Sunday, September 29, 2013

Mystery Monday – Merritt Lamkin’s Demise

Almon, Merritt, Eleanor (Nellie) Lamkin
Photo taken shortly before Merritt's death

The day started out routinely enough until I found the photograph.  Writing on the back identifies the family as “Almon & Nellie Lamkin, son-Merritt.”  Who are these people? My husband knew and shared the following story:

Almon (b: 1873) and Eleanor (Nellie) (b: 1876) Lamkin lived in the house at the top of "Cutter Hill" on Shaffer Road, Newfield, NY, near my husband’s family farm.  In 1900 Almon and Nellie lived in Ithaca where Almon worked in a dry goods store. Their son Merritt was born that year. By 1910 the family lived in Newfield on a small farm.

Almon, Nellie and Merritt Lamkin
abt 1910
Shaffer Road House, Newfield, NY
Courtesy,  Diary of Minnie (Tompkins)  Cutter 
Enter the Cutter family: In the fall of 1939, shortly after their marriage, my husband’s uncle and aunt, Paul and Minnie (Tompkins) Cutter moved into the Lamkin house to care for Almon, a widower, and to help farm the land. Paul and Minnie had a verbal understanding that when Almon passed away, the house and farm would become theirs.

When Almon died 8 January 1940, he left no will, nor anything written about the arrangement. Consequently, the only surviving relative, a nephew, Glenn Bellis of Rochester, was granted the letters of administration, and would not honor the verbal arrangement.  The land was valued at $3,000. Paul and Minnie Cutter ended up purchasing the house and land using loans from family members and their local bank.

We then came upon this startling news about Merritt Lamkin: 

“One Death, 5 Cases Paralysis; Merritt Lamkin of Newfield, 16, dies from Poliomyelitis – Four New Cases in Ithaca, One in Newfield, and One in Danby.”  

In September of 1916 the Ithaca area witnessed seven cases of infantile paralysis and those homes were quarantined: Catherine Fish, age 10; R. Goldsmith, 19, of NYC (Cornell University student); William Wray, age 6; and Campbell Chase, age 6. 

Merritt Lamkin, age 16, Newfield died three days after onset of disease; Gertrude Nurmi, 2-1/2 years of Newfield has both legs partially paralyzed; Clifford Marion, age 3 of Slaterville Road has both legs and one arm paralyzed.

The Ithaca Board of Health decided the drastic measure of quarantine was necessary, and their limited knowledge of poliomyelitis was shared in the newspaper article.  “It is not known just how the virus is transmitted from the infected to well individuals … there is no specific treatment known.”  From the article we imagined the panic as people grasped the enormity of the situation. Parents were told not to touch their children; dishes should be scalded, and scrupulous cleanliness should be maintained.  Any children under the age of 16 entering Ithaca would be quarantined for two weeks.

Ithaca To Be Quarantined
City and Suburbs to be Put Under Strict Surveillance – Children less than 16 Barred – All Roads to be Policed

“Beginning at daylight tomorrow morning and continuing until further notice, the City of Ithaca and its immediate suburbs will be under strict quarantine to prevent the further spread of infantile paralysis. The quarantine will continue until further notice… Special officers will be on duty day and night at every highway entrance to the city and every railroad station. … Considering the proportion of population, the epidemic has become more widespread here than in New York City.”

The Resolution
“Resolved, that all children under 16 years of age be prohibited from attending all public gatherings, including theaters, playgrounds, churches, schools and entertainments, until further notice. Any violation of this order is by state law a misdemeanor and punishable as such.”[1]

Polio is an infectious viral disease that attacks the nerve cells, sometimes the central nervous system.  In 1947 Jonas Salk started investigating the poliovirus.  In 1953 he published his findings in The Journal of the American Medical Association and in April 1954 testing began with mass inoculation of school children.[2]

The question remains. How did this insidious disease spread, affecting young children in Ithaca, one Cornell student, as well as two children living miles from Ithaca and each other?  Sounds like more research in my future.

[1] “Almon Lamkin,” article, Ithaca Journal, 5 September 1916, p. 5, col. 3, [; 28 September 2013]
[2] A Science Odyssey, People and Discoveries; Salk produces polio vaccine 1952 [Viewed 28 September 2013]

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