I have heard news that diphtheria is in my house.


During the following spring, Helga and Clara faced the reality of being penniless women eking out a living in New York City. They needed to fend for themselves in a city teeming with other immigrants, trying to earn enough money to live while also saving for two return tickets home. Women generally earned only half the wages for similar work as men did at the turn of the century; their prospects for saving looked bleak.1

They moved to Brooklyn to look for work because it was a less expensive place to live than Manhattan. Helga, an excellent seamstress and housekeeper, might have found employment this way. The large immigrant population of Brooklyn, however, filled the newspapers with similar “work wanted” advertisements. Tens of thousands of immigrants came to New York, first from northern and western Europe and then, after 1890, also from southern and eastern European countries. Although women now entered the labor force in factories, most worked in “women’s jobs,” primarily in the garment shops, textile mills, hosiery plants, or food production area. Workers faced long hours, dismal working conditions, occupational hazards, and low pay. A sixty-hour, five-and-a-half-day week was commonplace. Highly skilled labor that required training, and provided higher wages, was reserved for men. For example, in breweries, men were brewers and young women were bottle washers; in bakeries, men were bakers and women were boxers or “cracker-packers”; even in the garment industry, men performed the most highly skilled work of cutting the fabric in waistmaking.2 The low pay for women in temporary menial labor provided only for bare survival needs; saving enough for two cross-continental train tickets verged on the impossible.

Two topics that appeared continually in the Brooklyn newspapers in the winter of 1897 likely perked Helga’s interest after her experiences in Wyoming and Colorado. The “woman question,” particularly the issue of suffrage, often made front-page news in the Brooklyn Standard Union. Similar to her experiences in Manistee, Michigan, when she was sixteen, both sides argued vociferously. Helga now knew firsthand that some western women enjoyed this privilege, and her travels kindled her growing belief that women did not deserve to be treated as inferior.3 As a reporter noted, “Both are satisfied in their own minds, at least, that man is not much the superior of women after all.”4

Headlines in the Brooklyn Standard Union showed that citizens here faced the same threat that Helga did—losing their home to foreclosure. Even when the amount of taxes owed was small, she saw that the government and banks acted with impunity toward delinquent taxpayers. A front-page article on January 14 told of 101 parcels of lands and homes being auctioned off in six wards because the owners could not pay their 1894 taxes. Citizens owing the city $164 on a property valued at $5000 lost it all to someone bidding $3200. A lot valued at $300 was sold off for $250 although the woman owed only $14.58. City claims of delinquency as low as $12 were enough to justify the sales.5 Learning of these heartless stories while living in limbo in New York, Helga knew that the next letter from Ole could announce that their foreclosure date was imminent. Helga and Clara earned their own living during the winter and spring of 1897. But no matter how hard they worked, they were unable to earn enough money to return. They felt trapped by economics, thousands of miles away from their family.

Back on the farm in Mica Creek, Ole faced a far greater heartbreak than the threat of losing their land.6 In early April, their fifteen-year-old daughter, Bertha, came down with a sore throat. This news made parents nervous, especially after the epidemic of diphtheria in Spokane the summer before. Most victims lived in Spokane where Bertha had worked for a few months as a domestic to help earn money for the family.7 The previous fall, their eldest son, seventeen-year-old Olaf, contracted diphtheria when he worked in Spokane. He spent time in a sanatorium outside the city to heal, and like many older children and adults, he recovered. Then he returned to their Mica Creek home.8

At moments like this, Ole wanted Helga home more than ever. The worrisome seven months had now stretched into a year. Helga’s letters gave no indication of when she could afford two train tickets. Nor did he have any extra funds to send them. He barely earned enough for basic expenses to feed and clothe a growing family of seven children. Even now, he needed help from the older children who worked in the city of Spokane. When he rode the horse into Rockford or saw his neighbors, they no longer asked much about Helga because it was such an embarrassment. He had no answers to explain her Pollyanna belief in a mysterious, but obviously unworthy, sponsor. If the sponsor refused to give her the $10,000, would not a decent human being at least loan her the money to come back home to her family? Earning her way across America had proved that she could work. If she did not have the expenses of rent and food in New York, she would be able to pay back a loan.

Ole knew the fear Helga harbored for diphtheria after the scare in Minnesota where they saw so many children die. After the Minnesota County Health Department held meetings and sent pamphlets home on how to best keep the contagion from spreading in a family, parents usually decided on a plan of action. If a child came down with diphtheria, the mother generally would be the nurse caretaker, which meant a father’s task involved taking care of the other children in an outbuilding, keeping them warm and fed. This way the primary caretaker would not inadvertently pass the disease to the other children.

When the doctor confirmed Bertha’s diphtheria diagnosis, Ole ordered the other children to stay in an outside shed. “We were so cold,” recalled Ida.9 He and their oldest son, Olaf, tried to take care of Bertha and the other children as best they could. Each day Bertha grew worse and as her throat was swelling, she lay prostrate on her bed, hardly responding to her father’s frantic attempts to get her to eat or drink something. He sat by her bedside late into the night. Ole likely remembered another time while Helga was away from home. Ida insisted on planning a party for her sister Bertha’s tenth birthday, so he rode the horse six miles into the general store in Rockford to get the soda Ida needed to bake a cake.10 He enjoyed seeing Bertha’s surprise and excitement when her friends all showed up to celebrate.

Ole felt his stark helplessness in preventing his daughter from choking to death. Nor could he be Helga to give her a mother’s comfort. Always before when their children were ill, she had nursed them back to health.

In the 1890s, medical doctors observed that the mild or strong onset of the disease did not always indicate the future prognosis. An apparently mild case could lead to death in three to four days. Mortality rates during the 1890s from this disease ranged from forty to seventy-five percent, highest if it was a young child who contracted the most virulent form known as “black diphtheria.”11 If children were attacked with this virulent form, doctors advised parents that the best they could do was to provide some relief to ease the pain and make every effort to avoid contaminating the other children. Small doses of whiskey mixed with milk were recommended to relax the victim, but Ole probably could not afford that luxury in his home.

No neighbor dared to come to help the family because they risked bringing the dreaded diphtheria back into their own home. So, Ole tried in vain to comfort his daughter, and Olaf watched his little sister’s dying hours in horror. When Bertha died the next day, on April 6, Ole walked out to within a few feet of the shed and had to yell the terrible news to her brothers and sisters. They broke into crying and wailing. Ole, known by all for his loving nature as a father, did not dare comfort them for he likely carried the contagious bacteria himself. Instead, he walked over to his workshop and began to make his beloved daughter a simple pine coffin.12 Something in the familiarity of having a tool in his hand, and the unimaginable reality of using it to build his own child’s casket, may have broken through his days of silent stoic duty.

The next day, Ole drove the horse wagon to the Mica cemetery alone and buried his daughter next to her younger brother, twelve-year-old Henry. Neighbors watched in sadness. The minister refused to come to the cemetery until after Ole had dug a deep grave, buried Bertha, and covered the coffin with dirt.13 The dread of diphtheria robbed a family of receiving even the most elementary acts of decency and comfort, normally common in this close community. No nourishing food to help restore a shattered soul, no offer of childcare to ease a parent’s grief, no housecleaning aid to free Ole to care for the children, nor any visit from the clergy to offer spiritual sustenance during grief could be provided. A quarantined home meant a home bereft of human connection.

Helga soon learned the devastating news of her daughter Bertha’s death. After seeing how virulent diphtheria in Minnesota could kill all of a family’s children in a matter of days, she became alarmed, anxious to get home to nurse and protect the children. This propelled Helga to ask for public aid for the first time in her life.14 Three daily newspapers covered her and Clara’s desperate visit to the office of the Charities Commission to ask the city of Brooklyn to pay their way to Spokane. Both women were described as “respectable and intelligent” in the newspaper article, and Helga told Commissioner Brutes that they had walked all the way from Spokane. Independent and resourceful, Helga was used to relying on her own resources and had never considered asking for public assistance. “We wouldn’t ask for it now, but that I have received news that diphtheria is in my house and that my daughter Bertha is dead.”15

Commissioner Brutes explained to Helga that it was impossible to grant such a request but offered to send them to the almshouses. “That’s not what we want,” said Mrs. Estby. “We want the money to return instantly to our home. We will pay you back every cent of it.”16 The Commissioner then advised them to go to the Bureau of Charities on Schermerhor Street. The New York Daily Tribune provided extensive details about their unpaid mortgage, the wager, and the trip, including Helga’s latest optimistic scheme to solve their financial problems: “She intended to pay it off by selling a book written by herself and her daughter, describing their travels.… They said that on their return to Spokane they would deliver an illustrated lecture on their adventures.” It concluded with the news that the Bureau of Charities was also unable to assist them.17

The Sun, a sensationalist “danger and doom” newspaper, headlined an article with “Walked Here from Spokane: Mrs. Estby Tells a Harrowing Tale of Eight Years of Tribulation.” In reporting on her plea to the city Commissioners of Charities to pay their way back to Spokane, it gave a litany of misfortunes Helga and Ole faced in the past years, including her accident and surgery, the family’s inability to pay the mortgage, Ole’s accidents, and children’s illnesses. Although not all facts can be verified, what is apparent was Helga’s sense of being besieged at this point. Known for her independence, determination, and innate confidence, these traits appeared to be waning. In shock and grief, she lamented, “Now my daughter Bertha is dead.”18 While searching desperately for funds to return, unbeknownst to Helga, even more sorrow was coming to her home.

Helga and Clara had their pictures taken again in New York at the Obermüller and Sons photography studio, perhaps with hopes of selling these to earn money for their trip home. Helga titled this The Pedestrians.

Courtesy Robert Mackintosh Family Collection. Detail of this photograph on this page.

Within days after Bertha became ill, Ole’s fear that he had not protected the other children in time came true. Nine-year-old Johnny also complained of nausea, a fever, and sore throat. Rather than a mild beginning, Johnny immediately showed stronger diphtheria symptoms because he was younger and more vulnerable. Both tonsils became so swollen he had the “bull neck,” a devastating warning to the doctor that the most lethal form of diphtheria had entered the Estby household. Now Olaf and Ole tried to nurse Johnny. Although older children like Olaf often recovered from diphtheria, the same disease could be fatal to younger children. Unseen germs often lingered for months in an environment, suddenly taking a new victim long after a family believed their sanitation efforts were sufficient. They did not dare try to comfort the other children, so fourteen-year-old Ida had to take care of William, Arthur, and three-year-old Lillian all by herself in the cold shed during the quarantine. They could not go to school, could not have their papa hold them, could not say good-bye to their cherished sister Bertha, and could not help with Johnny. They also lived with an invasive fear that one of them could be next.

Four days later, on April 10, Johnny died. Once again, Ole had to yell this terrible news to the children in the shed and listen to their wails of grief and fear. This time Olaf helped his father build the coffin, rode on the wagon to the Mica Creek cemetery, and dug the grave for his little brother alongside his sister Bertha’s grave.19 But when they returned home, they still dared not comfort the other children or let them back in the home until the county health officials arrived to disinfect the house. Ida cried to Ole that they were so cold in the shed, but he was afraid to give them extra blankets that might harbor the invisible killers. The family now had lost their third child within a year and a half. He listened to the complaints from the shed and prayed that no other child carried the bacteria that was destroying his family. As he crawled exhausted into bed, the heartbroken father must have wondered again if he had done enough to save his children. Did he give the right care? And he asked a question that remained until he was on his own deathbed, a question he knew his children also wondered: Would this have happened if Helga had been home?

If you find an error please notify us in the comments. Thank you!