Diphtheria causes a horrid, lingering death. Almost unimaginably so.
It often kills by asphyxiation; it chokes the life from its victim. It is an acute infectious disease caused by the bacteria Corynebacterium diphtheriae, which spreads through respiratory droplets produced by a cough or sneeze of an infected person. The bacteria most commonly infect the nose and throat, the neck often swells and the victim struggles to breathe and swallow. The throat infection causes a gray-black or dirty white, tough, fiber-like covering, a disgusting adherent membrane, which often blocks the airways which, lacking intubation or a tracheotomy, kills the victim. Once infected, toxins, produced by the bacteria, can spread through the victim's bloodstream to other organs, such as the heart, and cause death. Once quite common, diphtheria has been eradicated, mostly, in industrialized nations through vaccinations. But this was not the case in 1882…
Martin and Eliza Clark, 28 and 26, came to San Francisco from Iowa via the transcontinental railroad in 1876 (possibly 1877) and from there took a sailing ship to Seattle with their two daughters, Sarah, 2, and Ora, 4.
According to their youngest son, Dr. Charles Walter “Walter” Clark, MD, writing years later, Eliza was petite, about five feet tall, with blond hair and a “merry disposition.” He described his mother as a devout Christian and a devoted wife and mother who came from pioneer stock--a descendant of Mayflower pilgrim Edward Doty, one of two indentured servants obligated to a tanner and merchant named Stephen Hopkins. Doty also signed the Mayflower Compact. Elisa’s later ancestors were among the first settlers in Ohio who later pushed west to the then-frontier of Illinois and later Iowa.
Martin’s ancestors were also early colonial settlers, arriving in Massachusetts in 1635 and later pressing on to Vermont, New York and finally Iowa in 1854. Also a devout Christian, Martin was, like his father, a cobbler by trade who hand-crafted fine shoes. But the prospect of independence, opportunity and free land under the Homestead Act compelled Martin to bring his young family to the wild frontier that was the 1870s Washington Territory.
The family staked a claim near Green Lake, then well outside Seattle’s city limits, and built a cabin and other improvements required by the government for a settler to gain title under the Homestead Act. Before long Eliza gave birth to a boy, Willis. But prior to ‘proving up,’ the term for gaining title to the land, the claim’s poor soil quality and other factors prompted Martin to sell his rights for $175 and in October, 1882 the Clarks ventured east, across Lake Washington, to the dark primeval coniferous forest that then covered the Eastside.
Martin staked out 154 acres in what is today’s Highlands Neighborhood. The Clark’s claim was the hill and swampy bottom land below and contained less timber than most Eastside homesteads—Martin estimated there was fewer than 100,000 board feet. And, like most of Kirkland, the soil was third-rate, “sandy with clay loam.”
Walter described his parents’ homestead: “Over mile after mile after mile stretched tall fir trees and hardly less imposing cedars. Measuring four to six feet in diameter at thee height of a man, the firs towered one to two hundred feet toward the sky. Between these forest giants were smaller trees and shrubs—alders, hazel nut, willows, maples and ash. The forest floor was carpeted with vines and moss. Wild flowers grew in sunny spots. The terrain was a series of hills and valleys…In the valleys ran cool clean water abounding in brook trout and frogs. Large ferns decorated the margins of these streams about the deeper pools rushes and lilies crept from the marshy edges into the limpid water. Birds, rabbits, an occasional harmless snake and too friendly skunks inhabited the forest near the lake, but deep in the wilderness were black and brown bears. Those trappers and prospectors who penetrated the farthest into the forest told of hearing the blood-curdling scream of the cougar.”
While Eliza and the children waited in Seattle, Martin readied their “ranch”. He cut what he called a “road”—today we’d call it a trail--three-quarters of a mile long, from the lake to their claim. He decided to build a cabin on about the center of his land, atop the hill. To make room for the new cabin he had to chop down two massive trees. He did this with a friend’s help, using a double bitted ax and a ten-foot crosscut saw, or ‘misery whip’ as these iconic tools were nicknamed. With no way to move them, the mammoth severed trunks could not be used as timber. Once the massive trees were felled, to remove them from his homesite Martin simply burned them where they lay and their stumps as well.
With the clearing completed, Martin brought rough cedar boards and shingles across from Seattle in his rowboat and built a cabin about ten feet high and 24 by 26 feet, with four small rooms and two windows facing west. He also built and populated a chicken house and for the children he fashioned a cradle and cribs.
Then Martin fetched his family. Walter wrote that Martin hefted Willis to his shoulders, tucked bundles under his arms, seized bags in his hands and led the way up the trail to the cabin while Eliza followed leading Sarah and Ora by their hands and carrying baskets and clothing under her arms. Each little girl dutifully carried some piece of kitchenware as they trudged up the muddy trail.
Walter recorded his mother’s reaction to her first glimpse of their homestead: “It’s wonderful, Martin. I’m glad we are home.”
Neighbors were scant and widely scattered. The John DeMott family lived closest, about a mile away on their claim, now Kirkland’s downtown area. About a mile east of the Clark’s lived a native family. Walter referred to them as “Siwash,” a Chinook trade language term for Indians derived from the French word sauvage for ‘savage.’ Walter described the couple as, “…harmless people but ignorant and dirty” and their dwelling as a “hut” constructed of cedar bark. He wrote they were “old” and called Sam and Mabel. They lived mostly on a diet of fish they caught. Sadly, these unfortunate and derisive comments remain one of the few recorded observations of native habitation in today’s Kirkland area.
A mysterious and fascinating character from early Kirkland lived about five miles away. Bill Perrault was a tall French-Canadian trapper who lived alone in a remote shack with his numerous hunting dogs. He made his living selling animal pelts he collected on his traplines. Other area settlers viewed Perrault with suspicion because he had no interest in improving land, but the Clarks showed him friendship and hospitality.
Their Eastside forest ranch generated no revenue yet, so Martin earned his living in Seattle as a shoemaker, staying in a boardinghouse weekdays and returning home on the weekends. Apprehensive about leaving Eliza and the children alone, Martin acquired a sizable dog they named Job and a double barrel black powder shotgun of unrecorded gauge. Martin taught Eliza to fire the scattergun, but she didn’t care for it--being petite the recoil hurt her shoulder. The shotgun was stored loaded on the wall near the stove to keep its powder dry. Job was large and the cabin small and filled with the family, so Job was an outdoor dog. He would often howl at night at the unseen and unheard off in the darkness.
One night when Martin was in town Eliza heard a sound she thought was someone trying the cabin door. Nearly eight months pregnant, deep in the wilderness with her small children, her imagination conjured different frightening scenarios involving local Indians trying to harm them. Though Puget Sound-area Indians were typically very peaceful people, there were from time-to-time alcohol-related incidents of the type also frequently seen in the white population—especially the young male lumberjack and seaman populations. Eliza arose from bed, dressed and examined the door and looked out the windows into the darkness, straining to see an intruder. In the twinkling firelight of the woodstove’s dying embers, she saw a blurred, shadowy face and shining eyes peering in. Seized by fear, adrenaline pushed her reaction to save the children she so loved. Trembling, she pulled the double barreled shotgun from its hook, raised the butt to her shoulder, leveling its barrels at the ghostly face outside.
Ka-BAAAM! Eliza discharged a barrel and sent pellets blasting out the window’s glass. Black powder smoke and stench filled the cabin. The face had vanished. Her shoulder throbbed in pain from the recoil and the children were screaming and crying in fear, awakened by the report. Dropping the shotgun, Eliza embraced her terrified children.
“It’s alright my darlings, nothing shall harm you.” She whispered, scooping them up, tucking them all into her bed. She recovered the shotgun and sat on the foot of the bed, cradling it in her lap as she spent the remainder of the night with her finger on the still-loaded barrel’s trigger, listening and watching the door and windows attentively.
As dawn’s rays illuminated the east, fingers of warm light began poking through the primeval forest. Eliza dreaded walking out the cabin’s door into the clearing, convinced she’d see the intruder’s bloody corpse splayed on the ground.
Morning’s light filled the cabin. Eliza finally forced herself to arise and walk to the now glassless window through which she’d killed the intruder.
She peered out and her eyes adjusted to the light. She saw no lifeless Indian, white prowler, bear or cougar.
Eliza stared at the ghastly sight before her. To her horror, she had killed their beloved pet dog, Job.
Martin stayed home after Job’s death since Eliza would soon to give birth to their fourth child. There was plenty to do, he needed to plant a garden and resume the seemingly endless task of clearing his land.
Jeannie DeMott served as midwife for the new baby’s birth, a healthy girl they named Lucy, after Martin’s mother. Owing to sibling mispronunciation everyone called her “Lutie” for the rest of her days.
As one of the first babies born to area settlers, Lutie drew gift-bearing visitors from the few neighboring homesteads. One day buckskin-clad trapper Bill Perrault appeared near the garden with his lever-action rifle resting over his shoulder and a bundle under his arm. After Martin greeted him Perrault said, “Me I bring a petit cadeau for baby,” handing his gift to Eliza--a small, soft squirrel pelt rug which fit perfectly atop baby Lutie in her cradle.
That autumn, after returning home from Sunday services the two older girls complained of sore throats. Eliza, thinking they had colds, rubbed their necks with camphor-impregnated chicken fat and wrapped them in woolen stockings.
But the girls did not improve, they became sicker. Martin felt their feverish heads and peered down their red, inflamed throats. Eliza gave them sweetened water and put them to bed, hoping sleep would help them recover. But the girls tossed in their cribs all night and by morning it was obvious they were seriously ill. Martin looked at their throats again. The inflammation and redness was gone, replaced instead with an ominous, dirty white membrane covering their tonsils and descending down toward their larynxes. No longer feverish, the girls felt cold.
Martin raced down his trail to the DeMott’s place. “Grandma” DeMott was experienced with sickness and remedies. Martin hoped she could help his little girls. After he described their symptoms she looked at him gravely.
“Martin, your little girls have malignant croup or diphtheria as they call it now. It is going around Seattle and is very catching. I cannot come help you as I might bring the disease home to my grandchildren, it is terribly dangerous.” She sent Martin home with an ‘essence’ that was to be boiled in water, instructing that the girls must breathe the vapor. As Martin left, Grandma DeMott said, “I will pray for you…”.
When Martin returned home the girls’ breathing was labored and they struggled for breath. Eliza was desperately trying to comfort them. Martin quickly boiled water and essence in a pan and when he lifted little Sarah’s head so she could breathe the vapors she managed a weak smile for her dad. When Ora’s turn came she was far less responsive. The Clarks continued the vapor treatment throughout the day, but by that evening Ora was seized by coughing, vomiting and breathlessness. After midnight Ora’s consciousness slipped away and her little face turned purple. She strained a few times trying to breathe and became still. Their oldest daughter was dead.
Martin cradled his 9-year-old’s small body in his arms and gently set her on his and Eliza’s bed. He straightened her little arms, closed her eyelids and covered his first born child with a clean bedsheet.
Exhausted and no doubt in shock, Eliza stared in disbelief. Martin embraced her and reminded her that they had to focus on saving their other daughter.
Through the night and into the next day they desperately administered the steaming essence vapors to Sarah. But as night fell, the 6-year-old’s mouth gasped for air. Then she slipped away from the conscious world and joined her older sister in death.
Eliza sobbed and clutched at Sarah’s lifeless body. Martin gently moved Eliza aside and placed Sarah next to Ora.
Martin and Eliza sat dazed, paralyzed with grief. Willis called from his bed for a drink. Martin rose and brought his only son a cup of water. To Martin’s horror, the boy fingered his neck. His throat hurt! Bringing an oil lamp nearer, Martin examined Willis’ throat. It was red and inflamed.
The Clarks boiled more essence and had the boy breathe the vapors. It was all they knew to do.
A soft knock at the cabin door revealed Bill Perrault, distressed, fur cap in hand, ready to help his friends, unfazed that he was exposing himself to the deadly diphtheria. Perrault asked what could he do and Martin sent him to Seattle, in the desperate hope he might return with a doctor. The trapper sprinted down the trail to the lake, returning hours later with bad news: no one would come to help the Clarks.
As Perrault and Martin struggled to save the boy Eliza passed out from exhaustion and shock. Though encouraged by the fact that Willis didn’t struggle for breath as his sisters had—the girls died of asphyxiation--his ashen grey complexion was an ominous sign. Rapidly accumulating toxins in the little boy’s body were attacking his organs. Martin held the steaming essence pan and Perrault lifted the boy from the crib and held him over it to breathe the vapors. But Willis had stopped breathing. His eyes were closed. Martin pressed his hand on his limp, motionless son’s small chest but there was no heartbeat or breathing. The 3-year-old boy was also dead.
Martin shouted in grief, awakening Eliza, who sprung from the bed and ran to her son’s side. Barely audible, the unimaginably devastated woman’s lips whispered the words: “Our little boy is dead!”
Tears streaming down her face, Eliza placed Lutie in her crib and then dashed out the cabin door into the dawn. Martin quickly recovered his wits and he ran to find Eliza in a clearing on the little knoll that today when the sky is blue provides a beautiful westerly view of downtown Kirkland, the lake, the Seattle skyline and Olympic Mountains in the horizon.
Martin held his wife. “If I could only go with them!” she sobbed. “We still have little Lutie, she needs you and so do I,” Martin replied.
Bill Perrault dug the three small graves. With cedar boards left over from building the cabin, Martin made coffins for his children. Eliza dressed them in their Sunday clothes and changed into her best dress. Martin donned his Sunday suit and then placed Ora, Sarah and Willis’ bodies into their coffins and took them one by one to the new graves at the sunny knoll. The Clarks with Perrault read verses from the Holy Bible and they prayed and then were silent for a time. Finally, Eliza gathered Lutie and with Martin returned to their cabin. Bill Perrault remained behind and filled in the three small graves. Once finished, he stopped at the cabin, bid the Clarks goodbye and disappeared into the thick, dark forest.
Eliza awoke with a sore throat the next morning. Desperate, Martin decided to take her into Seattle. As he hastily constructed a litter from saplings, Perrault arrived and when Martin asked for his help “Mais oui, certainement,” was his reply.
The men carried Eliza and Lutie down the trail to Martin’s boat and rowed the five or so miles across the lake, finally carrying them another four miles down a muddy trail called Madison Street today and into the smelly, smoky little sawmill settlement of Seattle, named to honor a friendly Indian leader whose name few white settlers could correctly pronounce.
But Martin’s worst fears were realized, Seattle’s one hospital refused diphtheria cases and no hotel or other lodging allowed them accommodations. They traipsed desperately for hours through Seattle’s notorious deep muddy roads with the sick woman and infant, not knowing what was to become of them. The epidemic monopolized Seattle’s few doctors. Residents, fearing diphtheria with good reason, offered no assistance.
With darkness fast approaching and no shelter and in despair, from seemingly out of nowhere a kind female voice said, “Are you in trouble?”
They turned to view the speaker. She did not wear the dress typical of a Seattle townswoman, but instead the unmistakable black robes of a nun’s habit. The sister approached and Martin and Perrault described their plight.
“Come with me, we will care for your wife and child.” She assured them.
Martin hesitated, “We are not Catholics sister.”
“But you are God’s children, come,” she said with a reassuring smile.
Charles wrote that Martin later described as “a miracle” the care the family received from the sisters and the doctor the nuns located who agreed to treat them. Eliza recovered and Lutie never suffered the symptoms that claimed her siblings.
Once Eliza and Lutie were well, Martin rented a house in Seattle for the three and he returned to shoemaking. An affidavit in their homestead file states that they remained in town for about four months.
Martin and Eliza now faced a huge decision. Would they return to their homestead and its haunting reminder of their unthinkable pain or would they start fresh elsewhere?
Martin put this question to Eliza and she did not hesitate. They would to return to their ranch. She intended to plant flowers near the graves. Even in death she would not leave her children.
With Bill Perrault’s help, the family did return and began anew. The Clarks had two more children: Margaret, born in 1885, and Charles Walter—who Martin nicknamed “Captain”--born in 1888. They also took in and raised two abandoned kids, John Royle and Mary Clark (not related).
As time went on Kirkland grew. Like most of Kirkland’s homesteaders, the Clarks sold portions of their 154 acre claim to pay taxes and other obligations—especially during the tough depression years following the 1892-3 failure of Peter Kirk’s steel mill. The Clarks were among the founding members of the First Baptist Church of Kirkland, which began in Houghton in 1888 and moved to Fifth Avenue, across from today’s Kirkland City Hall, in 1889. The Kirkland Cemetery was established in 1888 and at some point after that the three Clark kids who died in 1882 were gently exhumed and moved there where they rest today with their parents, older sister Lutie and her husband, Ollis Patty, and daughter Stella Patty.
There is a final sad detail to the Clark story. Census records show that the Clarks had a fourth child die, likely in Iowa, before the family came west. Many of Kirkland’s settlers lived with similar heartbreak; such unthinkable loss was just part of everyday life for Washington Territory’s pioneers.
Note: This article was informed by an account written by the late Dr. Charles Walter Clark, MD. For reasons unknown, he changed his surname’s spelling to ‘Clarke.’ All dialogue and related details came from his account. Federal census data also contributed as did the Clark’s Government Land Office (GLO) land file, opened in 1883 and completed in 1888. It was recently purchased by the Kirkland Heritage Society (KHS) and contains countless fascinating details of the Clark family’s early years here. KHS recently ordered GLO files for a large number of Kirkland pioneers, primarily of those who settled the three newly annexed neighborhoods. Heartfelt thanks to Patty (Fessenden) Bernhardt, Lutie (Clark) Patty’s granddaughter, for her generous donation to KHS of precious family photos, including several of her grandparents and great grandparents, Martin and Eliza Clark. Special thanks to my amazing friend Marianne Reinsfelder for her inspiring support and encouragement with this article.