Thursday, February 20, 2014


Today marks the end of a horrific period in my family's history. On this date in 1862 thelast of three children and two grandchildren of John Cutter West and Arvilla (Ames)  died during a diphtheria outbreak in  Letter B Plantation in Oxford County Maine. It started with the death of their daughter in law Orpha Viette Reynolds West who died on New Year’s Eve, Dec. 31st, 1861. She was 19 years old, and she was the first wife of my 2x great grandfather Jonathan Phelps West. They'd been married two months.

Then Jonathan and Arvilla's younger children began to die:

David Pingree West died on Jan. 17th , 1862. He was eight years old, the youngest of the
eleven children, and was mentally handicapped.

Ruth Ellen West died on Jan. 26th. She was ten.

16 year old Arvilla Electa West died on Feb. 6th.

Older brother Asa Atwood West had married and started his own family on his
farm in neighboring Andover, Maine. He lost two children to the outbreak:

8 year old Arvilla died on Feb. 18th.

2 year old Anna Pearl on Feb. 20th.

I don't know if the rest of the older sons and daughters came down with diphtheria as
well, but if they did they recovered because they all lived into the 20th century. Jonathan
Phelps West remarried which is why I am here telling this story. John Cutter West died on
July 24 1862 at age 60. Whether his death was caused by poor health after diphtheria
I do not know.

Emil Behring discovered a vaccine for diphtheria in 1913.

And every time I read an argument against childhood vaccination shots, I think of my 3x
great grandmother Arvilla West, and how grateful she'd have been for something that
might have saved her children and grandchildren.


Unknown said...

There is a great Young Adult book that I read as a kid called "Mrs. Mike" by Benedict Freedman. A woman from Boston marries a Canadian Mounty and moves to Calgary. They lose their "1st family" to diptheria. I loved this book as a kid, but it is sad. My husband also has an aunt who lost her first 5 kids to a flu epidemic. He found a family photo of them, and she couldn't even recall their names. A protective amnesia, I suppose. Great story for your ancestors. (I agree with you about immunizations. My great nieces have had whooping cough, and I just don't get why it's worth the risk.)

mdingrimsby said...

Thanks for sharing this Bill!

Unknown said...

Thank you for posting this... I wonder if we may be distantly related? My 4x greatgrandparents Eli and Zylpha West lost 5 children and 2 grandchildren in 1861 to Diptheria. I have them living in Township B, Oxford, Maine in 1850. They apparently all died in Wentworth Location, Coos, New Hampshire in 1861 and are buried in a small cemetery along Magalloway River. Very said to think of what they endured.

Bill West said...

It's possible there is a connection but I haven't been able to find any. Do you know where Eli and Zylphacame from originally?