by Jennifer Robins G2G6 Pilot (110k points)
edited by Jennifer Robins
+15 votes
Sarah, Some of us are old enough to actually remember these things. Polio swept through New Zealand in 1947 and schools were closed. I will remember for ever a class mate of mine - he was so badly crippled by the disease that he died before he reached his teens. But he was always so cheerful.
by Jean Price G2G6 Mach 4 (42.0k points)
Jean, I remember being at primary school in the mid-sixties with a boy who had calipers on his legs. You forget about these things - until in 2002 our Blenheim lawyer, a man in his sixties, was on crutches. That polio epidemic is probably still affecting people.
Must be hundreds of people who spent the rest of their lives in an iron lung. I remember it however as our beach had just been reopened after being used for secret things during the war. Just got used to it when our parents forbade us to go there because of polio.
My friend Steve has told me that when he was a boy in Brooklyn NY back in the '40s, every summer there'd be a flood of children out of the city as the parents sent them away to try to escape the polio outbreaks. They'd be sent to stay with family in more rural areas. Polio was terrifying beyond belief -- and it was every summer until the vaccine was available.
I clearly remember being among the first class of children to get the "shots" against polio. Our parents understood nasty diseases and were pro vaccine all the way!
My Great Grandfather died 22 November 1918 in Hastings, New Zealand of the Spanish Flu, he was aged 86. Yes Jean, As for the polio epidemic in 1947 I can remember us kids wearing camphor blocks in little bags around our necks to ward off the "lurgy". I don't know what effect that would have had though. I was in standard 1 at Parkvale School and had to do school work by correspondence. None of the modern technology then but still effective. Six poplar trees in a row, nine rows deep, how many poplar trees are there? I still remember this one problem in the school work folio.
I hadn't thought about myself!

When I was a child we lived in Birmingham, England. I remember vividly a report that someone who had been on a city bus had been diagnosed with typhoid or smallpox.

It turned out to be the same city bus that we took to school, my dad was a family doctor, he insisted all 6 children had vaccinations, I don't remember being scared about it until I was older and knew more about the danger of the diseases
Violin virtuoso Itzhak Perlman (age 74) had Polio at age 4 which left him with paralysis in his legs. His legs are in braces and he uses crutches to get on stage.
Fiona I saw an article recently about a group of people who had had polio and survived but were now suffering severe problems with lungs, etc as they aged. They were campaigning to have their condition classed as a disability so they could claim gov. allowances, etc. In Australia we have a new Disability scheme but these folks were too old to qualify.
That may be what is now known as "post polio syndrome" -- which is effectively a resurgence of the disease in someone who had it when younger.
That's it! Twas having a senior moment and could not remember what it was called. It seems awful cruelty for a resurgence, doesn't it?
Has had me wonder a few times about a lad who was in primary school with me.  He wore calipers on both legs as a result of polio.  He liked me because I treated him as I did every other kid at the time, and never made fun of him because he lurched when he walked and could not run.
+12 votes
My Aunt Eva died in the Flu epidemic of 1918.  My dad was 9 years old at that time and she was younger than he was. Hw always called her "Little Eva.:  She had two older sisters and several older brothers.
by David Hughey G2G Astronaut (1.6m points)
+11 votes
Until the day he died, my maternal Grandfather would take two Philips Milk of Magnesium tablets and cut them into fours.  Then take them with water, without chewing them up.

He said this is what the Nuns at St. Francis Hospital in New Castle, PA. did this during the Spanish Flu pandemic of 1918-1919 and none of them caught the flu.  Of course as Nuns, I believe they may have had someone of a higher authority on their side.
by LJ Russell G2G6 Pilot (181k points)
+16 votes

This is from stories that my grandmother wrote down.  She was born in 1909.

"I was in the fourth or fifth grade when the terrible flu epidemic hit. One day the entire student body was called upstairs to be told school was closed for an indefinite length of time. Neighbors were sick. Whole families were down. And the medical profession seemed almost helpless. Uncle Had acted as a chauffeur for the local doctor. Our Dr. Benson had been called into service during World War I and wasn't in Glen Ullin at the time. Quite often on the farm calls, Dr. McDonald found the whole family in bed. Then Uncle Had did the chores. Otherwise he tried to get a little sleep. The doctor slept while driving from one place to another.

Many people died. My father acted as pall bearer for first one funeral, then another. He sat up at night with neighbors. Mother butchered chickens and made chicken broth to send to the stricken families. She kept us three kids strictly in our own back yard. She heard onions would help prevent the disease. We ate onions every day raw or creamed. Whatever the reason not one of us got the flu.

But the next year Aletha [my sister] did. It developed into the dread pneumonia. According to standard treatment the davenport [couch] was opened into a bed to bring the patient downstairs. By this time Dr. Benson was home. I don’t remember all the treatment, but sponge baths and mustard plaster was a part of it."

(Aunt Aletha survived just fine).

by Rob Neff G2G6 Mach 6 (60.4k points)
edited by Rob Neff
+13 votes
My spouse has an ancestor who lost both parents and a grandmother to cholera when she was an infant in September 1836. I have found no information on who raised her and her brother.

My great-grandfather lost a brother and a grandmother on the same day, also to cholera, about forty years later.
by J Palotay G2G6 Mach 6 (62.1k points)
+14 votes
George Mansker-43, and his sons all moved west to Arkansas about 1817, and from 1822-1823, George and his sons died about the same time. It is assumed that they died from yellow fever or cholera, as both were epidemic in those areas at that time.
by David Thomson G2G6 Mach 1 (13.3k points)
+10 votes
My uncle died as an infant from whooping cough in the 1940s.  My grandmother caught German measles and lost the child she was carrying.
by Michelle Enke G2G6 Pilot (282k points)
edited by Michelle Enke
+12 votes
According to family stories, my great great grandmother Sarah Nolan McGuire died from the Spanish Flu Epidemic in 1918. And as all of my ancestor's were Irish, a family from every branch lived through the Great Irish Famine of 1845-1853,which was plagued by cholera and typhus epidemics as well as the potato blight.
by Alicia McCormack G2G6 Mach 1 (10.2k points)
+10 votes

The back death.

One family (parents Reginald and Margery, and 4 children) died in Wiltshire in 1349.  While I have found no documentation of the cause of death, that coincides with the arrival of the black death in Wiltshire. Reginald FitWarin is my 18th great uncle

According to VCH Wiltshire, the land conveyed to Alan FitzWarin by Richard Dauntsey passed to Nicholas FitzWarin, who forfeited it as a rebel in 1322. It appears to have been restored to his heirs and in March 1349 was granted by Margery, widow of Reynold (or Reginald) FitzWarin (a son of Nicholas FitzWarin), to her son Robert, then to her other children, and then to Peter FitzWarin, son of Nicholas FitzWarin, and Christina, Daughter of William Mauger of Lewerton. In June Christina quitclaimed her share to Peter . At least part of that land was granted by Peter FitzWarin to his brother, William FitszWarin later in June 1349. This would seem to imply that all of Margery's children, and probably Margery herself, died between March and June 1349, possibly of the plague.


More recently, my 3-g grandmother, Charlotte Burch ( ), lost 5 young children in 1855 in Elham, Kent.  There was a cholera outbreak, which included parts of Folkestone, in 1854, but I do not know if it was still active in 1855.

by Janet Gunn G2G6 Pilot (104k points)
edited by Janet Gunn
+12 votes

My great great uncle Arthur Descoteaux died during the 1918 flu pandemic, and my great great great grandfather Pierre Couture was orphaned when both his parents died in 1849.  I have no proof that they died of it, but there was a cholera epidemic in Quebec at that time.

Several ancestors died from tuberculosis, but I have not yet collected any evidence that it was part of an epidemic or pandemic.

by Brian Lamothe G2G6 Mach 3 (32.3k points)
Brian, from my own family history I know that tuberculosis (called "consumption" in many early records) was a long-term killer.  Many in my family died of it, even out on the American prairie, not in crowded city conditions where you might expect it.
+11 votes
My 3 X grt uncle Silas Richards and his wife Martha Crosby had 4 children die between late 1869 and early 1873 likely due to a smallpox or perhaps cholera epidemic, in Birmingham, England.

There were 7706 cases of smallpox between 1871 and 1874  in Birmingham, oddly enough 6795 of these people had been vaccinated, perhaps they didn't have the technology correct.
by M Ross G2G6 Pilot (218k points)
edited by M Ross
+11 votes
My father's mother died when he was one year old. His care was then the responsibility of his older sister who was 15 years old. One year later (October 1918) she died according to her death certificate of Le Gripp (Spanish Flu). With no caregiver, his father struggled, fell into ill health and gave him away to another family. He never knew what had happened to his father or mother.
by Robert Mahan G2G Crew (530 points)
Tragic story,   I'm sure you'll piece together as many facts as you can about your grandparents and aunt..... even if your father isn't alive to appreciate it.
Thanks for the response. I have found many answers and they have made the story even sadder. His mother committed suicide when he was 6 months old. His older brother who he never saw again ended up spending 30 years in California mental hospitals, dying there. In some sense, I'm glad he never found out.
+10 votes
In 1804 my 4x great-grandfather, Capt. Edward Worthington, left his home at Worthington Station, Kentucky, to travel on business to New Orleans. Once there, he contracted yellow fever and died. We have no idea where he was buried.

Then, in June of 1919, my grandfather, J.P. Griggs, was running the Rondale Hotel in Adrmore, Oklahoma. He became ill and a doctor sat up with him all night, but left in the morning for find himself some breakfast. When he returned, Joe had succumbed to the disease and died from "natural causes."  I always thought it was probably the Spanish flu, but can't prove it as OK didn't keep death records then.
by Carolyn Vosburg G2G6 (6.0k points)
+9 votes
My ancestor Reck Tina Hyman (Hyman-460) along with several of her relations died in a local epidemic that was in South Carolina between 1909-1911.  The newspapers called it "pellagra".  It was later believed to be a Niacin deficiency in their mostly corn based diet.
by Leigh Geschwill G2G3 (3.5k points)
Pellagra = niacin deficiency. That's what it's called. Characterized by the three Ds: dementia, diarrhea, and dermatitis (a peeling and blistery rash, especially on sun-exposed skin).
I've seen a documentary about this.  It was caused by a change in how they processed corn, inadvertently removing some nutrition. Poorer people in particular depended on the corn for the majority of their diet.

It took a brave doctor to figure it out, people thought it was an infectious disease, he actually injected himself with nasty samples from sick people to show it wasn't contagious.  Part of the problem was he was a "yankee" from up north, so the locals didn't trust him, but eventually he was proved right.
+8 votes

My aunt, [[Jackson-24521 | Florence Orlene Jackson]] (born 1924) wrote in her Memories of My Childhood and Younger Days, about Diphtheria in Georgia, United States:

" I don't remember too much about my early years. I do remember being paralyzed and our house was quarantined. Helen and J. H. had diphtheria. Dr. Hembry came out and stayed with us most of the time. He gave us all anti-toxin to keep us from getting sick. He gave me toxin that paralyzed me. I stayed in the bedroom with the fireplace, and remember seeing Mama or Dr. Hembry holding J. H. (just a baby) and a pillow. We had a big coffee pot in the fireplace. Neighbors would come and put pots of food on the back porch. No one else could come in. Helen was in the adjoining room. We all survived the diphtheria."

As one genealogist recently suggested, it is a good time for people living today to keep a diary of the events of COVID-19 to pass down to our descendants.

by Brenda Breland Shaffer G2G4 (4.7k points)

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