Whooping Cough: Quarantine and Carnations

In January of 1929 the Wilson family moved into the little town of Dexter, Iowa–just from an acreage on the outskirts, but it was the first time to move with nine children.

Twins, Jack and Jean, had been born just three weeks earlier. And the other seven kids had what they thought were colds, until their coughs grew serious. . . and had the tell-tale “whoop” sound.

Grandpa Goff, who would now be their neighbor, and the Goff uncles hauled the white iron bedsteads, table and chairs, the cook stove, Leora’s precious treadle sewing machine, the Victrola, pots and pans, curtains, and covers. . . . load after load.

Clabe Wilson, their father, set up the stove right away and got it started, so it would be warm when the kids got there. A few at a time rode in the Model T, along with a load of house plants, or boxes filled with Mason jars of green beans or tomatoes. Junior and Danny were in first and second grades.


A QUARANTINED sign was tacked to the front door of the shabby green house. Whooping cough, or pertussis, spreads very easily. It can spread to others for weeks after someone becomes ill with it.

Clabe and Leora laid newspapers upstairs on the wooden floor boards beside their beds, with ashes in the center to catch the phlegm when they vomited. Short of breath, they’d fall to their hands and knees to finish coughing, then gasp for breath. Donald, an eighth grader, even fainted during a coughing episode.

Every morning, Leora burned those newspapers and put down fresh ones. About once a week, she’d send the kids upstairs to bed during the day to stay warm while she aired out the house, clean everything, and mop the floors with a disinfectant.

When the stove downstairs was warm again, she’d call the kids to come down. Darlene said the room smelled so clean and medicine-y. She’d sit behind the wood stove where she felt warm and safe.


Darlene and Dale were second graders. Dale developed pneumonia, a common complication with whooping cough. One night Clabe heard shuffling and squeaking of bedsprings overhead. He lit a lamp to climb the stairs and found Dale nearly unconscious, with his head caught in the curves of the wrought iron headboard. Among the disheveled blankets, he was too weak to help himself.

They asked the doctor to come and check on him. He gave them some medicine. The doctor also took a look at Doris’s bloodshot eye. She had coughed so hard that a blood vessel had broken. They got drops to put in her eyes, probably boric acid.

The twin babies were having such a time, with their tiny gasping cries. Leora would try to nurse them, but they’d gasp and choke. Clabe and Leora held them upside down to pull phlegm from their mouths with their fingers. This needed to be done day and night. One of Leora’s brothers from next door came over at night to help so they could get some sleep.

The doctor suggested getting them to take a little whiskey from a spoon to clear their throats. But it didn’t do any good. Pertussis, or whooping cough, is most dangerous in young babies.

Whiskey didn’t work

Baby Jack died, then two days later, Jean died, too. They were five weeks old.

Jack (3)

Grandmother Goff, who lived next door, sewed white satin and lace burial gowns for them. The service, delivered by Rev. C. M. Corrie from the Methodist Church, was held in the living room of  little house. The seven surviving children sat in another room, with pails nearby, just in case.

Jean (2)

The neighbors had taken up a collection for flowers. Carnations. For the rest of her life, whenever Doris would smell carnations, it took her back to the funeral for the baby twins.

The baby twins are buried at Guthrie Center, in the plot that Sherd Goff bought when his daughter Georgia died–large enough for more family members.

Whooping cough can last several weeks. Delbert and Donald were in eighth grade, and ended up missing a whole grading period at school. Their teachers talked about holding them back a year, but they wanted to graduate with their classmates.

The teachers agreed that if Delbert and Donald would double down on their studies and take a special test, they would let them stay with their grade. Which they did.

During this time a neighbor’s house across the street caught on fire at night and burned to the ground. Doris, a fifth grader, watched it from an upstairs window. A man’s body was carried from the house and laid on the running board of a car. One of his feet swung down, the shoe still aflame.

Hellish is the word she used as an adult to describe the whooping cough-house fire-babies dying time in her young life.

This story is also told in Leora’s Dexter Stories: The Scarcity Years of the Great Depression.




    • They tried around the clock–with relatives helping overnight–to save them. All the other kids were so miserable, too, and lost so much school. I was amazed to find their death certificates online. My grandmother didn’t have copies of them that I know of.

  1. So heart wrenching to lose babies at just five weeks of age! So tiny! I can understand that the smell of carnations would always be a reminder of that day when they were buried. So many of these little angels were carried to heaven at a tender age. I think people today forget what these times were like, and how families and neighbors tried to see each other through, with the help of God. They made the best of things, and I believe they found the best in one another. With faith, hope, and love, as scripture reminds us, even in adversity, people prevail and overcome.

    • Thanks for your compelling feedback. I’m just finishing up edits on Leora’s Dexter Stories: The Scarcity Years of the Great Depression. Much of what you’ve voiced just now is played out in the middle of hardship and deprivation. It’s hard to believe how they got through it, although not unscathed.

  2. I can’t even imagine the horror. I believe the Kennedy’s were spared this fate… never heard of them getting sick, but I’m sure there hearts bled as their neighbors lost children. The whole community felt the loss ….

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