The Brutality of Disease on Jesse & Martha Johnson's Family

Martha and Jesse had nine children, but only their three youngest lived to adulthood. In 1852 when Martha was pregnant with their fifth child, three of their children died within a period of eight days from bloody flux, an agonizing disease which is today known as dysentery. First to die was Mortimer aged 7, then Nancy aged 1, and then David aged 3.[1]

The awful suffering of the children who died of the flux was like a withering blight to the parents. Neither the father nor the mother was ever able to shake off the memory of it. Long after the death of the little ones the father declared that when he was about to mention any of his own little discomforts he was restrained by the memory of his children's agony.[2]

In 1855, their 14 month old Elizabeth died. The cause of her death is not known.[3]

In 1862, Grace and Charley contracted scarlet fever. Charley "never recovered from the ill effects of it. One of his legs was badly affected, and his mentality was lowered." His older sister, Grace, was left with "some bad effects, slow to disappear".[4]

Roy Johnson's gravestone
Roy Johnson's grave, Kimball Cemetery, Fresno, Coshocton County, Ohio

In 1863, two more of their children died, this time from diphtheria: 16 year old Lola and 10 year old Roy.[5]

In 1865, Jesse died of bloody flux[6], aged 53, leaving behind his wife Martha to run the farm and raise Grace, Charley, and Ernest on her own.

Decades later, disease continued to bring heartache to this family. Grace and her husband John McCullough Adams had a daughter who they named Martha Dinsmore Adams, after Grace's mother. Martha Adams' obituary reads, in part:

Martha who had just celebrated her seventeenth birthday on the fifteenth day of last March has spent her entire life in this city [Coshocton, Ohio] with the exception of two winters spent in Mexico in hopes of benefiting her health. When only five years old she suffered an attack of scarlet fever which left her with Bright's disease from which she never recovered. Everything that loving hearts and hands could do was done, but in spite of treatment from the best specialists of the country and trips to the south, in hopes that a cure might be effected she received only temporary relief.[7]

Ernest Johnson's wife, Bessie, also died young from Bright's disease which affects the kidneys and causes high blood pressure and heart disease. Perhaps she too had contracted Scarlet Fever as a child.

Bloody Flux (Dysentery)

Dysentery, historically known as the bloody flux, is a type of gastroenteritis that results in bloody diarrhea. Other symptoms may include fever, abdominal pain, and a feeling of incomplete defecation. Complications may include dehydration….It may spread between people. Risk factors include contamination of food and water with feces due to poor sanitation. The underlying mechanism involves inflammation of the intestine, especially of the colon….In extreme cases, people may pass more than one liter of fluid per hour. More often, individuals will complain of diarrhea with blood, accompanied by extreme abdominal pain, rectal pain and a low-grade fever. Rapid weight loss and muscle aches sometimes also accompany dysentery, while nausea and vomiting are rare. In many cases there can be cascading cramps that affect the muscles surrounding the entire upper intestine; sometimes severe enough to cause the lining of the intestine to separate from the wall, leading to systemic infection.[8]


Diphtheria (Corynebacterium diphtheriae), an acute bacterial infection spread by personal contact, was the most feared of all childhood diseases….One of every ten children infected died from this disease. Symptoms ranged from severe sore throat to suffocation due to a ‘false membrane’ covering the larynx. The disease primarily affected children under the age of 5. Until treatment became widely available in the 1920s, the public viewed this disease as a death sentence.[9]

Scarlet Fever

Scarlet fever is an infectious disease resulting from a group A streptococcus infection....The signs and symptoms include a sore throat, fever, headaches, swollen lymph nodes, and a characteristic rash. The rash is red and feels like sandpaper and the tongue may be red and bumpy....Long-term complications as a result of scarlet fever include kidney disease, rheumatic heart disease, and arthritis.[10]

Between approximately 1820 and 1880 there was a world pandemic of scarlet fever and several severe epidemics occurred in Europe and North America.[11] Within families several members might be in various stages of the disease, with children aged 2-8 most vulnerable to severe symptoms, and perhaps death.[12] Documents from the time suggest that the medical community could offer little in the way of treatment of those infected with scarlet fever…[13] …The decline in scarlet fever occurring after 1880 was primarily related to improved preventive public health measures such as quarantining, improved nutrition, and antiseptic practices.[14]

Footnotes & Sources 

  1. [1] The Family Record of Peter Johnson and His Descendants: Together with notes on related families, the author is purportedly Rev Hubert Rex Johnson; undated but perhaps c1926; probably unpublished; p73. This work relies heavily on the oral traditions of the Richard Johnston family of Jefferson County, Ohio. Downloaded 17 Sep 2022 from
  2. [2] Ibid 
  3. [3] Ibid 
  4. [4] Ibid, pp109-110. 
  5. [5] Ibid, p73. 
  6. [6] Ibid, p68. 
  7. [7] “Bright Life Is Blighted By The Invasion Of Grim Death,” Coshocton Daily Age (Coshocton, Ohio), Wednesday 15 May 1912, p1; digital images, ( 18 September 2021).
  8. [8] Wikimedia Foundation, Inc., Wikipedia, text ( 17 September 2022), entry for Dysentery.
  9. [9] Case Western Reserve University, Dittrick Medical History Center, Deadly Diphtheria: the children's plague, text ( : 18 September 2022), Guest post based upon the Dittrick Museum Diphtheria Exhibit, guest curated by Cicely Schonberg, BS, from Case Western Reserve University, Cleveland, Ohio.
  10. [10] Wikimedia Foundation, Inc., Wikipedia, text ( 17 September 2022), entry for Scarlet fever.
  11. [11] Alan C. Swedlund and Alison K. Donta, Scarlet fever epidemics of the nineteenth century: a case of evolved pathogenic virulence?, "Human Biologist in the Archives", Cambridge University Press, 2003; p159. ( 18 September 2022).
  12. [12] Ibid, p169. 
  13. [13] Ibid, p172. 
  14. [14] Ibid, p173. 

Published: 16 July 2023

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