Monday, January 10, 2011

Mysterious Monday - Diagnosis: Pellagra

This Mysterious Monday is not about a picture.  Instead, it's about a disease, and the startling finding I've made of it in my family history  The name of the disease is Pellagra.  You can read all about it, here and here.

I have written before about my great-grandfather, Calvin Yarborough, Sr.  This post is about the wife of his son, and namesake - my grandfather, Calvin Yarborough, Jr.  My grandfather died decades before I was born, but it was a desire to know more about him and my grandmother, Anna, that actually started me on my genealogy quest 15 years ago.  Calvin was married twice - first to Toynetta Littlejohn, and then to my grandmother, Anna Green.  It is Calvin's first wife, Toynetta, who is the subject of this post.

For many years, I've tried to find evidence of Toynetta's death, so that I could get a better sense of the timeline between my grandfather's two marriages, and of what life may have been like for him and his three oldest children.  Until last week, I could never find a death certificate for Toynetta, despite my searches on the Internet, as well as visits to the Franklin County Register of Deeds office, where the death certificates are housed.  In my research, I'd found that several member of Toynetta's birth family, the Littlejohns, had died of tuberculosis in the first decade of the 1900's, as had some of my Yarborough ancestors, so I've been assuming all this time that it was this same disease that took her from my grandfather, especially considering that Calvin, himself, was later consumed by it.  But, thanks to a surprise finding of Toynetta's death certificate (when I wasn't even looking for it), I know differently.  Toynetta did not have tuberculosis.  She died of pellagra.

Pellagra, for those who don't know, is a vitamin deficiency disease, which is characterized by the "4 D's": diarrhea, dermatitis, dementia, and death.  In the early 1900's there was an epidemic of this disease in the southern states.  Apparently, the disease appeared in 1902, and peaked in 1915-16.  Toynetta died of it in May, 1914. North Carolina Death Certificates, 1909-1975 [database on-line]. Provo, UT, USA: Operations Inc, 2007. Original data: North Carolina State Board of Health, Bureau of Vital Statistics. North Carolina Death Certificates. Microfilm S.123. Rolls 19-242, 280, 313-682, 1040-1297. North Carolina State Archives, Raleigh, North Carolina.

What is most interesting to me about this, and what presents the mystery, are the circumstances as presented by Toynetta's death certificate.  I've learned from reading about Pellagra, that its victims were isolated in hospital settings, away from the general population, so I guess this is how Toynetta ended up in St. Agnes' in Raleigh.  I'm aware that this was the Colored, or Negro hospital for decades.  But, still, it surprises me that Toynetta somehow ended up there from Louisburg, a town about 30 miles from Raleigh.

Toynetta is listed as single, though she was definitely a married woman.  The hospital seems to have no information on her.  It almost seems as if perhaps she went there on her own, or was left on their doorstep.  Where was Calvin?  Why wasn't he (or anyone) there to provide information about her to the hospital?  Surely, she was demented from the disease by the time she arrived there, just four days before her death, but why didn't anyone know anything about her?

Toynetta's body was returned to Louisburg for burial, but this was handled by a company out of Raleigh.  Why didn't the undertaker from Louisburg (Blount) who was handling most of my family's (and the Littlejohn's) handle the arrangements?

Toynetta Littlejohn Yarborough was born in 1884, and died May 3, 1914, apparently demented and alone.  She was survived by her husband, Calvin Yarborough, Jr., and four children, Vida (7), Priscilla (6), Felix (4), and Fredrick (9 mths).  Her son Felix, who turned 5 the month after she died, followed her to the grave in September, 1914.

My grandfather remained a widower for an unusally long (for that time) five years after Toynetta's death, until he married my grandmother, Anna, in 1919.  I can only imagine the sorrow he must have carried in his heart after losing his wife, and his young son in the same year.  I hope to learn more about the circumstances surrounding Toynetta's illness and subsequent death, as well as Calvin's life as a single father, who ended up courting, and marrying my grandmother-to-be.

Source information:  Information about the disease, Pellagra, was obtained for this post from the following articles:


Lori E said...

How fascinating! I have never heard of that before. What a mystery you have on your hands.

Kristin said...

This is such a very sad story. It's horrible to think of her being deserted on the hospital steps. Or whatever happened. Never thought of my relatives dying of pellegra. So far none show that on their death certificates. Even if it's a sad story it must be good to finally find the death certificate.

Mavis said...

I'm glad that you were finally able to find the death certificate.

My paternal great grandmother died from the same disease. I've only read snippets about pellegra. After reading your post, perhaps that's why there is no cemetery or undertaker listed on my great grandmother's death certificate.

Renate said...

That's interesting, Mavis. Was she in NC? If so, you might want to see if she, too, might've been at St. Agnes.


Leaves of Heritage Genealogy said...

Thanks for sharing. Very interesting. I am confused by your dates, though. You mention that Tonyetta died in 1914, and that your gradnfather waited 5 years before marrying your grandmother, Ann, also in 1914. Perhaps it was only 5 months? That would not be uncommon for men with small children.

Anyway, great story!

Take care,

Renate said...

Thanks, Angela, for bringing that typographical error to my attention! It was, indeed, five years before my grandparents were married. The error has been corrected. Thanks for your comment!


Mavis said...


Thanks for the tip on St. Agnes. Not sure that she went there, since her death certificate seems to indicate she was still at home. My great grand dad was the informant. I'll check anyway.

Anglers Rest said...

What a sad story, with lots of mystery. I do find the subject of medical genealogy interesting.

slidertx said...

I realize this is now an old post, but I just googled, "my grandmother had pellagra" and found this article. I was just recalling how my grandmother told me that when she was little (born in the 1920's) in Post, Texas, her mother was diagnosed with pellagra. She was told by her doctor to eat a bowl of (Post, of course) cereal daily to cure it. The family was so starving even before the Depression that my grandmother said, "She had to stand on a chair in the kitchen to eat her cereal so that we children could not rip it from her hands, so hungry were we." fortunately she improved. In the early years of the epidemic the cause was not known, and there was some stigma attached that may well have contributed to the isolation experienced by your grandfather's first wife at the time of her death. Thank you for sharing her story.

Renate said...

Wow, Slider, what an interesting story. Thanks for sharing it here on Into the LIGHT. That's so interesting about the cereal!


Ginny said...

Turns out that a distant cousin in our family also died of pellagra in 1931, diagnosed in 1925. I have been trying to track down more about the disease as well as how the family reacted to her death. She committed suicide by jumping into the Neuse River bridge, a not uncommon way for women pellagrins to commit suicide (by water). I am stuck however on where she was living just before she died; I am getting the impression that she was ostracized by her family, and her husband and children moved and left her somewhere. She lived in Craven County in NC. Very intriguing stories of these people who were so devastated by this disease.

Renate said...

Wow, Ginny, that's really interesting. I was very curious about this, too, even though Toynetta wasn't my direct ancestor. I will be sure to let you know if I find out anything new. :)