Thursday, March 22, 2012

1882: The Clark Family Tragedy

Diphtheria was once the messenger of a horrible death. It is an acute, infectious, bacterial disease that typically kills by asphyxiation. It chokes the life out of its victims. The bacteria, Corynebacterium diphtheriae, spread through respiratory droplets produced by the cough or sneeze of an infected person. The bacteria most commonly infect the nose and throat. The neck often swells as the victim struggles to breathe and swallow. The throat infection produces a gray-black or dirty-white, fiber-like covering, a tough adherent membrane, which typically blocks the airways which, unless relieved by intubation or a tracheotomy, usually kills the victim. Toxins, produced by the bacteria, can spread through the victim’s bloodstream to other organs, such as the heart, and cause death if the death is not caused by suffocation. Diphtheria has been all but eradicated in industrialized nations through vaccinations. This was not the case in 1882. Then it was a dreaded disease.

The Clark’s land patent, awarding them hard-won  title to their homestead in today’s Highlands neighborhood.

Martin and Eliza Clark, 28 and 26, came to San Francisco from Iowa by the transcontinental railroad in 1876 or possibly 1877, and from San Francisco took a sailing ship to Seattle with their two daughters, Sarah, 2, and Ora, 4.

According to their youngest son, Dr. Charles Walter Clarke, 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. She was 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.

Highlands Neighborhood pioneer Eliza Clark on her Kirkland homestead, c late 1800s

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 who hand-crafted fine shoes. But the prospect of independence, opportunity, and free land under the Homestead Act lured Martin to bring his young family to the wild frontier that was Washington Territory in the 1870s.

The family staked a claim near Green Lake, then well outside Seattle’s city limits. They built a cabin and made other improvements required by the government for a settler to gain title under the Homestead Act. Soon Eliza gave birth to a boy, Willis. But prior to proving up, the term for the process of gaining title to the land, the claim’s poor soil and other factors prompted Martin to sell his rights, for $175. In October, 1882, the Clarks moved 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 it. The claim contained less timber than most Eastside homesteads—Martin estimated there was fewer than 100,000 board feet on the land. And, like most of Kirkland, the soil was third-rate, composed mainly of sandy 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 the 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.”

The Clark homestead is shown in blue. Modern streets are shown for reference on this 1870 government survey map.

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. As the site for their cabin he picked a hill in the center of their land. To make room for the new cabin he had to cut down two massive trees. This he did with the help of a friend and a double bitted ax and a ten-foot crosscut saw, or misery whip as these iconic tools were called. The mammoth trunks could not be used as timber, for there was no way to move them. To clear the logs and debris from their home site, Martin simply burned the logs and the stumps where they lay.

Dr. Charles Walter “Walter” Clarke and his sister Margaret (Clark) Habernal c.1910 with Margaret's daughter Theodora (Habernal) Wales. Dr. Clarke crafted a semi-fictionalized account of the Clark tragedy, wherein some names were changed, but homestead and other records confirm the events of those sad days in 1882. According to Clark decedents, Dr Clarke added an ‘e’ to his last name for professional reasons.

With the clearing completed, Martin brought rough cedar boards and shingles across from a Seattle mill 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 few and widely scattered. The John DeMott family claim, about a mile away, was the present location of Kirkland’s downtown. About a mile east of the Clark’s homestead 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 were called Sam and Mabel. They lived mostly on a diet of the fish they caught. These condescending words are some of the few early observations of native habitation recorded about Native Americans who lived among early Kirkland settlers, and were probably typical of the time.

Bill Perrault, a mysterious and fascinating character, lived about five miles to the east, deeper in the forest. Bill was a tall French-Canadian trapper who lived alone in a remote shack with his many hunting dogs. He made his living selling animal pelts he collected on his trap lines. Though other area settlers viewed Perrault with suspicion, because he had no interest in improving land, the Clarks offered him friendship and hospitality.

Their Eastside forest ranch generated no revenue, 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 frightening scenarios involving Indians trying to harm them. Though Puget Sound-area Indians were typically peaceful people, there were occasional alcohol-related incidents of the type also frequently seen in the white population—especially among the young lumberjacks and seamen. 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 shape and shining eyes. Panicked, she pulled the double barrel shotgun from its hook, raised the butt to her shoulder, pulled the trigger.

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 vanished. Her shoulder throbbed from the recoil and the children were screaming and crying, awakened by the report. Dropping the shotgun, Eliza embraced her terrified children.

Little Lutie grew up to be a beautiful woman, seen here in 1904. In 1905 she married Ollis Patty, who had stopped in Kirkland to visit family briefly on his way to Alaska. Quite understandably, meeting young Lutie changed his plans--he canceled the trip, married her and the couple had four children. In 1905, Ollis became Kirkland's first City Treasurer, a position he held for about 40 years. Also in 1905, Lutie and Jennie Lowe were Kirkland High School's very first graduates. Lowe was unable to attend commencement, so Lutie received the very first KHS diploma alone on the stage. It is also interesting to note that Lutie is not wearing cosmetics, she was just a naturally very striking woman--then considered 'paint', wearing makeup was not considered socially acceptable by women of 'good' reputation, usually limited at that time to women who worked in the 'theatres' and saloons of Seattle's infamous Tenderloin District.

“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 gun’s second trigger, listening and watching the door and windows attentively.

As dawn 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, no white prowler, no bear or cougar. To her horror, she had killed their beloved dog, Job.

Eliza late in life, c. 1920

Martin stayed home after Job’s death because Eliza would soon give birth to their fourth child. There was plenty to do. He needed to plant a garden and resume the endless task of clearing his land.

Jeannie DeMott served as midwife for the birth of the new baby, a healthy girl they named Lucy, after Martin’s mother. Her siblings called her “Lutie,” and that she remained for the rest of her days.

As one of the first babies born to area settlers, Lutie drew gift-bearing visitors from 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. Martin felt their feverish heads and peered down their red, inflamed throats. Eliza gave them sweetened water and put them to bed. 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 with an ugly, dirty white membrane that their tonsils and descended their throats. 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 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 evening Ora was seized by coughing, vomiting, and breathlessness. After midnight Ora slipped away. Her face turned purple, and, straining to breathe, she died. Martin carried his nine-year-old to the bed of he and Elize and covered her with a clean sheet.

Exhausted and in shock, Eliza watched 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 six-year-olde slipped away and joined her older sister in death.

Martin and Elizawere 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 hur. 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 to breathe as his sisters had—the girls died of asphyxiation—his ashen complexion was an ominous sign. Rapidly accumulating toxins were attacking the little boy’s 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 ches. There was no heartbeat. The three-year-old was dead.

Martin shouted in grief, awakening Eliza, who sprang from the bed and ran to her son’s side. Barely audible, the devastated woman whispered,“Our little boy is dead!”

Tears streaming down her face, Eliza dashed from the cabin into the dawn. Martin followed her a little knoll that today provides a beautiful view of downtown Kirkland, the lake, the Seattle skyline, and Olympic Mountains on 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 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 the bodies of Ora, Sarah, and Willis in their coffins and carried them to the their graves on the sunny knoll. The Clarks and 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. When he finished, he stopped at the cabin, bid the Clarks goodbye and disappeared into the 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, and the Frenchman replied, “Mais oui, certainement.”

The men carried Eliza and Lutie down the trail to Martin’s boat and rowed the five 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.

Martin’s worst fears were realized. Seattle’s one hospital refused diphtheria cases and no hotel or other lodging allowed them accommodations. They slogged desperately over Seattle’s notorious deep muddy roads with the sick woman and the infant. The epidemic monopolized Seattle’s few doctors. Residents, fearing diphtheria with good reason, offered no assistance. With darkness approaching, with no shelter at hand, and in despair, a kind woman approached and asked, “Are you in trouble?”

The woman wore 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.”

Years later Walter wrote that Martin described their rescue by the nun as a miracle. The nuns found a doctor who would treat the woman and her baby. Eliza recovered, and Lutie never showed symptoms of the disease that killed her siblings.

Lutie, Margaret and Walter, on Eliza’s knee, seen c. 1887 on the family homestead. The background suggests the family was still clearing their land.

After Eliza recovered Martin rented a house in Seattle for the three of them 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 an important decision. Would they return to their homestead and its haunting reminder of their 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. 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).

Well earned happiness. Martin Clark with his granddaughter Margaret Alice (Patty) Fessenden (1906-96). After their tragedy, the Clarks took great joy in their children and grandchildren.

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 incurred 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 children who died in 1882 were removed from their graves and moved there where they rest today with their parents, older sister Lutie, her husband Ollis Patty, and their daughter Stella Patty.

A sad, final footnote to the Clark story is the census record that reveals that another of the Clark children died in childhood, likely in Iowa, before the family came west. Many of Kirkland’s settlers lived with similar heartbreak. Such losses, unimaginable today, were part of life for Washington Territory’s pioneers.

Most of the Clark family rest together today in the Kirkland Cemetery. Margaret Habernal is with them there as well. Eliza was true to her word, she and Martin never left the children they lost in 1882.

Note: This article was informed by an account written by the late Dr. Charles Walter Clarke, 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 an abundance of fascinating detail about the Clark family’s early years in Kirkland. 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. (Originally appeared on, June, 11, 2011). 

Lutie's granddaughter, Patty (Fessenden) Barnhardt with Matt McCauley in 2010 at the Kirkland Heritage Society Resource Center. Mrs. Barnhardt has kindly donated many items that have helped bring to life the story of her Kirkland pioneer family. (Loita Hawkinson photo)

One of the first babies born in today’s Kirkland, little Walter Clark grew up, becoming Dr C. Walter Clarke, and in spite of the tragedy his family experienced, Walter grew up to become a distinguished, award-winning physician, medical researcher, and president of the American Social Health Association, dedicating his career to the eradication of the enormous human suffering caused by venereal disease.


Jana said...

Such a memorable story. Thank you for posting it.

Anonymous said...

A beautiful story of fortitude and bravery in the face of such difficulty and loss. We simply have no idea. Thank you.