Saturday, June 17, 2017

How a 53-year-old Letter Between Sisters -- and the Research Path it Provided -- Led to the Discovery of the Probable Reason Behind the Smallpox Death of George Henry Cooke in December 1872

In August 1964, my maternal grandmother, Ruth [Cooke] Carpenter, received a letter from her older sister, Helen [Cooke] Roberts. The letter included information about their grandfather (my great great grandfather), George H. Cooke, as indicated by my grandmother's writing on the envelope for the letter (shown above). The letter was postmarked August 7, 1964 in Pittsfield, Massachusetts where my grand aunt Helen lived.

George Henry Cooke was born November 18, 1843 in Boston, Massachusetts to Russell Cooke and his wife, Mary Vinal Otis. George was the fifth of the seven children of Russell and Mary Cooke (two girls and five boys). George was the third of the five boys.

Russell & Mary Cooke family circa 1853. From L to R: Russell Cooke; Mary Vinal [Otis] Cooke with son Charles Willis Cooke on her lap; William Russell Cooke with curly hair; Albert Francis Cooke sitting between his mother and sister, Abby Ann Ruth Cooke; Edward Otis Cooke in checkered vest behind Albert; Mary Thomas Cooke standing at right; and George Henry Cooke standing far right in what looks like military-style clothing. 

After having recently rediscovered my grand aunt Helen's 53-year-old letter to her sister -- my grandmother Ruth [Cooke] Carpenter -- I read it closely for more information about my Cooke ancestors and relations. In the letter, Helen refers to their father, Walter Wilson Cooke (1869 - 1944), as "papa." Walter was the only son of George Henry Cooke (1843 - 1872) and his wife Susannah Catherine Appell (1844 - 1906), but George and Susannah had one other child, a daughter named Flora Appell Cooke born in 1868. Flora died at about age 30 in 1899.

George Henry Cooke

Susannah Catherine [Appell] Cooke

Walter Wilson Cooke

My grand aunt's letter, written when she was 72, records many of her recollections about her father and other members of the Cooke family. Some excerpts from her letter will illustrate the nature of the recollections and the genealogy clues they provide for research and verification.

Of her father Walter, Helen wrote, "Papa had curvature of the spine when young & was in a brace for a year - taken out of school & sent to his grandfather's home in Scituate Mass. to recuperate. He used to chin himself in the barn to stretch his spine, etc."

The grandfather of Walter Cooke was Russell Cooke, father of Walter's dad, George Henry Cooke. As the above excerpt also states, the house where Walter was sent to recuperate was Russell and Mary Cooke's home in Scituate, Massachusetts and the home was later owned by "Ed Cooke" a "cousin" of Helen and Ruth's father Walter. Ed was said to be a lawyer and Helen recalls having visited the colonial-style home on "a hill above the railroad depot."

Much of Helen's letter to her sister Ruth is about their grandfather, George Henry Cooke. As the scan of the first page and part of the second page indicate, Helen recalled that George Cooke was a glass engraver who "worked for his uncle." She also reported hearing that their grandmother (George's wife Susannah) had a pension based on George's service in the Civil War -- possibly in Louisiana. George was apparently "very fond" of his brother-in-law -- his wife Susannah's brother, Jacob Appell (who was a doctor). And Helen explains that when there were smallpox outbreaks "in those days" people were "so frightened of small pox that the Doctors sometimes had to bury them." Helen tells her sister Ruth that George "went about with [his brother-in-law, the doctor] a good deal" and then states that George himself died of smallpox "after helping as a volunteer, to take people from a burning building" during a "huge Boston fire" and it was surmised that George contracted the smallpox from one of the victims he helped evacuate from the fire.

My grand aunt Helen's letter provides many intriguing tidbits about my Cooke genealogy, but the question became, "How accurate were her recollections and family stories when she recalled them for her sister at age 72?"

It was fairly easy to find corroboration for one claim in the letter. The recent discovery of the comprehensive two-volume Cook/Cooke genealogy titled "Thomas Cooke of Rhode Island" compiled and published by Jane Fletcher Fiske (Oxford. Massachusetts, 1987) provides a wealth of sourced information about many of my Cooke ancestors and relations.

On page 418 of Volume One of Thomas Cooke of Rhode Island, Ms. Fiske confirms what I have long known about my Cooke genealogy (as the photos and letter support) -- that Russell Cooke married Mary Vinal Otis and that my great great grandfather George Henry Cooke was one of their five sons. But the same entry for the Russell and Mary Cooke family states that Russell was a tailor in Boston before he moved to Scituate, Massachusetts "after 1850" where he farmed, was a storekeeper, and a Deacon of the Congregational Church. The Cooke home was apparently located on the corner of First Parish and Stockbridge Streets in Scituate.

This information supports my grand aunt Helen's recollection that her father Walter recuperated at this grandfather's farm in Scituate after he wore a back brace for a year.

The same genealogy by Jane Fletcher Fiske also provides support for Helen's letter, which states Russell's home in Scituate was later owned by Edward Otis Cooke who was a lawyer.  Edward Otis Cooke was an older brother of George Henry Cooke and so was related to Helen's father Walter -- but not as a "cousin" as Helen states.  Edward Otis Cooke was Walter's father's brother and so was Walter's uncle, not his cousin!

At page 615 of Volume Two of Thomas Cooke of Rhode Island, Ms. Fiske states that Edward Otis Cooke, son of Russell and Mary Cooke and George Cooke's older brother, was indeed a lawyer and lived in Scituate, Massachusetts.

The Cooke genealogy by Ms. Fiske also provides evidence for the statement in Helen's letter that George Cooke worked as a glass engraver "for his uncle."

At page 419 of Volume One of Thomas Cooke of Rhode Island, Ms. Fiske states that a brother of Russell Cooke (George's father), James Monroe Cook, was "well-known as a manufacturer of stained glass" and "produced work of considerable excellence" according to the History of Suffolk County 3:434. As cited by Fiske, "Advertisements in Boston Directories and those of other areas at that time proclaimed 'Stained and Cut Glass Manufactory by J.M. Cook, at 131, 139, and 141 Congress Street, Boston: Glass for Church Windows in Every Style.'" Thus there is evidence to indicate George H. Cooke might very well have worked in the stained and cut glass industry for the brother of his father -- his uncle James Monroe Cook.

Helen's letter to her sister also stated that their grandfather George H. Cooke served in the Civil War.  This was easily verified by reference to U.S. Civil War Soldier Records and Profiles 1861 - 1865. As shown below, George Henry Cook, a glass cutter from the town of Scituate, Massachusetts enlisted at age 18 in Company L, Massachusetts 3rd Cavalry on November 1, 1861 and mustered out on June 11, 1862. His birth date is shown as November 18, 1843 (which matches the birth date from Fiske and other sources).

This then brought me to try to verify the story my grand aunt Helen wrote about her grandfather, George Henry Cooke, dying of smallpox after helping to evacuate people from a burning building during "a huge Boston fire."

While researching more about Edward Otis Cooke, I came across a source called the Index to Obituary Notices in the Boston Transcript 1900 - 1930, Vol I A - F.  In this particular source at page 571 of 988 is an entry noticing the death of Edward O. Cooke on March 6, 1911. The parenthetical -- "(T. March 7)" in the indexed notice means that publication of the notice was in the Boston Transcript (also known as the Boston Evening Transcript) on March 7, 1872.  The Transcript was a daily afternoon newspaper published in Boston from 1830 until 1941.

Sources such as a Massachusetts Masons membership card confirm that Edward Otis Cooke, lawyer and resident of Scituate, Massachusetts, died on March 6, 1911.

But it was the casual research of the Boston Transcript in Wikipedia that then provided an interesting link to the possible reason for the smallpox death of my great great grandfather, George Henry Cooke, as mentioned in my grand aunt Helen's letter. It seems that the Boston offices of the Boston Transcript were completely destroyed in what is now known as the "Great Boston Fire of 1872." As stated at the Wikipedia article on the fire,, the fire of November 9, 1872 raged for twelve hours and consumed 65 acres and 776 buildings.  While some $74 million dollars of damage was caused, somehow only thirteen people died in the firestorm. [At the Wikipedia link, the reader can view amazing photos of the devastation caused by the fire.]

This quick research led to some additional analysis of Helen's statement in her letter that George Cooke was fond of his brother-in-law, Jacob Appell (who was a doctor) and that George "went about with [Jacob] a good deal." 

The 1860 federal census indicates that George Henry Cooke's future wife, Susannah Catherine Appell did indeed have a brother named Jacob F. Appell, who in 1860 was 20 years old (six years older than Susannah) and was then working as a clerk.

Susannah's brother Jacob was born on December 13, 1840 and his full name was Jacob Franklin Appell. He died in October 1902 in Lake City, Florida where he was an allopathic physician.

And then there is the fact that in 1872 the city of Boston had an outbreak of smallpox. During the 63 year period from 1811 to 1874 the year 1872 had by far the greatest number of smallpox deaths at 738 such deaths that year.  In fact, the next greatest year for smallpox deaths was 1873 at 302 deaths for the year. By the time the outbreak of 1872 was over in the first weeks of 1874, more than 1,000 Bostonians had perished as a result of smallpox. It appears that my great great grandfather, George Henry Cooke, was one of them.

Table from the February 1881 edition of the Boston Medical and Surgical Journal. 

George Henry Cooke died in Quincy, Massachusetts on December 2, 1872 just twenty-three days after the Great Boston Fire of 1872 was brought under control on November 10, 1872. The incubation period for smallpox is on average 7 to 17 days. [For more information on the 1872 smallpox outbreak in Boston see]

The timing for the possible exposure to smallpox victims in Boston during the Great Fire of November 9- 10, 1872 and the documented death of George Henry Cooke from smallpox about twenty-three days later (see his Quincy death record immediately below) makes the story in Helen's letter quite probable.

The letter from my grand aunt provides a good example of why we genealogists need to read such family documents very carefully and then use the "factual clues" and stories contained in them as starting points for methodical research toward verifying the information contained in such documents. In this case, the information provided by Helen holds up quite well under careful scrutiny and attempts at verification. One glaring error is the relationship between Helen's father Walter Cooke and Edward Otis Cooke.  Helen states that Edward was Walter's cousin when in fact he was the brother of Walter's father George Henry Cooke -- and thus was Walter's uncle, not his cousin. Almost all of the other claims made in Helen's letter are indeed documented as accurate or lead to the conclusion that her information and family stories are most probably true.
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Photos and scans of the August 1964 letter from Helen [Cooke] Roberts are all from the originals in the collection of the author.

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Copyright 2017, John D. Tew

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  1. Great step-by-step discussion of how you took a letter filled with "family stories" and searched for evidence to prove or disprove. George Henry Cooke sounds like a brave and compassionate soul. Thanks for sharing.

    1. Hi Marian! Thank you for your kind comment about this post. It is a lesson I keep learning -- review your family documents over and over and then follow up on the clues. This one was fun and proved to be pretty productive. I wish I could have shared with my grandmother and her sister just how accurate the family stories proved to be.