Saturday, March 3, 2012

Sympathy Saturday - Disease Ravages The Armstrong Family of Salem, NH

Don't you love modern medicine!  

If you don't, you should.  Most of us don't know what it was like back before modern medicine, when diseases such as scarlet fever, typhoid, cholera and polio were common place and often fatal.  It wasn't unusual that most family's had at least one child die from an infectious disease.

1920's Poster
One of the most fatal diseases in the 1800's was tuberculosis.  At the time, it was commonly known as "consumption".  It was nicknamed consumption, because it wasted the person away over time, until they were emaciated and finally died.  At this time, tuberculosis was responsible for the deaths of one out of every 7 people.  Tuberculosis is a respiratory disease and can lay dormant in the human body for years until the immune system is weakened.  At the time, tuberculosis was seen as an "orderly" disease, meaning it gave you plenty of time to get your affairs in order before it killed you, but it almost inevitably did.  People often lived with the disease for years.

Between 1875 and 1880, Israel Armstrong moved his family to Salem, NH.  Israel was my 2nd great grand uncle.  He was born in Cape Elizabeth, Maine on December 26, 1824.  He married Mary E Sawyer in 1851 and together they had at least 8 children:  Joseph, Mary, Israel Jr, John, William, Walter, Edith and Alice.

The 1880 US Census identifies Israel living with all his kids and his mother-in-law (also named Mary Sawyer) in Salem, NH.  He was a widow as his wife had died in 1875.  His occupation is given as a Farmer.  However, the details aren't clear, but Isreal tried a number of different occupations and moved around a lot for the time.  Perhaps, he was looking for the right opportunity which would support his family.  In the late 1850's he was a "Trader" in Portland, Maine, in the late 1860's he ran a small private school called the "Armstrong School" in Everett, Massachusetts, before finally settling in Salem, New Hampshire as a farmer.

Sadly, Salem, NH would not be a happy home for the Armstrong family.

One by one, all of Israel's children succumbed to tuberculosis.  Only, Israel's oldest son, Joseph W Armstrong escaped.

  • Israel Jr.  was the first to die in Oct 1879.  He was only 20 years old.
  • Walter Armstrong died May 1884.  He was 17 years old.
  • John Armstrong died Jan 1885.  He was 23 years old.
  • Edith Armstrong died Dec 1885.  She was 15 years old.
  • Alice Armstrong died Dec 1888.  She was 13 years old.
  • William Armstrong died May 1894.  He was 30 years old.  He was married, but I haven't found record of the marriage, his wife or if he had any children.

I can't find any record of Israel's daughter, Mary.  Perhaps she survived and married.
Amazingly, these were not small children being struck down by this illness, but strong young people some of them just entering the prime of their lives.  

Israel's mother-in-law, Mary Sawyer, lived with them during the tuberculosis outbreak.  She did not die from this disease.  She died Jan 1882, she was 76 and the death certificate lists cause of death as "old age".

Finally, Israel Armstrong succumbed to the disease and died Nov 1892 at 67.

How did Joseph W Armstrong, escape death when the rest of his siblings didn't?  We will probably never know.  

We do know that Joseph Armstrong lived in Salem, NH throughout at least the 1880's, but he did move with his family to Cape Elizabeth, Maine.  It is likely he moved back around the time his grandmother's will granted him land in 1897.  See my post on the "Armstrong Family Land Division - 1897" for more details.

Joseph W Armstrong died in 1916 at the age of 64.

He died from pneumonia.

Family stories like this definitely make me more appreciative of the benefits of modern medicine.


  1. I posted about the effects of diphtheria on my family - lost 5 daughters in just over 2 weeks. I am so thankful for the advances that have been made against these once lethal diseases. My blog is My Maine Ancestry and the post is called Tragedy Strikes if you are interested in checking it out.

    1. It really makes you realize just how lucky we are to live in a time where we have had great success treating and curing these communicable diseases. Try to imagine losing 5 children in such a short time and how devastating that must have been on the family. I enjoyed reading your blog post. In fact, If you don't mind, I have included a link here.

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