Thomas Doe Keen: Catalepsy


Thomas Doe Keen’s headstone was toppled over when I took this photo in Danville’s Green Hill Cemetery several years ago. The state of this tombstone is not surprising given the number of others who are also in need of repair.

Thomas was born on June 21, 1876 to John Thomas Keen and Mary Virginia Doe Keen. At the time of the 1880 census, John Thomas was a tobacco dealer and the family lived in Pittsylvania County. Thomas was the third child, his siblings being Sallie, William, and Nannie.

Specific information about Thomas is sparse aside from his death notice, but upon researching his father’s death I determined that not long after the census the family moved to North Danville (“Neapolis”) and John Thomas became the mayor in July 1880.

Unfortunately J.T. didn’t hold that office for very long, as he died later that year.

According to the Richmond Dispatch, on the morning of March 17, 1896 Thomas’ body was discovered in his bedroom at his mother’s house. The night before he appeared to be well and even in “the best of spirits.”

Thomas had a history of catalepsy, so the assumption was that after he went to bed he had another episode and died. In the 19th century catalepsy referred to a condition that caused a seizure or trance-like state.

Richmond Dispatch, 18 Mar. 1896



Death by Patriotic Tetanus

While collecting clippings from historic newspapers about Fourth of July tragedies I noticed an interesting trend in the late 1800s-early 1900s: an alarming number of deaths attributed to tetanus from Independence Day injuries. In fact, there were so many lockjaw fatalities after that particular holiday that the condition became known as “Patriotic Tetanus.”

Tetanus or lockjaw is something that we rarely hear about these days with the availability of the tetanus toxoid vaccine, which  wasn’t developed until 1924. However, people living in the very dark ages of medicine who were exposed to the tetanus-causing bacteria through flesh wounds were pretty much at the mercy of the infection if the available antitoxin serums failed. Taking into account how many people celebrated (and still celebrate) July 4 with firecrackers, reckless pistol-firing, and other potentially bloody activities, it makes sense that “Patriotic Tetanus” was a real problem back in the day. After July 4 festivities in 1903 alone 415 lives were lost to the condition.

The good news in modern times is that you’re less likely to find yourself with lockjaw after Independence Day, but that doesn’t mean it’s a good idea to go out and act a fool. Safety first, people. Even if you’re not at high risk for tetanus you can still learn something from this small sampling of Independence Day death.

Public Ledger 13 July  1882


The Big Stone Gap Post, 20 July 1899
Perrysburg Journal, 17 July 1903


The St. Louis Journal, 16 July 1903


The Daily Journal, 13 July 1903
Daily Public Ledger, 13 July 1909
The St. Louis Republic, 11 July 1905

*Originally posted in July 2014.

Orin Schoolfield: Consumption

Orin Cottrell Schoolfield’s vaulted obelisk is within the simple curbing outlining one of the Schoolfield family plots in Green Hill Cemetery. His brother Lovick, who died in the Knickerbocker Theater Disaster, is buried nearby along with other relatives.

Lovick was around ten years old when his older brother Orin passed away from consumption at age twenty-six. According to a death notice published on April 11, 1900 Orin spent time at one of the health resorts (possibly a mineral springs retreat) in an attempt to defeat the illness which forced him to return to Danville from his work in Chicago.

I held off publishing this entry hoping that I’d run across a photo of Orin, who was allegedly “one of the best known men in the State” but none were publicly available.

orrin 2
These photos were taken hastily in 2013.



The Times [Richmond] 11 Apr. 1900

More From Danville National Cemetery

In November 2013 I wrote about Civil War prisoners who died in Danville’s prison camps or military hospitals. While I’m far from being finished with the task of photographing and researching these Union and Confederate soldiers’ backgrounds, here are a few more of their stories. The majority of the men in this post also died in Danville’s military hospitals from diseases caused by or worsened by their deplorable living conditions and medical care.

Continue reading “More From Danville National Cemetery”

Death, Taxes, and Insanity

I made a note in my copy of Green Hill’s Mortuary Reports on William Fernald because it listed his place of death as the “Govn’t Hospital for Insane” in Washington, D.C. According to this record, he’d been buried on April 7, 1885 (the day after his death from “paresis.”)

Continue reading “Death, Taxes, and Insanity”

Rosa Lawson & La Grippe

Rosa Fuller
Wife of 
Jas. A Lawson
Born Aug 25, 1866
Died Mar 19, 1891
At Rest
The following two images are from the ledger of Green Hill’s burial records. “Mrs. Rosa Fuller Lawson, age 25 years/ I hereby certify that I saw her on the 18th day of March 1891 that she died on the 19th day of March 1891 and that the cause of her death was Gripp, B.B. Temple M.D. Undertaker Jno. Ferrell & Co.”

Browsing through the burial records
for1891 there were many different causes of death with cholera, diphtheria, typhoid fever, malarial fever, consumption, whooping cough, and dysentery being the most prevalent among adult deaths from disease. Comparing Green Hill’s burial records with tombstones I’ve seen on the grounds, this is not a complete listing of people interred there. Either some names were omitted or it’s possible that the remains were moved to Green Hill from another cemetery. I have only perused the records to 1895. After that, the records have no cause of death listed.

The Gripp, also spelled/written as grip or La Grippe, was a term used in the 19th century for influenza, which returned at the end of that century as an epidemic in some parts of the world, with many areas reporting the first signs of a large-scale influenza problem in March of 1891, which is the month of Rosa’s death.

Continue reading “Rosa Lawson & La Grippe”

Chang and Eng Bunker: Tied Together by a Living Knot

After months of trying to coordinate schedules and weather forecasts, I finally made it to the grave of Chang and Eng Bunker at White Plains Baptist Church in Mount Airy, North Carolina. It was a warm but beautiful day and fortunately for me, I showed up in time to see grave offerings of flowers and small liquor bottles left in front of the tombstone. I don’t know if the water bottle was part of the gift or if it was accidentally left by another visitor as garbage, so I left it alone. I hear that it’s important to stay hydrated when consuming liquor, so maybe someone had a reason for leaving it there. That’s beside the point.

There is no shortage of biographical information about the Bunker twins out there so I’ve provided links to additional reading and sources throughout this post. If you’re familiar with my sister site, Misc. Tidings of Yore, you know that I have a soft spot for historical newspapers. Some of what you read here will be based on old clippings from the archives.

Continue reading “Chang and Eng Bunker: Tied Together by a Living Knot”

Chris Baker: The Ghoul of Richmond

courtesy of Special Collections and Archives Tompkins-McCaw Library, VCU

It wasn’t until 1884 that Virginia’s General Assembly established a state anatomical board and addressed the issue of body snatching as related to medical schools’ procurement of dead bodies. The anatomy act allowed medical colleges to legally take possession of certain unclaimed bodies, such as those of paupers and prisoners. Even though medical schools had access to executed criminals’ bodies before the anatomy act, the demand for corpses far surpassed the supply. The aspiring physician relied largely on “resurrection men” to provide labs with a fresh and steady supply of cadavers to quench his thirst for anatomical knowledge. Resurrection men (also known as ghouls, body snatchers, grave robbers, and anatomical men) frequently toiled under the cover of night when they could disinter and deliver a fresh corpse with little chance of detection. The gruesome nature of the trade was offensive to the general public, but body-snatching was considered a necessary evil to those in the medical profession. Newspaper accounts of body snatching suggest that the majority of the bodies stolen were from African-American cemeteries.

Continue reading “Chris Baker: The Ghoul of Richmond”

Juliet Robinson, COD: "Cancer of Breast" (1854-1895)

Juliet Louise Robinson was born in 1854 to William Robinson (a native of England who worked as a merchant in the grocery business) and India M. Robinson

I read Juliet’s name in Green Hill Cemetery’s Mortuary Reports over a year ago but held off writing about her because I couldn’t quite figure out how her husband, Dr. William L. Robinson, came to live with Juliet’s family in Danville when she was a teenager. (The fact that her father and her husband had the same first and last names also confused things.)

1870 Census

In the absence of finding what I was looking for, I’ll go ahead and present what I do know.

In 1870, the Robinson family lived in Danville and consisted of William (the father), India, Juliet (aged 16), and Dr. William L. Robinson (Juliet’s future husband, who was then 25). Relationships on that year’s census weren’t listed, so it’s possible that William L. was just a boarder and the names are coincidental.

Dr. Robinson was born in  Cumberland County, Virginia, in 1845 to Thomas Robinson of England and Martha Ann Isbell Robinson. By the time he lived with Juliet’s family he’d served in the Civil War for several years and survived being a prisoner of war. He graduated from medical school in 1869 and served as Vice-President of the Southern Surgical and Gynecological Association.

On November 27, 1872, Juliet married Dr. Robinson and between their marriage and Juliet’s death in 1895 the couple had at least five children: Julian McGruder Robinson (b. 1875), Louisa Robinson (b. 1877; possibly named Marie Louise), Marion M.Robinson (b. 1882), Mabel Robinson (b. 1889), and William L. Robinson Jr. The youngest, William Jr., was born in 1891. (Those birth years are based on information from the 1900 census.)

From the 1880 Census
753 Main Street

City directories in the early 1890s list the Robinsons living at 753 Main Street, at the far end of Millionaire’s Row. Dr. Robinson also ran his practice from the home.  

According to the mortuary report, Juliet died from “cancer of breast.” It’s highly likely that she died in the family home. The entry also states that Ferrell & Co. were the undertakers used for her burial. She was 41 years old.

Richmond Dispatch, 8 Mar. 1895

If her death notice is accurate, she had been ill for about a year. Another reason for the delay in  Juliet’s post was that I wanted to find more information about breast cancer treatment in the late 19th century in our area. I couldn’t find anything that specific.

It’s impossible to say what kind of treatments Juliet sought to alleviate her pain or fight the cancer, but being married to a doctor probably gave her an advantage over other people stricken with the disease in the 1890s. One source reported that from 1890 to the mid-1970s one of the most popular breast cancer treatments was radical mastectomy. This surgery involved removal of the breast, chest wall muscles and axillary lymph nodes.

The following images related to breast cancer are courtesy of Wellcome Images.

Untreated breast cancer, 1852
Latent or occult breast cancer, mastectomy, and instruments, 1748
Excision of the breast, year unknown
ca. 1700
Watercolour drawing of a woman with breast cancer, 1852
Miss Mosley, afflicted with breast cancer, 1828

Additional Sources: Virginia, Select Marriages, 1785-1940 [database on-line]. Provo, UT, USA: Operations, Inc, 2014.Original data: Virginia, Marriages, 1785-1940. Salt Lake City, Utah: FamilySearch, 2013.