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The People of Western Kings 1785 to 1901
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A Short History of Western Kings

The Epidemic of 1860

                When I was going through graveyards and census documents it seemed to me that there were an unusual amount of deaths in the year 1860.  So when I had the index mostly complete I done a rough count of deaths, my results are in the following table:

1859 -
1860 -
1861 -
1862 - 
# of deaths
Deaths for 1859 to 1862

                This I thought was significant so I went through some church registers to see to what causes deaths were mostly attributed.  The answer I found in the majority of cases was diphtheria but it was by no means unanimous.  Every cause was listed from dropsy to brain fever.  Then I began to wonder exactly how they made their diagnoses.  This was all happening a year before Louis Pasteur published his works.  I'm no expert but it occurs to me that in that environment at that time there were no really qualified people in bacteriology or virology, they probably consulted one another and whatever they had experienced that looked the most like this disease was agreed on.  That is probably how they arrived at diphtheria.  In Philadelphia in the years 1860 and 1861 there was an epidemic of smallpox but smallpox had been around for donkey's years and it's difficult to mistake.

                I also sampled some church registers in other counties and I got the impression that it was happening all over Nova Scotia.  My count shows a death rate of about 6%, but it's worse if you start your year on 1 April 1860 and end it on 31 March 1861.

                I also question the validity of my numbers and I wonder if they're not in error on the low side.  When I compare the deaths recorded in the census and the deaths recorded on tombstones I find very little overlap.  That leads me to wonder if there wasn't a sense of despondancy like that during the influenze epidemic of 1918.  I wonder if, like in 1918, they didn't try to turn their backs on it and try to wish it away.  I had certainly never heard of it before I started this index.  You would think an event like that would have made some impression on the folk lore of the area.

                Some examples of people who were hit hard by some disaster in 1860 are Thomas Nichols and John Robinson.  Notice in Thomas Nichols case only 3 of the children and his wife are identified on tombstones the others are shown only as unidentified children who died within the last year in the 1861 census.  It must have been a trying time indeed for the surviving members of his family.

                There was a story that used to be told that may have no relation to this epidemic.  I thought it was a fairy tale so I'm afraid I didn't pay nearly enough attention and I don't remember enough details.  It concerned a man who had lost most of his family in some disaster or other and as a result he lost his mind.  He began to wander from the valley to the mountain and from the mountain to the valley looking for them.  He became haggered and thin, scarcely taking time to eat.  His clothes were in tatters and his footwear sometimes didn't match, for example, sometimes he'd have on one shoe and one boot.  He stopped at various farms and places and sometimes he would inquire about his wife who he said was helping some neighbour or other and was late getting home and had they seen her.  At other times he would inquire about a daughter who hadn't come home from school and had she stopped to play with their daughter.  But always he was impatient to be off looking for them, seldom would he stop.  It was said that he was found in the winter, half frozen and raving, by an old woodsman.  The old woodsman took him home where he died within the next couple of days.  But until he died he kept up an almost non-stop conversation with his lost family who, in his delerium, he imagined were there.  So in a way, perhaps he found his family after all.
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