1916 Tragedy in Audubon County, Iowa

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 August 2nd. 

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 on the 5th. 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.

Hog Cholera

“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.

Mattie Black


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 Iowa’s Healthiest Girl at the Iowa State Fair.

About 1926

Audubon County Treasurer

In 1931 Ben Black was elected to the Audubon County Treasurer’s office where he served for two terms.

blackbenjaminj (2)
(1874 -1958)


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.

Mattie Black was a first cousin to Sherd Goff, so among the family papers are Laura Goff’s postcards to her daughter, Leora Wilson, about what the Black family endured. This episode is part of Leora’s Early Years: Guthrie County Roots.

There was a mini-Goff Reunion at the Goff home in Dexter in 1927, when many of the Black family were there.

1927blacks (2)
Back: Fifth from left is Lucille Black, ___, Benjamin Black, ____, Florence Goff, ____ Sherd and Laura Goff, Leora Goff Wilson. Front: Delbert and Donald Wilson, ___, Dale and Danny Wilson, Darlene and Doris Wilson, Therma Black, Mattie Black, boy in front ___, Junior Wilson, Merrill Goff. Dexter, Iowa, 1927–Goff home along White Pole Road.


  1. I am always saddened to see graves of very young children from a long time ago when living circumstances were different and medical advances, such as we take for granted, had not yet been made. This is a tragic story of death, yet heartwarming in the perseverance that brought the rest of the family through to have families of their own. We never know when or how our endurance will be tested.

  2. It is so sad to those little grave markers in the old rows of the cemetery of those who died young.

    the Modern Woodmen of America

    I was always fascinated by the markers made to look like logs and trees in our little Southern Minnesota cemetery, then I learned about the Woodmen. Fascinating.

  3. I, too, always wonder about the deaths of young children in cemeteries, especially when they occur close together. Obviously an infectious disease of some sort. Thanks for telling the story of the Blacks and finding the letter. Well done story.

    • Even more amazing is that two family members noticed the story, which I also posted on the Forgotten Iowa Facebook page. One took it for granted that the cholera had been from tainted water. Sure changes the picture of what happened.

  4. Such a tragedy for this family and Mattie Blacks letter was so heartfelt and telling of this story. I was happy to read of the happiness that followed for these children 🙂

    • I just found the relative who had the letter earlier this year. Then when I posted this on the Forgotten Iowa Facebook page, two more relatives sent messages. One hadn’t heard the story. I was alerted to it by my great grandmother’s note to her daughter about it, so looked it up at the Iowa State Historical Society.

  5. Joy. Hello. I am one of Lucille Black’s grandaughters. We are in the San Francisco Bay Area. My mother is Joy Curtis from Audubon, Iowa. We were just in Audubon last October and visited the grave sites of the Blacks and other family members. We visited with my mom ‘s cousin, Donna, in Des Moines. Also, visited with Jim Black in Alta and John Black. I found your article very interesting. I do have a copy of my Great Granda Mother’s sad letter. I never saw the picture of my Grandmother, Luciile, though. I do plan to do more investigating and family geneology. Thank you for your article. Gail Serrano.

    • I’m so glad you sent feedback. My great grandparents knew them and wrote postcards talking about it, went over to help console them. It was just so compelling that I had to make sure this part of history was remembered. My email is joynealkidney@gmail.com. I have a 1927 photo of the family at the Goff home in Dexter, sort of the mini reunion, with Ed Taggart and Frank Barnes, names your mother may remember. Lucille is in the picture.

  6. What a tragic experience for the family. Thankfully, our knowledge about how to prevent, and how to treat, so many ailments continues to grow. But it appears that diseases continue to increase by the day.

    Since death is inevitable, it is such a profound comfort when a family shares a faith in God and a confidence in the Resurrection.

  7. Therma, the youngest, married my dad in 1973 after Arnold’s death. My dad was Pastor Joe Andersen.

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