Diphtheria? Not So Fast.

Dr. William Oatway proclaimed that Addie’s fast-acting diphtheria was the most virulent form of the disease he’d ever witnessed.

In fact, he said “[the diphtheria] had advanced with unusual rapidity…it was the most stubborn, and rapidly developing case he has ever met with, and the result seems to justify the belief that no human power or skill could have furnished relief…” (And yet he forgot to report it to the State Board of Health a few months later, when he told them there were no cases of diphtheria in 1901 in Lakes Mills.)

A mere 16 hours after the first symptoms appeared, Addie was dead, killed when the membrane in her throat (a trademark feature of diphtheria) broke off or closed up (depending on which version of the two obits you read). She died from asphyxiation.

Sounds awful, for sure. The good news is, according to an online report I found from the CDC, that’s not how diphtheria works. In other words, Oatway’s story is pretty far-fetched.


The most common sites of infection are the pharynx and the tonsils. Infection at these sites is usually associated with substantial systemic absorption of toxin. The onset of pharyngitis is insidious.

Early symptoms include malaise, sore throat, anorexia, and lowgrade fever. Within 2-3 days, a bluish-white membrane forms and extends, varying in size from covering a small patch on the tonsils to covering most of the soft palate. Often by the time the person seeks medical attention, the membrane is greyish-green in color, or black if there has been bleeding. There is a minimal amount of mucosal erythema surrounding the membrane. The membrane is adherent to the tissue, and forcible attempts to remove it cause bleeding. Extensive membrane formation may result in respiratory obstruction.

Did you see that? 

Within 2-3 days, a bluish-white membrane forms and extends, varying in size from covering a small patch on the tonsils to covering most of the soft palate.

Typically in children, diphtheria killed them 5-6 days after onset, due to this membrane formation. How could Addie die in 15 hours? In fact, according to Oatway, the membrane formed and then broke off. None of this makes sense.

And how could Addie die from this “membrane” in 15 hours, when it takes several days to form?

Part of the problem with diphtheric membrane was it was part of the tissue and could not be removed without causing excessive bleeding. How could all this happen in 15 hours?

It probably did not.


Addie as a child, at about age 8-10 (1880-1882).


Addie at about 22 years old, in 1894.


Addie in her fancy coat and matching muff.

To learn more about Addie, click here.


  1. Rachel

    Strange how a unique and rare incident of such a disease can just slip your mind within a few months when it is supposed to be reported! If he wasn’t a liar he was a horrible doctor that’s for sure!!!

  2. Mandie Brewer

    If I were a doctor back then I would have surely written a paper on this new fast acting ninja like disease. Maybe named the new strain after myself. Not something you forget about. For sure not something you forget to mention to the state health department.

    Almost makes you feel like thanking the wonderful Dr. Oatway for being such a lousy liar, as it is making it a bit easier to sort everything out.

    Rose’s Reply: Mandie, that was my first thought, too. He left an incredible trail, didn’t he? And there have been so many amazing coincidences involved in this whole thing. For one, someone in the city of Lake Mills threw out a great number of these ledgers that contained the burial permits, but the one ledger (where Addie’s permit SHOULD have appeared) was the one that was saved.

    And look at those photo albums! Somehow, they were saved by Anna Whitmore (Addie’s sister), and then by Florence Whitmore Fuller (my grandmother, Anna’s daughter), and then my father (Thomas Hoyt Fuller) and then I threw them right in the trash! And they were retrieved ultimately, but still – that was a close call!

    And then I found that report from the State Board of Health (thanks to Mark Hardin), and then I found an obituary for Addie in the local paper, and three weeks prior, the same paper talked about her trip to Portage! I would never have had a date for when she traveled to Portage, unless I’d found that tiny article.

    All along the way, some amazing things have happened. A lot of people think it’s Addie helping me along. What if it’s Doctor Oatway?

  3. Rachael

    I am bookmarking this page and hoping to read more about Addie and the evidence that is uncovered. I don’t think those are coincidences, I think everything is falling into place and it is remarkable that the ledgers and photos were saved. Too much to be coincidence.

    The shoes are a very telling sign that something isn’t right about this story. I will be looking forward to reading more about Addie. I was born and spent my childhood in Lake Mills so when I saw this story it really perked my interests. Looking forward to reading more and thank you for sharing.

  4. Debbie

    Maybe Dr. Oatway’s ghost is somewhere. If he felt remorse, but couldn’t actually do anything about it, maybe his spirit is restless.

    Rose’s reply: If there was a deathbed confession (and I’ve no idea if there’s any truth to that story), maybe *that* gave his soul its needful rest and peace. After Addie’s death, Oatway (apparently) lived an honorable life. I do find it interesting that he up and moved to Waukesha in 1913. In the early 20th Century, physicians did not up and move like that.

  5. Mandie Brewer

    @Mandie Brewer
    Rose, it may be a combined effort with both Addie and the Doc. But I am sure that it was Addie that made you go and get that photo album out of the trash. With all of the hard work she put into it and all, she could not let it just get thrown away 😉 It must be an amazing feeling just holding onto something made by her hand, a true family treasure for sure.

    Rose’s reply: It is an amazing feeling to hold something that was Addie’s. It truly is. She looks like she was just a fascinating woman. Her sister Anna (my great-grandmother) was something else, too. https://searshomes.org/index.php/2011/09/28/addie-and-annie-the-hoyt-sisters/

  6. Mandie Brewer

    I LOVE the Vegas story!!! My kind of woman.

  7. Shari

    Not to excuse Dr. Oatway for any hand he had in it if it was indeed murder–but do you realize that Dr. Oatway and Addie were the same age? He was a young physician, probably just getting started and may have found himself in a situation where he was threatened by a powerful, older, rich man.