Pandemics & the way things used to be

“In March 1843 the Influenza appeared in Germany and England; in April in France; in June in the New England States and New York; in July in Pennsylvania and a portion of the Southern States; and by August it had extended over almost every part of the United States. Thus in 1843 it consumed six months in spreading to and through this country (the area of which was limited at that time), while the present epidemic has extended from St. Petersburg to the Pacific Coast and Central America within three months. Is this due to the increased facilities for communication and travel?” — Dr. Ranet, secretary of the Illinois State Board of Health, dated Feb. 13, 18901

We’re two years into the COVID-19 pandemic and people have a lot of strong feelings about vaccinations and wearing masks. We’ve grown tired of restrictions and are anxious to return to how things “used to be.”

It’s easy to take for granted the precautions that help keep us safe. When they work, and sickness and death counts stay relatively low, we don’t have to confront the trauma that Mary Morris experienced when she lost six members of her family in September 1843.

The first to succumb was 10-year-old Joseph, who died Sept. 9; two days later, husband Henry M.D. Morris, age 39, died on Sept. 11; then daughter Nancy, age 8, died Sept. 16; baby Ellen, age 1, died Sept. 19; Mary, age 13, died Sept. 28; and finally Philip, age 12, died Sept. 29. They are buried together in the Morris Family Cemetery 2 in Livingston County, Illinois.

I haven’t learned what disease swept through the Morris family, but it was most likely the grippe — influenza — which hit the entire state of Illinois in 1843. We tend to forget that the flu was, and still can be, a killer disease.

Newspaper clipping: A Chap had the influenza down East lately so bad, that he sneezed off his head through his own nose. —The Semi-Weekly Advocate, Belleville, Illinois, 7 Sep 1843

A Chap had the influenza down East lately so bad, that he sneezed off his head through his own nose. — The Semi-Weekly Advocate, Belleville, Illinois, 7 Sep 18433

I bet it seemed hard to keep going, but Mary did. She had three sons to care for: Chester, 14; Andrew, 11; and William, 3. She’d previously lost an infant daughter in 1838.

Sadly, Mary’s losses were not over. In September of 1844, her neighbor, friend and brother-in-law Thomas Arman4 died; he was the husband of her sister Nancy Reynolds, who died about three years later. The Morrises and Armans had traveled to and settled in Livingston County, Illinois together. Mary assumed some of the responsibility for Nancy’s young children.

Mary (Reynolds) Morris lived to be 63, but she experienced very great sorrow. Her son William was killed in the Civil War and her son Andrew, a Civil War veteran, also died before she did. Mary bore nine children, and only one — the eldest — was still living when she died.

I don’t know about you, but I’d rather not return to the way things used to be.


Excerpt from The Centennial History of Cornell, Illinois, 1873-1973: 5

“Henry and Mary (Reynolds) Morris …were natives respectively of Virginia and Ohio, whence they removed in 1836 to Illinois. The father [Henry] however, was not long lived, his death occurring at the age of thirty-nine years, nine months and nine days, on the 11th of September, 1843, when his son, Chester F., was a youth of fifteen years. 

“Henry Morris was a circuit rider or traveling preacher. The father of our subject [Chester was the subject] was a well-educated and intelligent man, a Whig politically, and a prominent member of the United Brethren Church, to which the mother also belonged. She remained a widow, surviving her husband over thirty years, and passed away at her home in Livingston County, at the age of sixty-three years, eleven months and twenty-eight days. They were the parents of eight children, of whom Chester F., our subject, was the eldest.”

  1. “Report on the Influenza Epidemic of 1889-90,” Henry Franklin Parsons, page 25;, accessed 22 Feb 2022.
  2. Cemetery photo courtesy of Lloyd E. Smith, Find A Grave,, accessed 22 Feb 2022.
  3. The Semi-Weekly Advocate, Belleville, Illinois, 7 Sep 1843; page 3, col. 2; digital image,,, accessed 22 Feb 2022.
  4. Thomas Arman (Abt. 1800-1844) and Nancy Reynolds (Abt. 1811-1848) were my third great-grandparents.
  5. Centennial History of Cornell, Illinois, 1873-1973. Accessed 17 Jul 2012.

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