Typhoid Tragedy in Halifax, VA

I hesitate to call the subject of this post a ‘BSO’ because it’s not so bright and shiny, but it did catch my eye just the same.  I was researching my own family, looking for death records in Halifax County, Virginia and found a very helpful page on Rootsweb where a woman named Martha Hills very generously transcribed death records for Halifax County between 1853 and 1870.  I carefully checked each page and found several clues to follow up on for my research but something else caught my eye on the very first page.  The names ‘Coleman & Jane Nichols’ on the 1853 list.  I noticed them in particular because they were repeated five times in a row under the heading, ‘Name of Parents’:

  • Archer W. Nichols           8 July           18y 8m            Coleman & Jane Nichols
  • Catherine D. Nichols      13 July         7y 1m               Coleman & Jane Nichols
  • Nancy J. Nichols              14 July        10y 10m          Coleman & Jane Nichols
  • Elizabeth R. Nichols       14 July         11y 4m             Coleman & Jane Nichols
  • Lidwell Nichols                17 July         9y                     Coleman & Jane Nichols

According to this transcription, Coleman and Jane Nichols lost 5 children ranging from 7 to 18 years old in just 9 short days in the summer of 1853.  During my years as a paramedic, I had the misfortune to attend the deaths of several children from newborns to teenagers and the pain I saw in their parent’s faces broke my heart every time.  When I saw these entries, I couldn’t help but picture this couple having to report these deaths to the town clerk, probably all at once considering the time frame, and it broke my heart one more time.  I just had to know:  How did they die?  The time frame was very close, but not exact, and the list included children of both genders and a wide age range, which strongly suggested some rampant infection was to blame.  According to Martha Hills’ notes, the abstract she transcribed didn’t include information regarding the cause of death so I had to look elsewhere.

The Library of Virginia, among their many efforts to preserve and archive Virginia’s historical records, is working on a Death Indexing Project sponsored by the Virginia Genealogical Society.  Though not complete, this online database provides a searchable index to some of the thousands of death records created from 1853 to 1896.  It was there I turned to find the author of the Coleman family tragedy — Typhoid Fever, a bacterial infection spread by eating or drinking contaminated food or water.  Though it’s rare to find in the U.S. today, the lack of indoor plumbing, vaccines, or focus on hand washing made it a very real threat to our ancestors.

In addition to a name search, the Death Index also allows for searching by keyword so I queried the database for any deaths reported due to typhoid in Halifax County.  It returned 328 results over the 43 year period in that one county. (Compliance with the registration law was spotty; not all deaths were reported and the process was skipped entirely for some years in certain jurisdictions, particularly during the Civil War.)  The county of Halifax apparently suffered a significant outbreak that year with 29 deaths reported and attributed to typhoid fever, the most of any year recorded in the database.  Most years saw between 1 and 5 cases, with a few small outbreaks of 11-15 deaths.  Besides the 1853 outbreak that ravaged the Coleman family, the county suffered four more significant (more than 20 deaths in a year) outbreaks of typhoid before the end of the registration period in 1896.

This entry was posted in Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *