Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Fallen Branches from the Family Tree, Part Two

It was about 6:30 one hot summer evening and Annie Thorpe of Orchard Place in Dravosburg, Pennsylvania was cooling off by sitting in her porch swing. As she sat relaxing, she spied a body of a child lying on the hillside across from her home. Concerned about the boy, she ran and found the three year old asleep. Mrs. Thorpe picked up the boy and carried him to her swing where he slept a half hour until he awakened holding his head.

As he moved, Mrs. Thorpe noticed that he had vomited what appeared to be a half pint of tomatoes as the emesis was red in color. What Mrs. Thorpe hadn’t realized that it was likely not the contents of the child’s stomach, but rather it was probably blood and tissue that he had regurgitated.

Worried because he had not returned home by suppertime, his parents sent their six-year old daughter out with another little girl to scour the neighborhood. Since his older sister had been playing with him earlier in the afternoon, she might know his whereabouts. Locating him several blocks from their home on the Thorpe’s swing, the girls took their sick companion home where his condition worsened into the evening and the vomiting that continued was accompanied by the onset of diarrhea.

It was Friday, August 15, 1919 and the young boy, John Milford Brakeall, was stricken with an illness that was deemed as unknown in origin. In less than 36 hours, the youngster expired. Shortly before his death, his six-year old sister Louise began experiencing identical symptoms.

Cradle Roll Certificate for Johnny Brakeall from the M.E. Church Sunday School. His middle name is incorrectly listed as Wilford and his birth year was wrongly credited as 1918; however, the document was corrected to read 1916.

Although she nearly crossed the threshold of death, Louise would have a slow recovery. After a yearlong absence from school, it would be years before she could bear to eat anything that wasn’t prepared by her mother. In time, Louise returned to full health that culminated in a lifespan of 83 years and seven days.

Local physician, Dr. Albert H. Aber and Deputy Coroner George Liffert ruled the illness as toxemia of an unknown origin. David M. Kier, Allegheny County deputy coroner, reported to the Pittsburgh Press that the cause was “foremia, a poisonous condition of unknown origin.”

Since the children had not eaten anything that was different than other members of the family, no one had a clue to the cause of the sickness. Even the local media reported that the medical community was completely baffled. The headline of The Daily News from nearby McKeesport heralded “Strange Fatal Malady Puzzle to Physicians,” while the Pittsburgh Press echoed identical sentiments with “Doctors Puzzled by Children’s Malady.”

The two children were my mother’s siblings. Although, my mother was almost a year old when the tragedy struck – much of what we know about the episode was revealed by her own mother – a woman who lost a son and nursed a daughter back to health.

For two and perhaps three decades, the family of John Alva and Rose Brakeall were in the dark concerning the illness that resulted in the death of their young son and that nearly claimed the life of their oldest daughter. That is until a friend had revealed that another Euclid Avenue neighbor, Verda B. Harrison, had witnessed what had transpired with the Brakeall children and had remained silent for all these years.

Was it the burden of guilt that finally caused Mrs. Harrison to reveal this secret? We will never know; however, she was guilty of the sin of omission by failing to alert the family while young Johnny still was alive. With proper treatment, he may have lived as did his sister.

As relayed to my grandmother by another neighbor, it was thought that Verda Harrison saw the two children take pop bottles from Alice Worthington’s garbage bin and fill them with water from the outside faucet – which locally is known as a spicket or spigot. As the children were refreshing themselves from the cool water from the tap, little did they know that the bottles contained the residue of a dangerous poison – mercury bichloride.

Although highly toxic, mercury bichloride was dispensed by druggists for a variety of medicinal purposes. While it was used topically and as a vapor in a number of applications, ingesting a solution of mercury bichloride nearly always proved fatal if not treated immediately. Being a corrosive sublimate, the poison damaged the lining of the stomach, caused spasms, often resulted in kidney failure, and caused the patient to slip into a coma prior to death. As it was readily available, it often became the agent of choice for suicide; however, the result was a slow and agonizing death.

But what was Mrs. Worthington doing with such a dangerous poison and why was its residue found in pop bottles? The answer lies in the practice of the day, as a solution of mercury bichloride was used as primitive birth control method in the form of a douche after intercourse. From what can be gathered third hand, this was Alice Worthington’s reason for mixing such a deadly solution. While the practice was fairly common, a mistake in the ratio of mercury bichloride to water in the solution could prove as fatal as ingesting the poison.

Had the family or Dr. Aber known what manner of illness they were confronting, the doctor would have advised the boy's parents to feed him egg whites and then induce vomiting – a practice that often was successful with mercury bichloride poisoning. Unfortunately, the family administered two laxatives prior to summoning the physician.

According to their own testimony, my grandmother prepared a dose of milk of magnesia for Johnny. Later, my grandfather administered castor oil. By Saturday afternoon, Johnny appeared to be recovering.

The laxatives, however, had an adverse effect which only caused the poison to course through Johnny’s system resulting in convulsions. Dr. Aber was called to the home at 9:00 PM where he administered three different medications; however, the convulsions continued until 5:40 AM Sunday when John Milford Brakeall breathed his last.

At the height of Johnny’s pain at 3:00 AM Sunday, six-year old Louise Elizabeth Brakeall began to suffer from similar symptoms. She vomited her stomach lining, experienced diarrhea, and had a variety of spasms. During most of the day Sunday, she remained unconscious.

Dr. Aber and two other physicians tended to her during several days of treatment. By Monday, Louise had shown some improvement and she was considerably better by Tuesday. Dr. Aber didn’t repeat the treatment of a laxative that had been prepared for Johnny and that decision probably saved her life as much as it had hastened his death. It would take years, however, for her to fully recover from the damage.

After my Aunt Louise gave birth to her daughter Joan years later, mother and daughter met Dr. Aber on the streets of Dravosburg. He asked whose child she was. When Aunt Louise replied “mine,” Dr. Aber confessed that he never expected her to live long enough to even have children.

The family 70 years later in August 1989.
Left to right:  Joan, Aunt Louise, Uncle Jim, and Mom

Although my aunt’s health improved, my grandmother never recovered from the loss of her fourth child. It is said that she never smiled in a photograph after the experience.

The first known photo of my grandmother after the incident.  Likely taken on Easter Sunday 1920, it depicts Rose Brakeall with three of her children: Jim, Louise, & Genevieve.  The oldest son Walt was probably the photographer.

As Johnny only lived a short time, just two photos of him exist – one of these was taken perhaps a year or more before his death. He is with his sister Louise.

The stricken siblings: Louise and Johnny

Because this was not the best depiction of Johnny, my grandmother commissioned a professional photographer to take a postmortem photograph of her young son as he lie in state at his paternal grandparents’ home next door. She also cut a lock of his hair and kept it for safe keeping in a sachet box. I am the caretaker of these mementos.

While his grave is in McKeesport’s Fairview Cemetery, there is some confusion on his original burial location. My mother thought he was buried in a single grave in Dravosburg’s Richland Cemetery; however, The Daily News reported that the burial took place in Fairview Cemetery. A McKeesport undertaker, Thomas F. Wiley, handled the arrangements.

It is certain that the remains were later moved to Section D of Fairview Cemetery in a plot that Rose Brakeall and her mother, Marie Schad, purchased in 1921. If previously buried in the same cemetery, it is possible he was originally buried in his other grandparents’ plot in Section B. This is an inconclusive piece of information that I will have to sort out at some future juncture. While I have the coroner’s report, I do not possess his death certificate.

While Johnny was gone, my grandmother’s memory of him never ceased. It was rekindled in the birth of her first grandson. My oldest brother Chuck surprisingly resembled her little boy and quickly became her favorite grandchild.

At one point, my mother presented my grandmother with a birthstone ring adorned with four stones. Upon reception of the gift, my grandmother responded, “I gave birth to five children not just four – Johnny is still my child.” Mom took the ring and had a fifth birthstone added to the set.

Finally, my grandfather passed away 41 years to the day after his son John was born. They shared the same first name. Likewise, my grandmother died 29 years to the day that my brother John was born. He shares the same first and middle name of my grandfather. This is a strange twist of fate that happens more frequently than statistically possible in my own family. The truth can often be stranger than fiction.

My mother, who was almost one year old at the time of her older brother’s death, provided much of the information concerning this narrative. While she was not a primary source, she was able to get my grandmother to provide bits and pieces of the account. Since my grandmother would not directly speak of it, it took a period of years for my mother to gather enough info so that she could sort out the details of the story. Other sources include The Daily News, the Pittsburgh Press, the coroner’s report, cemetery records, and various mementos belonging to my grandmother.

It is a sad thing to lose a child and both my grandmothers suffered this kind of loss. As Johnny's cradle roll certificate stated, "Children are a heritage of the Lord." It is my desire that you or I never have to experience the pain that my grandmothers had to bear.


  1. Every time I read about your family history and/or see a photo it feels like I am reading about American history...and it should, because it is...

    sorry to have to read such a sad tale, but thanks for sharing it all...

    -Stu Weissman

  2. Thanks Stu. It was a sad tale, but the real moral of the story is that someone had the information to save his live, yet did nothing - a sad commentary on most of us even today for being apathetic.


  3. Great work Jim. My grandmother has a brother that died before she was born. No one in the family knew he exsisted until I found him on the 1920 census. He's 6 then and never appears again. Unfortunately this family slipped the census taker in the 1930 federal, moved down to Polk county fl and shows up again in 1935 fl st census. Lots of mystery in this family and rumors of Elvis relation I'm trying to disprove. I will have to send u an email with the story one day. As a geneologist and music person you would enjoy the crazy tale. - Bill

  4. Bill:

    Sounds very interesting. I'd love to hear it.