A trauma out of the blue.
Ben Black not only was a farmer in Melville Township, he was also an Audubon County Supervisor.
In 1915 he farmed 232 acres of Iowa land, owning 80 acres of it, plus 320 acres in North Dakota. He had married Mattie Simmons, a school teacher, in 1903 and they had six children–Howard, Everett, Lucille, William, Robert, and Martha Evelyn.
A 1915 history of Audubon County says that Ben Black’s family make “a very happy group, in fact one of the most popular families in Melville Township.”
Black was a member of the Masonic lodge at Audubon and of the Modern Woodmen of America. He’d also served as school director, township clerk, and road supervisor. “[F]ew men can be said to have a wider interest in matters which concern the public generally than Mr. Black. Interest in education, in good roads, in politics, and in the improvement of community spirit, he is a worthy citizen of Audubon county and one of the leading farmers and citizens of Melville township.”
But the sultry summer of 1916, tragedy struck the Black family the first week in August. All six children–ages almost 2 to almost 12–became terribly ill. William died on Wednesday the 9th.
Until a few years earlier, Sherd and Laura Goff had been neighbors of Blacks in Melville Township. Also Sherd Goff and Mattie Black were cousins. Laura wrote her daughter that Ben’s two youngest had just died, one at 4:15, the other at 6:15 Saturday the 12th. Goffs had been over to try to console them, she wrote, and were going to the funeral that afternoon.
Lucille was a little better. The doctor thought if she survived through the night, she’d get well.
There had been speculation that the children had become sick from eating green apples.
The Guthrie Times reported that Blacks “had a short week ago six bright, healthy children” but had buried three of them. “[A]t present the three remaining children are at the point of death. The doctors are nonplussed as to the nature of the disease, so we hear.
“A specialist from Council Bluffs, also one from Chicago has been called in consultation with the local physicians. The supposition seems to be that the disease is cholera or hydrophobia. Mr. Black’s hogs were dying with cholera. The family dog ate the dead hogs, and it is thought the children were infected, by playing with the dog.”
Hog cholera. Their family pet.
William Black b. Sept. 6, 1911, Audubon County
died Aug. 2, 1916-age 4 years 10 months 26 days
Robert Simmons Black, b. Apr. 19, 1913, Audubon Co.
died Aug. 5, 1916, age 3 years 3 months 16 days
Martha Evelyn Black, b. Dec. 20, 1914, Audubon Co.
died Aug. 5, 1916 age 1 year 7 months 15 days
They are buried in Arlington Heights Cemetery, Audubon, Iowa.
Almost four months later, Mattie gave birth to a healthy baby girl. They named her Therma Rosalyn.
When I visit a cemetery and notice stones in the cemetery for children, I often wonder what terrible disease they succumbed to. I think about the terrible ache their loss caused the rest of the family. Half of Black’s children were gone in that one week–all three younger ones. It must have been awful for the older children who survived.
Audubon Ia. Sept. 10, 1916
Dear Bro & Family–
I expect you think I am a long while about answering your letter, but I havn’t felt like writing to any one.
Just six ago today Little William was taken sick and died on Wednesday Aug. 2 at 8 P.M. About 9 A.M. Aug 2 Little Robert was taken sick and at 1 P.M. Lucille was taken sick and at 5 P.M. Baby Evelyn and on Saturday Aug. 5. Robert died at 4:15 P.M. and Evelyn just two hours after. Some time I think I never can stand it but I have to keep up for what I have left. Lucille is still a very sick child. Can’t even sit up in bed. the only thing that she can eat is Malted milk Mellin’s food. or some kind of soup. We have had two Drs and two trained nurses for four days and one trained nurse has been with us since Aug. 2. This one is from Council Bluffs.
We think now if nothing else sets in that Lucille is going to get well. I didn’t feel very hopeful until the last week. Ma has been here two week and Ben’s mother has been five weeks. I have had a girl to help me part of the time and the neighbors have all been so good to us.
No one knows what they can go through with until they have to. Our children hadn’t been sick a day this summer until this sickness struck them. The Drs call it Cholera Infantum but what ever it is. It is simply awful. There has been so many deaths of it in the past month around Audubon. and nearly every child in the country have been sick with it in a light form.
It just seems like our home is entirely broken up.
Lucille don’t know yet that the other children are dead. She hadn’t come to when they died. but since she begun to get better she has been asking about them. but the Dr thinks it best not to tell her until she is better. If I could only see you and talk to you. I can’t express my feeling on paper from a sad heart.
Audubon County Farm Bureau
Two years later, Ben Black helped found the Audubon County Farm Bureau. He was president a number of years.
When Lucille Black was 18 years old, ten years after she’d been so ill, she was named the state health champion at the Iowa State Fair.
Audubon County Treasurer
In 1931 Ben Black was elected to the Audubon County Treasurer’s office where he served for two terms.
Wayne Black was almost 12 when he survived the terrible illness. He married Helen Redman in 1933 and had five sons–James, Howard, John, Neal, and Brian. Wayne Black was County Attorney for several years.
Everett Black was 10 in 1916. He married Clarice Clemmensen in 1928 and had two daughters–Donna and Janet, and one son–Roland. Everett farmed the home place from 1951 to 1966, then retired to Audubon.
Lucille Black was 8 when so terribly ill. She later married Henry Curtis and had two daughters–Joy and Louise.
Therma Black, born just a few months after the tragedy, married Arnold Madsen in 1937 and had four daughters–Joan, Mary, Alice and Nancy. Mary died in infancy.
The Guthrie Times, Aug. 10, 1916.
History of Audubon County Iowa, editor B.F. Bowen & Co, Indianapolis, Ind. 1915, pages 594f.
History of Audubon County, Iowa, 1878-1978, page 42B.
Thanks also to Jodi Irlmeier.