They Didn’t *Act* Like It Was Diphtheria…

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?


Addie was exhumed on Thursday, November 3, 2011. Addie Hoyt Fargo is no longer in the grave that bears her name.

Addies little

Was this what the well-dressed, sick-in-bed diphtheria patient wore ? Based on the remnants found in Addie's grave, these were probably similar to the shoes that Addie was wearing (and was buried with) when she died in June 1901.


Addie was exhumed on November 3, 2011. She will not be returning to Lake Mills.

Addie was exhumed on November 3, 2011. She will not be returning to Lake Mills. After the autopsy is complete, Addie's remains will be coming home with me.


This photo really demonstrates the shallowness of Addie's grave.


Addies grave was empty by 12:00 noon.

Addie's grave was empty by 12:00 noon.


First, my favorite. I assume this was a traveling outfit for Addie, judging by the little bag at her side.

The necklace draped around her neck appears in several photos, but there were no items of jewelry found in her grave. Interestingly, one gold dental crown was found, but no jewelry.


Close-up of the "necklace." If someone knows what this is called, I'd love to know.

Addie, in the bedroom where she was allegedly shot by her husband, Enoch Fargo.

Addie in her bedroom at the Fargo Mansion.


Addies death certificate, allegedly falsified by Dr. Oatway.

Note the date (near the bottom), and directly underneath the date is the burial permit number. In fact, burial permit #32 was issued to Alinda G. Hornikle, who died on March 26, 1902 at 3:00 am. Alinda G. Hornikle was 24 years old.


Close-up of the parental info. Why didnt Oatway bother to contact Homer Hoyt, who was still living in the small town of Lake Mills, and get this information?

Close-up of the parental info. "Mr. Hoyt" was not born in Wisconsin, but Vermont. Was it really too much trouble for Oatway to ask Enoch about the first names of Addie's parents?



Addie's obituary as it appeared in the local paper, soon after her death.


This obituary attempted to explain her fast death from a slow disease process.

I bet Addie was "very much shocked" too.


Addie, about 1899.

Addie, about 1899.


This burial permit (#21) is dated May 1st, and the death occurred the day before - April 30th.


Addie's should have been permit #22 (judging by the date). But "John Smith" died on June 26th, and this burial permit was dated June 27th. Addie died on June 19, 1901.


As mentioned above, burial permits were required for every grave that was opened. This burial permit was for a stillborn baby (unnamed). As Bill told us, a burial permit was required for every grave - no exceptions. This was the only permit I saw that had the same permit date and death date. In the case of an unnamed, stillborn child, the logistics involved in burial were very different.


Enoch J. Fargo

Anna Hoyt Whitmore (left) in 1910, at the age of 44, pictured beside Addie Hoyt Fargo (right) in 1896, at the age of 24.  Anna lived to be 99 years old. Its likely that Addie would have also lived a long life.

Anna Hoyt Whitmore (left) in 1910, at the age of 44, pictured beside Addie Hoyt Fargo (right) in 1896, at the age of 24. Anna lived to be 99 years old. It's likely that Addie would have also lived a long life. Anna moved to Denver in the 1880s. In early 20th Century America, Denver was a long way from Lake Mills. Notes written in Anna's own hand suggest that - as late as 1904 - she did not know that her baby sister was dead.

And perhaps

And perhaps most chilling of all is this photo of Addie - before and after Enoch. These two photos were taken five years apart. On the left, she was 24 years old. On the right, she was barely 29. Addie's life with Enoch was a hard life. Notice the swollen lip, skewed nose and puffy eyes. In addition, her hairline has receded significantly. She hardly looks like the same woman.


The Fargo Mansion - sometime around the late 1890s.

If you’d like to help with this project, please leave a comment below. If you have any information to share, please leave a comment.

To read more about Addie, click here.


  1. David Spriggs

    I think that we can safely discard the idea that the COD was diphtheria.

    No piece of physical evidence to date has supported the “diphtheria” story. Indeed, much of the evidence has contradicted it.

    Any evidence supporting diphtheria has evolved solely from the Certificate of Death, which has been roundly discredited.

    As has been stated previously, any one anomaly in the story, when considered in isolation, might be explained away. However, the sheer number of anomalies that have been uncovered stretch credulity.

    In light of the available evidence and, admittedly, some logical inferences, I can think of no plausible explanation for Addie’s death which does not involve “foul play” … perhaps not murder, but at least manslaughter.

    Had this same event occurred in the home of a Lake Mills shopkeeper with all the same evidence, one must believe that the shopkeeper would have some serious splainin’ to do. It seems that Enoch got a pass, probably due to his prominence, influence, and economic power in Lake Mills … dare I say, “he was too big to fail”.

    I am not a lawyer.

    Rose’s reply: Okay, you’re not a lawyer, but I’m married to a lawyer, and he agrees with you!

  2. Bev Pinkerman

    Given the social circles that Addie must have moved in you would think there would have been a mighty uproar about the lack of a quarantine at the Fargo Mansion. Society must have been terrified of contracting the disease.

    If a dinner at the mansion was front page news, the rapid death of the lady of the house would surely have been a topic of conversation, along with questions about why normal protocol wasn’t being followed.

    Was Dr. Oatway ever questioned about this? Was it an open secret even at that early stage that Enoch had killed Addie but nobody was able to stand up to him? That makes more sense to me because the diphtheria “script” obviously wasn’t followed through all the way, as if they knew the inconsistencies were never going to be questioned anyway.

  3. Rachel

    I think the obituary should have been worded as such: Between one and two o’clock, it is said, Addie sprang out of bed gasping for breath, grabbed her tall lace up shoes and put them on and laced them up, and fell back in bed dead.

    Who wears shoes to bed a 2am when they are DEATHLY ILL?

    I’ve been following this story since Rose wrote that first blog back in late June, and I tell you, I’d like to meet someone who actually believes that Addie died of diphtheria. If you put all of the evidence together and analyze it and compare stories, none of it adds up. It just doesn’t make sense. It sounds to me like a story a bunch of second graders concocted to get out of trouble. Any amateur investigator can clearly see that there was foul play involved.

    I think people were far less knowledgeable back then and believed the good doctor! That, along with it being the most powerful man in town (whom I doubt anyone would publicly question), I just don’t buy it. Privately, I’d bet money that there were many people talking about what really happened to 29-year-old Addie Hoyt.

    I bet that there were many people who questioned it amongst themselves!!!

  4. Joeylynn

    It seems to me that Addie was actually dressed and ready to make a run for it… after all, the third wife did just that, successfully! Excellent deductions, my dear! Thank you for all the fascinating writings.

  5. Liz Woolever

    I have been captivated with the life and more importantly the death of Addie since this past summer. I actually got connected to Rose’s blog via a friend that took some photos of Sear’s Kit Homes, but it was Addie that sucked me in.

    I can’t fathom Addie’s death was diphtheria at all, that’s nothing more than a story. The facts speak of something much darker and horrific. In my mind Enoch took Addie’s life; perhaps not intentional, but she was killed by him just the same. I think Rose has been diligent to get to the truth and help put Addie to rest, I also believe Rose has done to find the answers to a century + long mystery with no other motive than to get to the truth.

    People have pointed finger that her motive is money, but in all honesty what’s her market for a book – Lake Mills WI, WOW – sell a book to every resident and she’ll be rolling is dough after 5,000 book are sold. Had I not been born and raised in Lake Mills, growing up one block from the Fargo mansion, looking at that home when vacant I wouldn’t be drawn to the story like I am.

    After Addie’s disinterment I have more questions, but none of them stray me from believing she did not die of diphtheria they only reinforce that there was a cover up by Dr. Oatway. I’m not hopeful that after the forensic pathologists and toxicologist are done looking at the evidence they will conclude the true cause of death, but just seeing how shallow Addie’s grave was along with having her boots on are two pieces of very compelling evidence.

    The last question I have is now that Addie will no longer “reside” in Lake Mills, why was the foot stone left to mark a grave that no longer contains her body? I understand the large “family” marker lists Enoch and all three wives, but the small stone that just says Addie to mark her place no longer belongs as she’s left.

    Rose’s Reply: Thanks, Liz! As to the book, if I do ultimately decide to put pen to paper (and that’s a big ‘if’), my motive will be solely to give Addie a voice. She was forced into silence in that shallow tomb for a long, long time. Honestly, the fact that the grave was so shallow was the most disturbing bit of evidence. Apparently, no one even cared enough to give her a decent and proper burial.

  6. Debbie

    So did it take several hours to dig a 34-inch deep grave? Enoch must have obtained that coffin right away, but did someone start digging the grave right away?

    I think all this historical stuff is fascinating and certainly does help explain how people lived, what the laws were, what happened when there was a serious illness, etc. (And what was it like to visit the dentist? Addie had a gold dental crown.)

    There was certainly foul play at work here. Otherwise, why go to all the trouble to cover up how she died? Of course, they had to use the diphtheria excuse so that they would NOT have to have a PUBLIC viewing! People had wakes in their homes, people dressed up, and I think there were some fancy coffins being used.

    Surely someone of wealth would have had a grand exit! And there would have been a large number of people who would have come to pay their respects to the deceased and her family. However, if there was something to hide, something that would have been obvious, something that would have required further examination and questioning, but since Addie was buried so quickly, I guess that solved that problem!

    Rose’s Reply: Debbie, a couple different people in the funeral industry have told me that typically, someone from Addie’s “station in life” would have had their coffin placed within a brick or metal vault. The traditional cement vault wasn’t used for most burials until the late 1920s, but the coffins of the wealthy were often encased within a brick or metal (sometimes copper) vault. The reason was simple: It dissuaded grave robbers, which was apparently a problem back then. That’s also (according to legend) one reason why graves are always at least six feet deep: to deter would-be thieves.

    That’s one of many reasons it was such a surprise to find her at 34″. If the coffin was 18″ tall, there was only 16″ of topsoil on top of her coffin. Heck, a miscreant with a hand spade could have dug that up in short order.

  7. Shari

    Wow, you have really built a case. She’s blessed to have you as a great-niece.

  8. D.H.Fabian

    Outstanding information, and it answers at least a half dozen questions that I had. I don’t know that the clothes Addie was buried in would have much relevance. If I’m not mistaken, two practices were common during that era; either burying the deceased in nightclothes (no shoes), or first dressing the body in their “Sunday best,” depending on the families’
    traditions. At any rate, the exhumation answers some questions, and brings up others.

    It is my understanding that bone fragments are to be (or were already?) examined for evidence of a gunshot wound to the head, but the more I think about it, the more I wonder if this would provide the answer. The skull had become damaged after being buried so long. As I understand it, there could be metallic residue/scraping from the bullet as it passed through the bone, but the degree of deterioration to the remains makes it possible that any metallic particles would have detached from the bone.

    The more I learned about diphtheria, the less credible that claim (as the cause of death) became. It will be interesting to learn the results of the tests.

  9. Rachael

    Regarding the quarantine of the home, my impression is that even though the disease was known well enough to be contagious and deadly, since it wasn’t too common, any layperson would not know the protocol of this particular disease.

    They left that up to the doctor and had trust in him. I also think people questioned Addie’s death in private. There were probably other people who saw a dark side of Enoch. I also think Enoch intimidated or threatened the doctor. Or he was paid off too, both of which are immoral and inconceivable.

    Also, your husbands idea about purchasing the casket to follow the script makes a lot of sense to me!

  10. Linda Derse

    This thought has been going through my mind for a while now. How is it that Enoch Fargo could escape death, if both of his wives died from such terrible diseases? I thought they both lived in the mansion. How did he become so immune to both of these diseases?