Last night, I stayed up way too late reading about the Wisconsin State Health Code in the early 1900s.
And frankly, it was a fascinating read. To understand Addie’s alleged murder, you have to learn a little more about that time period, and think back to life in early 20th Century America. Reading through these historical materials helped me to do just that.
I learned some interesting facts.
1) If diphtheria (or another communicable disease) was found in a home, the house was to be quarantined and placarded. Health officials had discovered that people were not abiding by the placard (and the laws supporting it), so sentries were to be stationed at the house to make sure no one went in or out. This might sound extreme, but if your only defense against a communicable disease is to prevent its spread, a strictly enforced quarantine would be a very good plan.
Again, in a historical context, the germ theory was new information.
For so many years, mothers could only watch in helpless horror as their young children died from any one of a myriad of “common” diseases. And then in the late 1800s, Dr. Joseph Lister discovered that germs were culprit. Mothers and fathers, weary of burying their children, had a new arch enemy: household dirt. As is explained in the 1908 book, Household Discoveries and Mrs. Curtis’ Cook-Book:
Not many years ago disease was most often deemed the act of Providence as a chastening or visitation for moral evil. Many diseases are now known to be merely human ignorance and uncleanliness. The sins for which humanity suffers are violations of the laws of sanitation and hygiene, or simply the one great law of absolute sanitary cleanliness… Every symptom of preventable disease and communicable disease…should suggest the question: “Is the cause of this illness an unsanitary condition within my control?”
Now that the enemy had been identified, modern women attacked it with every tool in their arsenal. Keeping a house clean was far more than a matter of mere pride: The well-being, nay, the very life of one’s child might depend upon a home’s cleanliness. What mother wanted to sit at the bedside of their sick child, tenderly wiping his fevered brow and pondering the awful question: “Was the cause of this illness an unsanitary condition within my control?”
Which leads me to another discovery. Diphtheria was described in the vintage literature as The Poor Immigrant’s Disease. It was found primarily in the big cities, and in the slums. It was believed that sanitary living, cleanliness and good diet did much to ameliorate the threat of contracting diphtheria. And that led me to another question: Why would Oatway say that Addie died of The Poor Immigrant’s Disease?
What if Addie had been seen in downtown Lake Mills the morning of the 18th? And having read 15 months of the Lake Mills Leader, I can tell you – Addie was a busy girl. She was always doing something! If she had been out on Tuesday morning (the 18th), Oatway would know that his concocted story would have to match a certain timeline.
Diphtheria hadn’t been seen in Lake Mills or contiguous small towns for years. Perhaps most people didn’t know or understand the typical progression of this disease. Most people didn’t have the education (or the resources) to double-check Oatway’s claim that diphtheria could kill within 15 hours of onset. They didn’t understand that the heavy membrane of the soft palate that accompanied malignant diphtheria (as it was then known) didn’t start to form until 2-3 days after onset. In other words, most people wouldn’t have the background and/or life experience to know that his claim was far-fetched.
Back to the other facts I discovered…
2) After the patient had recovered (or died) from diphtheria (or any other communicable disease), their personal possessions (clothing and linens) were to be destroyed by burning or – in the case of small items – buried with them.
3) The body of the recently deceased was to be “disinfected” and the rules for the disinfection of the body followed a strict protocol and specific steps.
4) The house was also to be disinfected and fumigated. Note, not just the sick room, but the entire house.
5) In Wisconsin, if the deceased had died from diphtheria (or other communicable disease), they were to be buried or cremated within 24 hours of death, and there was to be no public funeral (again, due to fears about spreading the disease). In most states, these bodies could NOT be disinterred for a period of time (three years to ten years).
6) Traditional burial depths in Midwestern states were six feet deep. As of 1910, I can not find a legal requirement under-girding this, but I’m still looking. In one Midwestern state, there was a specific demand that if the person had died of small pox (a very contagious disease) the body was to be buried “extra deep” (beyond the standard six feet). At the time, it was believed that diphtheria germs could remain viable (presenting a contagion hazard) for up to 48 hours after a person’s death.
7) Enoch and his first wife (Mary Rutherford) had a little girl named Mertie (“Myrtle”) who died in 1887 at the age of nine. A neighbor child had contracted Typhoid and died, and the family had put her toys out on the burn pile. Little Mertie grabbed a little doll off the burn pile and played with it. Soon thereafter, Mertie contracted Typhoid and passed on. The point of this story is – Enoch should have been terrified of communicable disease and would understand the need to do anything to keep his other two girls safe. One would think he’d have put the Fargo Mansion on the “burn pile” if he thought it was needful to keep the other two girls safe from this diphtheria that Oatway had described as especially virulent and fast-acting.
8 ) When I was in Lake Mills a few days ago, I read the Lake Mills Leader from November 1900 – February 1902. I paid special attention to the articles in June and July of 1901 (when Addie died). I did not find any mention of the Fargo Mansion being placarded and quarantined. You’d think this would be front page news in Lake Mills in Summer 1901.
Six months prior (December 13, 1900), the Lake Mills Leader had three separate stories about the happenings at The Fargo Manse (fancy dinner for 12, Addie’s trip to Milwaukee and Enoch’s installation of electric lights in the barn). Each of these three little stories made the FRONT page of the Lake Mills Leader. In January 1901, the Lake Mills Leader ran a detailed story on Crepaco, E. J. Fargo’s massive creamery in Lake Mills. Largely a puff piece, the subtitle for this splendiferous article was, “Sketch of the Great Plant.”
E. J. Fargo was the big deal in Lake Mills. If the Fargo Mansion (as it was then known) had been quarantined, we would have known about it.
Despite Addie’s alleged death from Ninja-Stealth Diphtheria, the house (and its residents) were never quarantined. Again, this was a violation of state law and Dr. Oatway (a professional physician and the public health officer for Lake Mills) knew that he was violating state law.
But this was consistent with his other behavior. On Addie’s death certificate, Oatway said she died of diphtheria. In Addie’s obit, Oatway is quoted as saying that it was the most virulent and fast-acting strain of diphtheria that he’d ever seen in his career. A few months later when he filed a report with the state board of health, he reported that there’d been no cases of diphtheria in Lake Mills in 1901.
He tells the public (via an obit) that she died of diphtheria, but then takes no action to sterilize the house and/or quarantine the family. If the Fargo Mansion was not quarantined, he was violating the very laws he was sworn to uphold, and he was not fulfilling his paid duties as the Lake Mills public health officer.
Those are some interesting facts. Here are a few more.
Addie was buried in her lace-up shoes. Addie was buried without her wedding jewelry (or any jewelry, for that matter). Addie’s remains were found at 34″ of depth. Addie’s coffin apparently had a glass viewing window on the top.
So, if we follow the official storyline about diphtheria, Enoch was so worried about contagion and in such a hurry to get Addie buried, that she was in the ground by 10:00 am, after a presumed death of 2:00 am. And yet, he took the time to dress her in street clothes (hence the fancy shoes), knowing that there’d be no funeral and no public viewing? That’s a tough sell.
If this was a traditional funeral, I’d say, “Sure, people were often dressed to the nines in preparation for burial,” but the obit tells us that she died at 2:00 am and was in the ground eight hours later. That’s a rush job, to say the least.
And even though Enoch was so worried about contagion and in such a hurry to get her buried, he took the time to remove her jewelry and even pry her wedding band off her delicate little fingers?
And even though Enoch was so worried about contagion from this Ninja-Stealth Diphtheria, her grave was dug to a depth of only 34″ instead of the traditional six feet of depth?
And even though Enoch was so worried about contagion from this Ninja-Stealth Diphtheria, his house was never quarantined or disinfected?
And the viewing window on the coffin really had me flummoxed. Why in the world would you spend the extra money to buy a fancy coffin with a small viewing window on the top, when you know that there’s not going to be a viewing? What’s the point of buying the fancier coffin when it’s just going directly into the ground?
Was it the only thing they had in stock at 2:00 am at Hansen & Hildebrandt? I couldn’t figure this one out, and then my husband offered a theory. These coffins with the little viewing window were designed for those loved ones who’d succumbed to a contagious disease. You could still gaze upon the beautiful face of your dearly departed without any risk of exposure to germs.
The hubby said, “It’s the coffin that you’d buy if you were following the script that Addie died from communicable disease.”
And these few facts (above) don’t even address the many other inconsistencies we’ve found in this story. Read more about them here.
Lastly, one has to wonder: What did the townspeople think? They knew about quarantines and they knew about contagious disease. Why wasn’t Fargo being forced to comply? Did they also have suspicions about Addie’s fast death? If they did, what were they to do?
Enoch’s company employed 86 people in January 1901. If the average household was five people, that meant that 430 of Lake Mills’ 1,800 residents could be in big trouble fast if they questioned Enoch J. Fargo’s explanation of events. In addition to those 430, how many other people were beholden to Fargo, and wanted to stay on his good side? And what about the rest of the Fargo clan? Probably a large number of Lake Mills’ people were dependent upon some member of the Fargo family for their income and livelihood.
And what about the rest of Lake Mills’ 1800 residents? William H. Oatway was more than just the town doctor; he was also the public health officer, and like Enoch, another formidable member of the community. What common citizen would dare confront both of these powerful men?
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