On Scene Bill Wilson Deaths in the Family

By Bill Wilson
Sentinel Photojournalist
Bill Wilson © 2011

I’ve come across some letters from my Grandmother’s cousin, William Otis LaVake to his aunt regarding the death of his brother, Charles, of typhoid fever in 1895.

William Otis LaVake, his brother, Charles J. LaVake and his sister Abbie taken in 1884. At the time they lived in Idaho.

On September 4, 1895 he wrote from Toledo, Iowa.
Dear Aunt Maria,
Have had a terrible misfortune come upon us. Charley died of typhoid fever at 7:47 PM September 2, aged 16 yrs. 7 mos. Funeral was at Montour the next day. Everybody was Charlie’s friend. Flowers by the bushel were at the Congregational Church. I had them all buried with my poor brother. Mother is a broken hearted. I will try to get her to go home with her sister who lives at Highview, Hamilton County and who was with us during the latter part of the illness. I was with him and nursed him about half the time. He seemed to like to have me handle him better than anyone else. Spoke to me three times by and name the last day. “Ma” was the last word he uttered. I am all broken up. I will write more in detail when I fully recuperate from the terrible ordeal through which I have just passed.
Love to you all, reserve the major portion for yourself.
Your Nephew,
Wm. O. LaVake

William LaVake and his sister Abbie on horseback as Charles and their Mother look on.

He kept that promise with this letter dated October 3, 1895 also from Toledo, Iowa.

This is the fifth day I have sat up and now just getting so I walk across the floor with a very uncertain tread. I have been eating egg and milk toast for a week and am improving very fast. I fell off till I was below 100, hardly any flesh upon my body at all, in fact I thought I ought to secure good employment in some “dime museum.”
This morning I will try and write you an intelligent letter, if that is possible for me to do at any time, although you will see my handwriting is not very good, my arm is not strong enough to use the free arm movement with which I always write when I am in health.

In a photo taken around 1892, William LaVake (on right), stands outside his uncle’s Millinery Shop on Broadway in New York City.

Now to go back a ways. During the latter part of August I took a trip up to Reinbeck in the county north of this one, drove up, and spent a few days with some classmates and when I returned I found Charlie sick with typhoid fever and delirious at times. I hardly slept or took my clothes off the balance of the time he was sick which was about a week He seemed to like to have me nurse him. Even though there were two or three others in the room, his eyes would follow me when he was semi-delirious. The last day the spoke to me by name three times and talked to me several times. I was the last one spoke to directly. “Ma” was the last word he uttered; it was a dying attempt to pronounce her name which he seemed unable to pronounce when he was calling me by name earlier in the day. We had a doctor from Traer twice in consultation. The morning of the last day he said there was a fighting chance, the others of the family were too discouraged. I says, “Doctor if there is a fighting chance I’ll take it. And fight for it.” And though half dead with a terrible headache and from loss of sleep I hardly left his bedside. He regained perfect consciousness shortly after the doctor left and I says to him, “Charlie the doctor says you have only a fighting chance, but I say you and I’ll take it wont we?” and he says yes, “and we’ll get well, Charlie.” and he answered me back “you bet we will”. The temperature run from 104 to 105 and a half and just before he died to 109, so you see he was literally burned up by the fever.

Charles J. LaVake, who died of typhoid fever on September 2, 1895.

We had the doctor we had always had, a homoeopathist., but I’ll never have any but an allopathist in typhoid fever again. The former are too afraid of ice cold baths and the use of ice water on the head. I had a great portion of the funeral arrangements to look after. After the funeral was over I began to feel awful queer but I thought I would sleep it off but the next day I felt worse so after disinfecting all the bedclothes used on Charlie’s bed and after scratching off letters to those whom I cared the most about. I went downtown with Mother. I had an awful lot of business to look after which I intended to go and see my homoepathic doctor but several of my most intimate friends importuned me not to go to Doctor Morford but to go to Doctor Thompson an allopath. I argued with them for some time as I had confidence in Doctor Morford but finally gave in and went to him (Thompson) and he examined may have very carefully and says, “My boy your temperature is now hundred three and from your symptoms my judgment is that you have the fever now upon you” and so I had and a very violent attack too. I went home and at the supper table and told them that Dr. Thompson was coming out to examine the whole family and then told them that I was coming down with the fever. Mother’s sister tried to pooh-pooh the idea—-after a good deal of this I got tired of it, and says, “Oh, well now look here, I never was a hypochondriac but if I have typhoid fever in my system it has got to run its course and I’m going to bed tonight to stay there until I see what this amounts to. If I got the fever why I’ve got it and if I aint got it, while I’ll soon find out and that’s all there is to it. So now that’s settled.” Well I had one of the worst cases, that Dr T has had and he has had this year nearly 40 cases and he has saved every one.

William Otis LaVake in a photo taken 1895 the year he graduated from law school.

I had a violent headache such as leads to delirium. Doc had my head shaved, had a hot water bag filled with ice water under my head all the while the fever lasted, and a cloth saturated with the same on my forehead. So the fever was kept up out the head and of course there could be no delirium. He had a boss combination of tartaric- acid and various other ingredients to reduce temperature and the combination does not oppress the heart in the least as a great many of the fever reducing remedies are apt to do. Doc had no idea of the fever leaving me before the end of the fourth week but it dropped right off short a couple of days before the third week was up. We learn some things very dearly. I now know that if I had got doctor Morford, I would now be dead as a doornail because I would have been delirious and the fever would have burnt me up. Doc says to me after I began to get better, yours was the worst case I had, but that no case has responded perfectly to my medicines as yours. In fact Will it was impossible for you to have done better than you did do it. Mother is about brokenhearted Charlie was sixteen years and seven months and was 6 ft. tall and of low vitality on account of overgrowth. But we all realize that had we known of Doctor Thompson then Charlie in all probability would be alive today and none realize it plainer than mother and that’s what makes it harder for her. Father had barely more than the symptoms and got out soon and has been outdoors for a week. While I won’t get outdoors till about next Monday and Tuesday I do so hope that Cousin Cash will entirely recover. I am considerably worried about him. I had a letter from Gertie while I was sick written from JGJ Bros. Surely you tire of all the details of my sickness. I’m going to be very cautious about getting out.
Love to all,
Folks send love,
Your nephew,
Will Lavake

LaVake Family photo taken some time after 1898 because the photos in the background are of two deceased family members Charles and William.

The next letter in the file folder was from William in December of 1895 writing to his Aunt Maria about his decision to practice law in Dubuque, Iowa. He wrote her of the new office he and his law partner had leased. On March 16, 1898 while working in that office William Otis LaVake was shot four times by the disgruntled son of a former client. It was believed he died instantly.

See Related On Scene with Bill Wilson Archive

Sentinel Photojournalist
Bill Wilson is a San Francisco-based veteran photojournalist. Bill embraced photojournalism at the age of eight. In recent years, his photos capture historic record of the San Francisco LGBT community in the Bay Area Reporter (BAR), The New York Times, The San Francisco Chronicle, The San Francisco Examiner, SFist, SFAppeal. Bill has contributed to the Sentinel for the past seven years. Email Bill Wilson at wfwilson@sbcglobal.net.

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