Thursday, March 6, 2014

November 1881 Diphtheria Outbreak Farmington Pennsylvania

November 29, 2015. The children of Thomas Haggerty have been updated. Daughter Ann L. was previously included in the deaths. 

This article was prepared by guest author Benjamin Patrick Norris a great grandson of James Hagerty.

By the time of late autumn 1881, Farmington Township, Clarion County, Pennsylvania the land that had been the Wilderness was becoming tamed by the constant labor of the earlier settlers including the Haggerty and McDonald families. Successful crops had been planted, horses and cattle were surviving, a permanent church building had been built, and most important children were born and surviving.

James Hagerty had married Mary Kerr and they now had four children. His brother Thomas C. Hagerty and wife Bridget McDonald had seven, with three healthy teen age sons who could help their father with clearing the first growth timber which still dominated the landscape, planting and harvesting the crops. James’ sister Anna Haggerty and her husband Michael McDonald had numerous children and were successfully running newly cut timber down the Clarion River.

Tragedy struck this extended family in the late autumn of 1881in the form of diphtheria. None knew what was the cause of this malady. The previously healthy children would develop symptom of sore throat, nasal congestion and fever. Within a few hours a membrane would develop that prevented the patient from breathing, causing a slow and painful strangulation. In addition, toxin developed in the sufferer’s system that caused organ failure.

In that era nothing could be done to aid the sufferer.  The diphtheria bacterium was first identified in the 1880’s around the time of this outbreak. Medicine had no idea what caused the spread of the disease. In France Louis Pasteur advance the “germ” theory of communicable disease, But this was largely dismissed by the medical establishment.

Thomas Haggerty’s family suffered the worse. Of his seven children, four died - John B. Haggerty died at age 15, Rebecca died at age 9, Mary E. age 6 and Thomas C. Haggerty died at age 5. Only three children survived. His wife Bridget McDonald went into a state of despair, spending her days sitting on a box in the cemetery, mourning her lost children who had been buried in mass grave at St. Mary’s cemetery.

Anna Haggerty and Michael McDonald lost two sons. Their oldest son Andrew McDonald age 19 and James Augustine McDonald age 10.

Jeremiah Haggerty’s family was also devastated. Several children - Jane C. died at age 8, Thomas L. died at age 2, and tragically Fredrick died as an infant in 1882. Jeremiah died as well leaving behind his wife Magdalena "Lena" Bostaph and four young children. Jeremiah lived in Farmington Township, Clarion County, Pennsylvania. It is plausible that Jeremiah Haggerty may be related to Robert Haggerty (the father of James, Anna and Thomas C.) but at this point a family connection has not been identified.

Between the Haggerty and McDonald a total of ten family members died.

Only James Haggerty's family was spared. Why?? James tended the sick, buried the dead, and took care of the farm animals. He isolated his family from all contact with the community. He alone went out. When he returned home he would go to the barn, strip and place his clothing in boiling water and bathe himself before returning to the house.

How did James know to do this when the medical establishment did not understand the simple rules of decontamination which we practice today. We have no idea. Did he have an understanding of disease that was ahead of his time? Was he following a ritualistic purification procedure whose origin we do not understand? Or was it just pre common sense. Unfortunately, we will never know. Nevertheless, his whole family was spared the ravages of diphtheria.


1. James Hagerty opted to spell the name Hagerty and opposed to Haggerty using one “G”. All other descents of Robert Haggerty spelled the name with two "G's".
2. For more information about Jeremiah Haggerty and his descendants:
  1. Hagerty Family Stories passed down to Benjamin Norris

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