When I first felt sick, my parents hoped it was an ordinary sore throat and headache, but when I couldn’t swallow and the fever hit, they knew it was serious. Our country doctor was in Waupun, only 10 miles away, but my brother, Herman, had to ride there on our old horse, Buck, and it was a slow journey. As much as Herman tried to coax Buck to move faster, it took a long time to get to the doctor, and my breathing was becoming more and more labored.
I have no clear memory of what happened, but I do remember my body going from drenching sweats to relentless shivers, making my muscles ache and clouding my already frazzled mind. My breathing was raspy, and I was in serious pain. I saw the anxious look on my mother’s face, pale and terrified, fearing the outcome of whatever imminent danger awaited me. The rest of my family kept their distance, as my father would not let anyone close for fear of my unknown condition.
The year was 1879, and I was nine years old, the sixth of 11children of August and Louisa Gauger. We lived on a ten-acre farm near Brandon, Wisconsin, where we raised cows and chickens, along with a multitude of dogs, cats, and any other animal wandering onto our land. Recently, we had added more cows to our herd so we could produce and deliver milk to the nearby Hazen Factory, which had been built by Charles Hazen solely for the production of cheese. Prior to this, cheese-making was considered women’s work to be done at home, but now the factory was making Brick cheese, and it brought us extra needed money.
My life on the farm was enjoyable, in spite of the rigorous physical demands required to make a living off of the land. During harvest season, my dad would let me ride on the horse-drawn grain harvester he’d recently purchased in Beloit, Wisconsin, from the Deering Manufacturing Company. They invented a reaper to incorporate a twine binder and automate the operation of bailing hay. I was proud my father was always on top of the latest developments, which made us proficient at getting our crops to market. One day I would own the farm and follow in my father’s footsteps.
Our neighbors were a short distance away, and after my chores were complete, I would walk over to their farm to play with my best friend, Charlie. He also came from a big family, so to avoid the other kids, we would hide in the hayloft. We pretended the bales of hay were stonewalls when we played army; mountains when we played cowboys and Indians; and massive trees when we were explorers in an unknown world.
One afternoon, as I approached the farm, I could see Charlie’s parents building a bonfire by throwing toys and clothing into the flames. “What are they doing?” I asked. “Those toys can still be fun, and Charlie and I can still play with them.”
A shirt dropped from their pile of clothes and I picked it up and brought it to Charlie’s mom. “Get away from here and stay out of our house!” she screamed as she grabbed the shirt away from me and through it into the fire.
“But I want to see Charlie.” I was shocked by her outrage and couldn’t understand why she wanted me to leave. I thought she liked me.
Confused, I turned and ran away from the bonfire, through the fields of corn and soy and rushed into my house where I crumpled to the floor. My mother was preparing dinner and when I told her about the way Charlie’s mom yelled at me, a look of dread passed over her and she too started to yell. “Did you touch anything?” Tears formed in the corner of her eyes, turning them liquid and angry.
“No, I don’t understand why they are throwing away perfectly good things.”
“There is sickness in their house, and we must protect ourselves by staying away. I don’t want you playing with Charlie until this danger passes.”
“Why not?!” I said, challenging my mother. “Charlie is my best friend, and we’re building a fort in his hay loft. We need to finish it before the next harvest.”
My mother softened her gaze and relaxed, touching my shoulder. “Charlie’s little sister, Emma, just died of diphtheria. It is dangerous for anyone to be around her. We don’t know how she got sick, but it can strike anyone, especially young children. I don’t want you bringing it into our house. Stay away from Charlie and his family for now.”
My mother hugged me and started murmuring about being safe and keeping the evil winds away. I still didn’t understand, but thought I should reassure her that I was safe and would not play with Charlie until she said I could. I didn’t believe in evil winds and couldn’t imagine anything bad being at Charlie’s house, so I was sure I was alright.
“What is diphtheria?” I asked.
“It is an evil sickness that keeps you from breathing.”
Four days later, I became sick, and my mother could no longer protect me. It started with a sore throat and fever, but by the end of the day, my breathing was labored and painful. Our family doctor made a house call and prescribed whiskey to try to clear the membrane forming inside my windpipe. He said it would help keep the air passage clear, but he recommended a special doctor to treat the disease.
The following morning, I was worse. The special doctor was making rounds near us, and my parents brought him to our house to treat me. I tried to focus on what he was saying, but I was in pain and kept drifting in and out of consciousness. I couldn’t concentrate enough to listen to him, but I did hear things like “infection has progressed,” “little can be done,” and “experimental tracheotomy.” I heard my mother crying and begging him to try anything, and then I lost consciousness completely.
When I awoke, the doctor was still whispering in hushed tones with my parents. I stared at their grim faces and waves of hopeless sobs formed in my stomach and streamed through my body. When it reached my throat, I felt fire and tried to scream, but no sound emerged because the pain was too great.
I remained still and strained to listen to the doctor talking to my mother. “We are not out of the woods yet,” he said, his voice trembling. “There is a high risk of infection around the tracheotomy tube, and Henry must be kept isolated and away from his siblings. There are a lot of theories about how this disease is spread, but nobody knows for sure. Diphtheria tends to strike families, especially younger children. Keep him away from the others.”
My mother was barely able to speak, but she choked out a few words. “I will always hold you in my heart,” she said.
The following week was an uneasy pattern of wakefulness and deep sleep. I was hungry, but it was so painful to eat or drink that I avoided food and only ate when my mother forced me to swallow small amounts of liquid. Every day she cleaned and dressed the wound in my neck, and I wondered if I was going to have to spend the rest of my life with a tube sticking out of my neck. Talking was impossible, but I was able to breathe.
The progress was slow, but gradually I improved and became aware of what was going on around me. I hadn’t seen any of my siblings in over a week, and I had no idea what was happening on the farm. Did somebody do my chores for me? I bet they were really mad, especially my older brother, who always complained I never did enough work. The fort Charlie and I were building in his barn had probably been taken over by his brother, who always wanted to play with us.
My mother told me the special doctor was coming soon to see me and check on my progress. I really didn’t want to see him again, but my mother said it was necessary to remove the tube so I could get better.
I tried to speak as best as I could but it took so much effort to push the air out of my lungs and with the tube in the way, I couldn’t use my vocal cords. “What happened?” I managed to create some sound and pointed at my throat.
“Do you want to know about the surgery?” my mother asked.
I shook my head yes.
Slowly, my mother described the procedure with the precision of a trained nurse and a calmness I didn’t know she possessed. “The doctor started the surgery without anesthetic, since you were already unconscious. He used only a few tools from his pocket instrument case, a scalpel and a tracheostomy tube. He sterilized everything in boiling water and scrubbed them so they were free of germs. The only light we had available, besides that window over on the wall, was a kerosene lamp that your father held over the bed. I tried to assist wherever I could, but I was so scared I could not offer much help.”
“You had diphtheria,” my mother continued with the same measured calmness. “It’s serious because a membrane grows over your breathing tube and eventually stops you from breathing. The doctor made a cut in your throat where the infectious membrane was growing.” My mother pointed to her own throat as I felt the tube inserted in mine.
“That’s right,” she said now struggling to continue. “The doctor inserted the tube into the cut and, with his own mouth, sucked out the choking membrane. As soon as that happened, I could see your breathing was easier, and the pale, bluish complexion of your face almost returned to normal.”
The longer my mother talked, the more distraught she became. I was confused by her grief, because I thought I was getting better, and she should be happy. Yet, my mother seemed to be getting worse. When my stoic father walked into the room, I was relieved because he held her tight and she was able to relax.
A few days later, the special doctor came back to our farm. “Henry is my first success with this method of treatment. You did a good job keeping the wound clean, and no infection set in. Very few children ever recover from this illness.”
“Will he survive?” my mother asked.
“I think so. I have to remove the tube, and we will see if he can breathe on his own. At least this time I have an anesthetic with me.”
Focusing on the doctor, I tried to pay attention to the instructions he gave my mother, but they spoke in low, mumbled tones. I felt they were keeping secrets from me, maybe things I shouldn’t know or something that would scare me. The doctor poured a liquid into a cloth and approached me. He said something about being asleep, or maybe it was my sister Ida who was asleep, but I could sense something was wrong, and my body stiffened in anticipation.
The doctor moved the cloth towards me, and my hands flew to my face for protection. Without thinking, I yelled at my mother, not caring about the stabbing pain in my throat. I smelled something sweet, like paint remover, and thought of the afternoon my father and I had painted our barn door. That image quickly vanished, and I struggled to push the cloth away, but soon everything became black, and I sank into the void.
When I awoke, I was alone in the bedroom I shared with my older brother. My head hurt, my throat was on fire, but my breathing seemed almost normal. I tried to touch my throat, but it was covered with a large cloth, and when I searched for the tube, it was gone. Could I actually be breathing on my own? I swallowed and still felt pain, but I was able to breathe. Maybe I was going to live, after all.
I stayed motionless for a while, dozing periodically, until my mother came in to check on me. She didn’t look happy. Maybe I was wrong in thinking my breathing was normal, and this was only a brief reprieve before my body succumbed to the strangling angel.
“How are you feeling?” my mother asked.
Struggling through the pain of talking, I pointed to my bandages and said, “My throat hurts.”
“You have been asleep for a long time, but the doctor said you are doing well.”
After another silence, my grief-stricken mother composed herself and said, “Ida is sick. This epidemic is stealing my children, and I don’t know what to do.” She began to shake, giving in to great waves of emotion that consumed her. “I think strong winds are spreading the disease, and I can’t do anything to stop them.”
“Yes you can, you did for me,” the grief I saw in my mother filled me with sorrow and I became determined to alleviate her pain in any way I could.
“The doctor did a tracheotomy on Ida,” she explained, calmer now. “Just like the one you had, but Ida is not as strong as you, and I’m not sure she will survive. I fear the younger children will also become sick.”
Guilt floods me. What did I do to give Ida my disease? We didn’t share the same bedroom and rarely played together. During my free time, I was always at Charlie’s. We had some of the same chores, but my jobs were primarily outside, while hers involved helping my mother with the household work. Ida and I didn’t even get along well, because she liked to do girl things, and I had no interest in her activities. I wanted to believe it was not my fault, but I had doubts.
As the days went by, I regained some of my strength, and my voice slowly returned. Both of my parents came to comfort me and tend to my needs, but the visits were short. The rest of my siblings stayed away. I had no idea what was going on with the farm or my family.
“Henry.” It was my father, coming to check on me. “How are you doing today?”
“All right,” I responded, but I sensed something was wrong. Fear bubbled up inside me; not the fear of danger, but the fear of not knowing what the danger was.
“Ida has been taken from us,” my father simply stated.
“What?” I shouted ignoring the searing pain in my throat.
“The tracheostomy tube caused an infection, and Ida was too weak to fight it,” my father said. “You were strong enough to survive, but Ida was not.” Pain brewed in my father’s sad blue eyes but outwardly, he remained calm.
“There will be no funeral,” he continued. “We’ll take her body to the graveyard next to our church. If you feel strong enough, you can ride along to say goodbye to your sister.”
I was devastated by my sister’s death. Why did my family keep me so isolated? A dark feeling started to invade my thoughts, and I wondered if my family blamed me for Ida’s death. I was the first one to get sick, after all. I was the one who became feverish. I was the one who brought the strong winds into the house, and I was the one who survived the doctor’s treatment only to spread the disease to my sister.
The following day, our entire family formed a procession to the Lutheran Cemetery. It was a sad sight to see my older brothers walking alongside the wagon, with the rest of us sitting next to the simple wooden coffin that was Ida’s final resting place. Mother held Baby Augie in the front, and Father spoke only to the horses, urging them to pull harder. There was no funeral service, and no one came to the internment. Families who knew of our situation were too frightened to attend, not knowing how long the epidemic would last, or who would be the next victim. Some families, already devastated by the disease, simply could not bear the grief.
It was the summer of 1879, and my family would have to go through this scene four more times before autumn set in: Ida, age 11; Emilie, age 8; Helene, age 6; Marie, age 4; Emma, age 3.
Karen Shapiro is a retired school psychologist and teacher with a Master’s degree in Educational Psychology. She has a strong interest in Genealogy and bases her stories on actual events discovered while researching her family tree. She is a life-long student of continuing/online education, with an associate degree in web design and workshops in travel and fiction writing.