Three-year-old Elsie, 1893-1896
The first permanent settlers came to Northern Illinois in the 1830s and by the mid-1800s many nearby towns had grown to be of significant size. On 127th Street in Lemont is St. Matthew’s Cemetery. Cemeteries like St. Matthew’s are not unique to Lemont. Many small graveyards like it were built in the early settlements and towns that became the Chicago suburbs.
In St. Matthew’s Cemetery is the grave of Elsie Wenzel. I have no way of knowing anything about Elsie except what is written on her gravestone. She died in 1896 at the age of three.
I can only imagine what Elsie’s life might have been like. My mind conjures up a laughing little girl with bouncing dark curls, anxious to please her family, bright, energetic and chatty. I see her running through the grass. A spotted puppy is chasing after her.
But…her gravestone says she died when she was three.
The research I did about childhood mortality was saddening. In 1908, out of every 1000 children born that year, 154 died before reaching the age of one. How many more by the age of three?
Prior to the 1880s, suburban residents typically allowed farm animals to roam. Without sewer systems, outhouses and ditches carried waste that contaminated shallow wells. Disease and epidemics were frequent: typhoid, cholera, pneumonia, diphtheria, tuberculosis, polio, smallpox, and more. In 1886 a family of seven moved to Lemont to start a new life. Within two weeks all of them were dead of typhoid fever.
In 1903 Lemont had a smallpox epidemic. Smallpox vaccine was available after the Civil War, but many people were more afraid of the vaccine than they were of the disease. Fifty deputies were sent by the Cook County Board of Health to ensure that people stayed in their homes and no one was allowed to enter or leave the town, for fear that the disease would spread.
Most children were born at home. Hospital care was scarce, far away, transportation was slow, and treatment inadequate. Many of the residents were farmers, and accidents were frequent on farms.
The early years in Lemont were not kind to children.
Was it an accident that killed three-year-old Elsie, or was it disease?
In this cemetery of perhaps 750 graves, 69 stones mark children who died before the age of 10 and prior to 1917. There are likely to be more that are unmarked.
In this cemetery are four children lost to the Pelzner family: Wilhelmina in 1874, 5 months old; Bertha the next year, 4 months old; in 1876 Johann died at 3 months; and in 1878 Augusta was 2 months.
In this cemetery are buried three children from the Boe family (Clara, age 1, in 1890; Raymond, age 8, in 1922: and Howard as an infant in 1909) and three from the Hogrefe family (Walter, age 1 in 1903; Edna, age 7 months the following year; and Werner, age 6 months the year after that).
In this cemetery are 9 children who died as infants, 21 before the age of one, 26 between the ages of one and five, and 12 between the ages of five and ten.
Let us be thankful that today our children and grandchildren are no longer subject to the hardships of a hundred years ago.
These children are forgotten. Their names have not been spoken for decades. All who would grieve them are long gone. Let us take a moment of silence to do what no one else will now do: remember Elsie and these many little lives that ended all too soon.