In September 1843, John and Mary Brown experienced a terrible tragedy. In the course of a 12 day period, four John and Mary’s seven children, ranging in age from 1 to 9 years old, died from disease. Charles, age 6, died September 11, 1843. The next three, Austin, age 1, Peter, age 3, and Sarah, age 9, followed on September 21, 22 and 23 respectively.
Accounts differ as to what the disease was – diphtheria, dysentery and cholera are the three most likely culprits – but we may never know for sure which one was the actual cause.
What we do know is that Mary, seven months pregnant with my great-great grandmother, Annie, and John, father of a total of 13 children, were devastated by the death of nearly a third of his children, more than half of their younger ones. Two days after the fourth death, John wrote the following to his eldest son John, Jr:
Richfield 25th Sept 1843
God has seen fit to visit us with the pestilence since you left us, and four of our number sleep in the dust, and four of us that are still living have been more or less unwell but appear to be nearly recovered. On the 4th Sept Charles was taken with the Dysentery and died on the 11th, about the time that Charles died Sarah, Peter, & Austin were taken with the same complaint. Austin died on the 21st, Peter on the 22nd & Sarah on the 23rd and were all buried together in one grave. This has been to us all a bitter cup indeed, and we have drunk deeply, but still the Lord reigneth and blessed be his great and holy name forever. In our sore affliction there is still some comfort. Sarah (like your own Mother) during her sickness discovered great composure of mind, and patience, together with strong assurance at times of meeting God in Paradise. She seemed to have no idea of recovering from the first, nor did she ever express the least desire that she might, but rather the reverse. We fondly hope that she is not disappointed. They were all children towards whom perhaps we might have felt a little partial but they all now lie in a little row together…
The following is an account of a neighbor who helped the family with the sick children. The information is located at the Richfield Historical Society – Oviatt Family Chronology, compiled by Leah & Lynn Krulik.
“John Brown, the famous abolitionist, lived in three different houses in Richfield. The first home was in the vicinity of Fountain Rd or Boston Mills Rd as it’s now called. It was there that four of his children fell ill with diphtheria, a potentially fatal bacterial infection. Sophie Sheldon, a neighbor to the Brown family who had helped to nurse the children became worn out.A buggy pulled up to the front door and Fanny Oviatt stepped out. ‘Go away, Aunt Fanny. You can’t come in here. It’s a house of death.’ ‘Of course I can,’ Fanny replied. ‘You don’t suppose I am afraid of sickness, do you? How is the little boy?’ ‘Dead. Dead, I tell you. And Sarah doesn’t know us anymore when we talk to her. Go home before your children get it too.’ ‘Sophie, your father is waiting for you outside and you are to go home with him. When you get there, take off your clothes in the woodshed and burn them, every one. Then wash yourself all over with lots of soft soap and water before you go into the house. You’ll not get it or give it to anyone else’.Fanny turned to Mrs Brown and said ‘ My husband Mason didn’t want me to come but I said to him “Mason Oviatt, what would you think if it was our children sick and no one to help?”. He was ashamed of himself then and said of course I should come.’ Later, two children Austen and Peter, lay dead. And the third, Sarah, which she cared for, died during the night. They were buried the next day in one grave beside their brother Charles, who had died ten days before. They are buried in the East Richfield cemetery.“Due to the precautions taken by Fanny, none of her eleven children contracted the deadly disease.”
As a mother, my heart hurts to read these accounts. Losing not one, not two, but four children so quickly, not being able to do anything more for them than trying to make them comfortable, watching them go to sleep and never awaken. How hard that must have been. And poor Mary, the fear she must have carried with her for the next two months – would the baby she was carrying be okay? I am sure that John and Mary spent many hours in prayer in the latter part of 1843.
The four children share a grave at the Richfield Cemetery in Richfield, Summit, Ohio. Next time I am in Ohio, I will be paying my respects to my distant cousins, who never got a chance to grow up.
Find a grave registrations
Austin Brown 38560582
Charles Brown 38560420
Peter Brown 38560502
Sarah Brown 38560313