A few months ago we received an inquiry about a photograph from our vast artifact collection. The morbid image apparently showed several deceased family members lying together on a bed. Those shown apparently succumbed to an influenza outbreak and were residents of the Pigeon Hills. Unexpectedly, the photo of the Riley family was located and more accurate details of the story have been uncovered. As it turns out, smallpox was the culprit.
For those shocked when learning about early post-mortem photographs (from History.com):
In the 1800s, taking a photo of a dead body wasn’t creepy—it was comforting. In an era when photos were expensive and many people didn’t have any pictures of themselves when they were alive, post-mortem photography was a way for families to remember their deceased loved ones. This was especially true for children, whose mortality rate was much higher than it is now.
The information shared here was compiled from 1902 York-area newspapers and other online resources. All of the newspaper articles listed the family surname spelled “Reilly”, while the photograph and cemetery records we found show the spelling as “Riley”. For this story, we’ll use what was shown in newspaper accounts. Some information was not entirely clear or contradicted details that were located.
The William and Jane Reilly Family
Samuel C. Reilly: The first family member diagnosed with smallpox was Samuel Reilly, who lived at 117 North Penn Street in York. His illness was detailed in the February 11, 1902 issue of The York Dispatch. Samuel owned a confectionary store in the city where students of the nearby Garfield School would frequent. His wife had recently visited the Zone family on Vander Avenue and carried smallpox home which caused his infection. Samuel died at 11:40 PM on February 16, 1902. His wife and children were unaffected and eventually released from quarantine.
Jane Reilly (Mrs. William Reilly): The next family member who contracted smallpox was Jane Reilly, who was the mother of Samuel. She was also listed as the mother of Mrs. Zone (mentioned above), but in some sources was listed as her sister. Prior to having smallpox, Jane was suffering from pneumonia, certainly causing added complications. She was born in 1843 and died at around 4:00 PM from smallpox on February 16, 1902. This was just hours before her son Samuel would pass away.
Days after the death of Jane Reilly and her son Samuel, more unfortunate news came to the Spring Grove area. The February 22, 1902 issue of The Gazette shows George, Emanuel, and Annie Reilly infected with smallpox. The three siblings are children of William Reilly and had just lost their mother (Jane) and brother (Samuel) with the illness.
George Reilly: George’s case seems to have developed rapidly and he passed away on February 22, 1902. His symptoms only presented themselves the day before. He died just as the doctor arrived to examine him. He was 22 or 23 at the time of his death.
Emanuel Reilly: This Reilly family had already lost three members, but the death of Emanuel on March 6, 1902 would raise that number to four. According to The York Dispatch on the following day, smallpox had apparently weakened his heart and he died peacefully in his sleep.
Anna Rebecca Reily: After so much tragedy in one family, Anna’s recovery from smallpox was a blessing. The 18-year-old teen would go on to marry Irvin Franklin Schauer and they had a son in 1907, Eugene. Anna died at age 38 on October 16, 1927. She was buried at Mount Rose Cemetery in York.
Smallpox Ravages The John and Amanda Reilly Family
Mamie Reilly: On March 4, 1902, The Gazette reported yet another case of smallpox in the Spring Grove area. Mamie Reilly of Jackson Township had recently stayed with her cousins, the family of William and Jane Reilly. At that time the family’s illness had yet to appear. On March 11, 1902, she passed away from complications of illnesses aggravated by smallpox.
Less than a week after the death of Mamie, the entire Jackson Township family of John and Amanda Reilly is stricken. John Lawrence Reilly was vaccinated 15 years earlier. It was hoped that his condition would not be as severe. Amanda (Wildasin) Reilly, his wife, was vaccinated 24 years earlier so her case would likely be more severe.
Shortly before her death, Mamie was vaccinated but it was far too late. Following her death, the doctor wanted to vaccinate the entire family but the parents refused. In their moment of grief, they feared the vaccine caused Mamie to pass away.
With the entire family suffering the effects of smallpox and John not able to work, the family situation was dire. Financial donations were sought out to aid the family during their struggles. The community responded, but not enough for a caregiver to be hired. It was nearly impossible for one to be found at a reasonable cost.
William Reilly was asked to assume the role since he had already recovered from smallpox. Despite being John’s uncle, William wanted $300 for the job. Local physician Dr. Shue, paid $150 for similar duties, had requested $400 to care for the Reilly family.
The sick family eventually recovered, with no more deaths occurring because of their smallpox infection. The affected family members and ages at the time:
John Lawrence Reilly: Age 42, Amanda (Wildasin) Reilly: Age 38, Emory Reilly: Age 3, Luther Reilly: Age 5, Freddie Reilly: Age 6, Mable Reilly: Age 7, Dora Reilly: Age 9, John Reilly: Age 15, Harvey Reilly: Age 16
It’s safe to say that the Reilly family suffered more in a few short months than anyone should in a lifetime. If you have additional details about this family, we’d love to hear from you.