Auchampaugh: A history of health epidemics in Cayuga County

Last Sunday, Oct. 1,  Todd Gaglianese and I gave a history tour of Fort Hill Cemetery. This was my eighth year leading these informative, interactive tours for the benefit of Willard Memorial Chapel.

One of the first stops our entourage made after leaving Bradley Chapel and the Logan monument was the side hill, site of the 59 children buried at the Auburn Orphan Asylum plot. The children’s graves and little square block headstones showed the ages ranged from 1 to 17 years old. The three Sixbury siblings — George, age 4, Amelia, age 6, and brother Willie, age 8 — all died on the same day, Nov. 6, 1893. The two Cornell sisters also passed away that fall of 1893, including four others, two girls and two boys, for a total of nine deaths in a manner of weeks. Their death certificates wouldn’t reveal the cause of death, but I suspect it was an influenza epidemic. Two of the worst worldwide epidemics of influenza happened during two wars: the Revolutionary War in 1776, and World War I in 1918. Records show that more people were hospitalized in WWI from this epidemic than wounds. U.S. Army training camps became death camps, with an 80-percent death rate in some camps.

In the nine children’s cases mentioned above, in an asylum, the children are housed in dormitories. The boys slept on one floor and the girls on another floor. When one got sick, they all did. The stones showed both brothers and their sisters died from the epidemic.

We are blessed today to have available by choice a flu shot, and after 50, a pneumonia shot. I cannot help but think of the many people who are protected and free of the worry from catching this dreadful disease. Have you gotten your flu shot yet?

Many Cayuga County cemeteries hold the remains of family members who succumbed to the ravages of diseases caused by a health epidemic. In Owasco Rural Cemetery are the graves of seven Cuykendall family members who caught the “black tongue,” or typhoid as it is known today. Martin Cuykendall, his wife, Anna Cole, two of his sons (Wilhelmus and Cornelius) and their wives all were stricken with the disease, including the youngest, 4-year-old Caroline, Martin’s grandchild. All seven died within 14 short weeks.

Another son of Martin, Solomon, his second son, caught the disease and was nursed back to health by his wife, Mary Brann (called Polly). He survived, but she caught the disease and died in 1843. Martin, her father-in-law, died Dec. 14, 1843. It must have been a sad Christmas for the Cuykendall family.

The spring of 1844 ushered in more misery. Four-year-old Caroline passed away on Feb. 28, followed by her parents, Cornelius, Martin Cuykendall’s third son, who died March 4, and his wife, Elizabeth Cortright Cuykendall, who died March 13. All are recorded as dying of the black tongue. The illness and deaths were from four different families and their homes: Martin and Anna, Wilhelmus and Mary, Solomon and Polly, and Cornelius and Elizabeth.

I looked at the newspapers of that time while researching this story, and saw the typhoid epidemic was blamed on the contamination of the farmers’ dug well water. Even their cow’s raw milk was suspect after the cows drank the contaminated well water. It was not until pasteurization of milk and chlorinated water was introduced that typhoid fever was eliminated.

Today, shallow-dug wells must be tested periodically, and folks are warned to not drink raw milk.

I want to thank John Leonard, who helped me with this article. It was John who showed me the history of the black tongue epidemic and helped with the lineage documentation. He is a descendant of Wilhelmus (Wilheim) Cuykendall by way of their surviving daughter, Elizabeth. She married Bowers Howe Leonard. They lived in the big white house next to the Owasco Reformed Church. Bowers Leonard co-owned the store across the street with John Cuykendall.

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