Imagine just this moment in time you’re dying of consumption in the High Plains of Texas. It’s August 1906, when the air is at its height of being hot, dry and stale. There might be an occasional breeze, but it does nothing to cool you. You’re coughing up blood mixed with phlegm because your lungs are deteriorating. The bouts of fevers come and go soaking every inch of your body. Your weakness is profound due to you having no appetite to eat or drink anything. Your voice is no longer recognizable because of its hoarseness and often you can only whisper. Your breathing becomes more labored with each passing day and your eyes cast a worn, sunken appearance. The nearest doctor is either 33 miles away towards the west or 70 miles to the north, but they cannot help you. Your death is slow and painful because there are no medicines or modern conveniences to ease your dying. Finally, your body succumbs due to a failure of ventilation, toxemia, and exhaustion. Upon your passing, you become infamously known as the “prima ex hac congregation” or the first death and burial for the Holy Family Cemetery in Nazareth, Texas. The woman in question was 32-year-old Anna Lackerman, who died from tuberculosis. She had suffered from months with this bacterial infection, breaking down her body to the point it consumed her.
No one in 2015 can begin to imagine what life was like for people living in the Texas High Plains in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Life was hard back then no matter what we dream it to be. General comforts of indoor water, toilets, air conditioning, and heating were non-existent. Horses, mules or donkeys were the modes of transportation.
It did not matter your race; life was hard for everyone. Germans started trickling into this great land in the 1830s and arriving more in the 1840s.
Their journeys begin with bold moves of faith taking them on new paths of hope coming to unsettled territories of pure open land. In the Texas High Plains, it was a smooth landscape of grass and the occasional playa lake basin and draws.
When Castro County organized in 1892 it had no roads even by 1894. Only nine people called this county home in 1890.
The German community of Nazareth’s beginnings is credited to two, Irish McCormick brothers settling near the present day town. Aloysius and James came from Buffalo, NY in 1890 and later convinced their brother, Thomas to join them in 1892. Five other courageous souls came and stayed with the McCormick families to set up land claims.
Death came early to this tiny group. In the last days of August 1892, a pregnant Scottish lady known only as Mrs. John Burns, about 35 years old died during childbirth. The McCormick’s took her body by wagon to Amarillo for shipment to Austin. The baby lived two weeks, but died of an unknown cause and was buried on the prairie.
Astonishingly, given the harsh conditions and lack of doctors no other deaths occurred among these early settlers, indicating they were a vigorous and healthful group.
The German descents came to this area when Father Joseph Reisdorff started the Holy Family Church in 1902 and established the town of Nazareth. Knowing forthcoming deaths would occur within the parish, the land was plotted for a cemetery. He recorded no deaths within the community from May 1902 to May 1906, continuing to demonstrate the overall health of the parish was excellent. For 12 years the community experienced no deaths, except for Baby Burns. Then time and disease began catching up and the deaths started in 1906, with Anna.
While journals have never been found of the people who made this land their home, the church sacramental records and public death certificates reveal what the community had to deal with in terms of diseases, accidents, infant mortalities, suicides, drownings, and general health problems.
Nazareth’s early priests were trained in Latin and those classical words fill the early pages of the necrology. A total of 682 deaths fill these black leather volumes from 1906 to 2014.
Only two deaths were recorded in 1907 between the ages of 30 and 51. John Hedigerken died from Typhoid Fever, indicating he contracted the disease from another location. Aloysius McCormick, one of the first settlers, died from heart failure and acute nephritis, 17 years after settling in this area.
One of humanity’s deadliest disease’s, TB claimed five other Nazareth residents in the years of 1908, 1911, 1924, 1935, and 1948. The median age of these deaths, including Anna’s, was 34.5.
In 1911 whooping cough took the life of Cecilia Brockman who was only three years old. It’s a marvel she was the only victim of this highly communicable bacterial infection who’s incidence is highest in children less than five.
Smallpox did claim nine-year-old Cornelia in 1914.
Typhoid is an infectious disease transmitted through contaminated drinking water or food. This systemic disease has onset sustained fever, malaise, headache, cough, anorexia, and rose spots on the trunk. Five more Nazareth people were claimed by typhoid. Anna Recker, 38 and George Leinen, 25 both died 23 days apart in September and October 1908. In September 1909, the disease took 23-year-old Mary Steffens. Three years later this disease claimed 57-year-old Theodor Kehl, Sr. The youngest and last person to contract typhoid was William Rickwartz who died in 1916 at age 5.
Only one child from Nazareth succumbed to diphtheria in 1923 and Hildegard was only four years old.
Five-year-old Thelma died of dysentery in August 1933.
Measles, another highly communicable viral disease only claimed one four-year-old child in 1941.
There were no deaths in 1918 in Nazareth even as the Spanish Flu swept through Castro County and later claimed one-half million in the U.S. This virus was unusual because it spread quickly, was deadly and exacted its worst toll among the young and healthy. Settlers in the county handled the minor cases themselves as best they could, but pneumonia often followed the flu and the more serious cases required a doctor’s care to prevent pneumonia. However, in 1919, La Grippe, or the flu, claimed two young Nazareth girls between the ages of one and four. In 1926 flu claimed four-year-old Florence. One other person is listed as having died from flu in 1935.
There is nothing more heart wrenching than your eyes falling upon infant and children graves lined up in rows in a cemetery. When Reisdorff plotted the cemetery he had no idea it would grow due to infant mortalities. From 1908 to 2014 a total of 93 babies or children died, representing 13.6% of Nazareth’s deaths.
The first baby’s death occurred in April 1908 of a seven-month-old boy whose death was due to blood non-oxidation caused by a defect in his patent foramen ovale which is the septum between the two upper chambers of the heart.
Overall, 34 of these infants were stillborn. Three babies died as a result of atelectasis meaning the incomplete expansion of their lungs at birth. The rest either died as a result of prematurity, immaturity or general infant deaths. One interesting research note – all the babies or children are registered in the necrology, but not in the surrounding counties with official death certificates.
Weakness was not an option in the early 20th Century on many levels, but more so for women. Bringing a child into the world during that period was a miracle. Many times no doctor was ever seen during pregnancy or during birth. Unfortunately, seven women died due to either a difficult pregnancy or during childbirth between 1909 and 1954. Their median age was 27.7.
Complications Due to Age
Nineteen Nazareth residents are listed either in the necrology or on their death certificates as their cause of death – “complications due to age.” Their median age was 89, with the most common ages being 89 or 93 years old. Oh to live to be 100 and witness a century of change. Meta Stork lived to be 100 out of this group. She was a schoolteacher, who had 10 children and was determined to live to be 100. She died eight days after her 100th birthday.
Raymond Dirks was Nazareth’s only casualty who was killed in action during WW II. He was a private in the 745th tank battalion and met his fate on September 11, 1944, in La Fosse, Belgium. Not much is known about this fight that cost him his life. His mother, Katherine, was not notified of his death until four months later in December 1944. She waited five years for his remains to be returned stateside in March 1949.
Weather Related Deaths
Fulimina was written in the necrology more than once. Fulimina in Latin translates to thunderbolts. Lightening illuminating a night sky puts on an amazing, scenic show, but it’s extremely dangerous, deadly and destructive. Electrical storms, as they were called back then, destroyed the Castro County Courthouse on August 25, 1906. Lightning caused the untimely deaths of four Nazareth residents. The first was a five-year-old girl who died in October 1908 when she was struck by lightning while sleeping in her bed. Lightning killed two men, ages 47 and 41 in July 1920 and July 1930. The last lightning victim, Alphonse died in August 1947 at age 41.
Drowning in this often-arid land you would think would be unheard of, but six young boys drowned within the community from 1927 to 1980 in either stock ponds or stock tanks. Their median ages were 6.5 years old. Two were just two years old. Tragically, one boy drowned going after his ball that had rolled into a stock pond.
Accidents will happen and occurred in Nazareth with a total of 50 people dying. Twenty-one died as a result of automobile accidents. Accidental gunshot wounds claimed three people. Six died due to farming accidents. Temperatures did get so cold on two occasions that two men froze to death. Two died from electrocution. This is not funny in the least, but noteworthy that two men, ages 24 and 39, died as a result of their horses falling on them.
Discovering that five people, four of them children died as a result of burns to their bodies is disconcerting. Two sisters died in April 1919, between the ages of 9 months old and 13 due to a stove exploding in their home. Twenty-five-year-old Teresa died after a coal oil explosion in her home.
Unfortunately, the community was not free of suicides. The lack of hope these men experienced in their lives must have been unbearable. Eight chose to end their lives via hanging, strangulation or gunshot. The first was in January 1936 of a 45-year-old man.
The heart is the most essential organ for your body. Beating an average of 72 times a minute or 100,000 times a day. It pumps blood to almost all of the body’s cells, expect to the corneas. Health problems related to this organ accounts for 144 deaths or 21.1% dying as a result of heart attacks, arteriosclerosis, and other heart-related issues.
Primarily between the years of 1908 to 1923 – 16 people died of unknown causes.
Community Coming Together
In the early years of the community, deaths affected everyone. When a death occurred daily tasks ceased and efforts became centered on helping the family. Night wakes were held with parishioners preparing varieties of food.
Family friends used shovels and pick axes to dig the often dry, hard High Plains soil for a gravesite. Women prepared the body for burial in the home. It’s unknown when embalming practices reached the community. Pine box coffins were handcrafted by the men. The best hand pieced quilt was used inside the coffin for padding before it was lined with white cloth.
According to Sister Rose Birkenfeld, funerals were a sad time for not only the family but the entire community because the whole parish turned out. She remembers it was bitter cold at the funerals she attended during wintertime.
Sitting at a table with Sister Rose in Fort Smith, Arkansas, she adamantly confirmed more than once, many people never saw a doctor in the early years of the parish, because no one had money. It was a time when common antiseptics had not been developed. Lye soap and carbolic acid were used to wash bodies, clothes and disinfect wounds.
Until the arrival of sulfa drugs and penicillin, doctors treated symptoms.
Sulfa began to be used in the late 1930s. Penicillin was not available until March 1945 for general public use.
Necrology at Nazareth
Even though Texas started requiring county offices to begin registering deaths on January 1, 1903, clerks and doctors were bad record keepers even with preprinted forms and ledgers, they were guilty of misfiling or only reporting symptoms and not actual causes of death.
A death certificate is a permanent record. To never be named “Mary” or named “ Mrs. Joe” on your death certificate is not how anyone should be remembered. Poor Christopher Heck will always be Christine. Mary Bauman’s race will always be German.
In 1942 the State Board of Health finally acknowledged this problem and sent the Amarillo Diocese a letter requesting the area priests ensure the accuracy of the births and deaths in the parish. The letter stated:
“I wish to bring before you the desire of the State Board of Health that you assist in the accurate recording of…. deaths by inquiring in each instance, …. whether a …. death has been recorded at the Court House. It appears that many attending physicians have not complied with the laws of ….Texas….”
In the silence of the Holy Family Cemetery, a health history rests with close to 700 people. This initial analysis of disease prevalence revealed that yes diseases of TB, smallpox, typhoid, measles, and flu did have a presence in the community, but not at the high numbers a researcher would expect to find given the remoteness of the town and many not seeing a doctor. What echoes from this cemetery of this small German community is that they withstood many trials and they took care of their own.
As I walk now amongst the tombstones of this cemetery, I see the names in a different light. Knowing six died from TB, recognizing five young boys lost their lives in drowning accidents, knowing four died from lightning and one died from smallpox. Yet – even with these recognitions I recognize the conditions of the time when Nazareth was first settled and what it is has endured and this German community has remained resilient in health.
Note: This research was presented at the West Texas Historical Association Conference in 2015.
Photographs – © Christena Stephens Photography