Suffer the Little Children

The settlers of these hills had fled wars and tyranny and repressive class system to seek a new life in a new world, but they were unable to escape the dreaded shadow of contagious disease, especially its grip on their children.

June 18, 2009 | | Historic Hills

For Thomas and Mary Ann Wolfe, the winter from hell began at Christmas in 1876. Sadly, it started with their spirited young daughter, Agnes Jane. Though she was just ten years old, no one in Mount Wolfe School could recite poetry with more flair than Aggie Wolfe. Her presentation this year was a much anticipated feature at the annual Christmas concert.

The concert was scheduled for December 21, a Friday, and so devoted was Aggie to her task that, on the Sunday before, she’d slogged through the snow to practise in the freezing school building near their farm atop “The Ridges” on the 10th Line of Albion Township.

The very next day her parents noticed something was wrong. The runny nose was nothing to be alarmed about, nor was the sore throat at first. It was her malaise that got attention. Aggie was not one to sit still, but that morning she could barely finish milking the old brindle cow. By mid-afternoon the sore throat was worse and she had a fever.

By the following day, when Thomas went to fetch Dr. Sripley from Tottenham, Aggie could hardly breathe. The weary doctor needed only one look at her throat to make a diagnosis: diphtheria. He’d seen it so often and he felt helpless every time.

The memorial stone for young Agnes Jane Wolfe.

The concert went ahead at Mount Wolfe school on Friday evening, but there was no recitation by little Aggie Wolfe. She had died that afternoon. Her parents grieved with the quiet stoicism that came with the life of the pioneers. Of their nine children, Aggie had been the brightest light, but they were familiar with the shadow of death and braced themselves to carry on.

Still, what happened to the Wolfes over the next three months was too much to ask of even the most stalwart. Two days into 1877, Dr. Sripley attended yet again and stood by powerless as the family’s oldest son, William, 22, also died. William had been poorly; he coughed a lot, often bringing up blood. “Phthisis” (tuberculosis) Dr. Srigley called it, a pronouncement that chilled Thomas and Mary Ann to the bone because their next eldest son, James, who was working in Bolton, had a similar cough.

There wasn’t much time to fret, however, for three weeks after William died, the shadow came a third time and the diphtheria that killed Aggie now took her sister, twelve-year-old Ann Eliza. That was on January 23 and four days after that, little Elspeth Wolfe died of scarlet fever. She was barely three.

By now, the Wolfes were numb beyond grief, but the shadow was still not finished. It hung back through the month of February, but then struck twice more. On the first day of March, Louisa Wolfe, age five, died of scarlet fever, and on the very next day, TB claimed nineteen-year-old James. In just ten weeks, Thomas and Mary Ann Wolfe had lost six of their nine children.

No Family Could Escape

Although the Wolfe family’s story is terrifying and painful, it is far from unique. While they were struggling through their grief, the Rowleys, a concession to the east, mourned young Rueben, just five. He died of scarlet fever that year on January 9. That same day over on the Fourth Line, the Carberrys lost their William to diphtheria. He too was five. And on the Fifth Line, seven-year-old James Stewart succumbed to scarlet fever. That fall, William and Eliza Elliott, just two farms north of the Wolfes, lost four children to diphtheria in a single month. In that single grim year, it seemed as though the shadow had chosen Albion Township for some kind of emotional endurance test.

How the parents of that time managed to cope, we can only surmise. The persistent possibility of fatal disease is one explanation for the large number of children typical of pioneer families, likely even more significant than the absence of effective birth control methods. Because the death of a child was not uncommon, there may have been some comfort in shared grief, still the loss of so many children must have been immeasurable.

The memorial stone for brother James Wolfe.

As a memorial to a lost child, it was a fairly common practice to christen a new baby with the name of a dead sibling. The Elliotts, for example, had lost James, age twelve, in 1862 and three years later gave that name to a newborn son. But this time, fate would not be undone – that second James was one of the four who died of diphtheria in the fall of 1877.

The Four Horsemen

If there is an apocalyptic metaphor to apply here, the candidates would surely be diphtheria, scarlet fever, typhus and cholera. Smallpox would be a contender too, although vaccination was available, albeit sporadically, by the time these hills were settled.

Of the four horsemen, typhus and cholera seemed to threaten populated areas more than farms. Scarlet fever, however, and diphtheria were universal and completely indiscriminate when it came to geography. The latter disease was a special curse as it was so virulently contagious and seemed to aim directly at children. The symptoms of diphtheria are insidious, appearing initially as a simple sore throat but quickly escalating into high fever and eventually closing the throat with a leather-like secretion. Victims expire from simply being unable to breathe.

Before the days of vaccinations and antibiotics, diphtheria remedies included gargling with kerosene. Desperate parents were known to try sucking out the secretion through a tube thrust down the patient’s throat – guaranteeing that they would become the next victims.

Like diphtheria, scarlet fever seems to zero in on young children. The principal symptoms are a red body rash and a severe sore throat. Usually, if the disease becomes fatal, it is because of a complication like pneumonia or meningitis.

In 1877, to treat scarlet fever the Wolfes had to resort to whatever homemade nostrums they believed in. Today, antibiotics are so effective against it that a vaccine developed in 1924 is not often used. Immunization against diphtheria, however, continues.

These gravestones at Mount Wolfe on Mt. Pleasant Road, north of Old Church Road, in Caledon, are a sorrowful memorial to the Wolfe (also spelled Woulfe), Elliott and other local families who lost so many children to contagious disease.

(The diphtheria vaccine, developed in France in 1914, owes proof of its value to Connaught Laboratories in Toronto. In the 1920s, Connaught was first in the world to produce and disseminate it in significant quantities, an action which has led to a near eradication – in the developed world – of this dreadful killer.)

Antibiotics and vaccines came too late for the Wolfes and the Elliotts and other settlers of these hills who suffered so many painful losses. William and Eliza Elliott outlived most of their children and grew into old age. So did Thomas and Mary Ann Wolfe (who lost yet another child, Rebecca, in 1883). For them, to be a pioneer in these hills was to soldier on in defiance of the grim shadow of contagion. In the times they lived, they had little other choice, but their courage in carrying on speaks to an extraordinary strength of will.

More Info

Dr. Algie Cleans Up

When Ontario required municipalities to form boards of health in 1884, Caledon Township appointed Dr. James Algie as its first local chair. Dr. Algie, who practised in Alton for twenty-nine years (he was also a published novelist and an acknowledged authority on prisons) was instrumental in developing much improved sanitation practices in the township. By using statistics and artful persuasion to demonstrate the connection between lack of hygiene and communicable diseases, particularly typhus and cholera, he was successful in a campaign to get Caledon residents to clean out their cellars, privies and their hog pens at least once a year, and to move manure piles away from drinking-water sources.

About the Author More by Ken Weber

Caledon writer Ken Weber’s best-selling Five Minute Mysteries series is published in 22 languages. Ken wrote 103 Historic Hills columns for In The Hills over more than 25 years, capping his pen in 2022.

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