Thursday, March 18, 2021

The unexplained deaths of Martha and Almira Burns

I came across a brief report regarding the unexplained deaths of Martha Burns, 14, and her sister, Almira, 4, on August 1, 1879, while searching Knoxville newspapers of the 1870s for references to Columbia, just across Lucas County's north line in Marion County and hometown of my maternal grandmother.

Further online exploration made this post very easy to do. I discovered on Find a Grave that Marion County genealogist Carl Nollen had traveled this road before and posted a transcript there of The Knoxville Journal report of August 6, 1879,  and that Ron Rader, of Chariton, had added an excellent photograph of the girls' joint tombstone. So I merely copied both.

Here's how the article, published under the headline "Columbia: A Singular and Fatal Case," reads:

On Thursday, the 30th ult., three children belonging to Robert Burns, living four miles southwest of Columbia, were taken with severe griping and vomiting. Drs. Brownfield and Prather were sent for and found the children all seemingly in a dying condition, and two of them did die early Friday morning. The other one is still living, but in a critical condition. No clue has yet been discovered as to the cause of their death unless it was caused by some poisonous herb. Dr. Prather, who has the case of the living child in hand, tells me that it very much resembles that kind of poison.

There were no follow-up reports, so the deaths remain a mystery. The girls were children of Robert and Mary Burns, who lived near the Lucas-Marion county line with a Dallas post office address. They remained in the area with their surviving children and are buried, too, in the Columbia Cemetery.


The same report from Columbia in that edition of The Journal also included this paragraph: "Dr. B. R. Prather is today moving into our town from Belinda. He will be found here to render professional services when called. We are glad to welcome the doctor to our town." Belinda was located southwest of Columbia, in Lucas County.

Prather is a surname closely associated with pioneer Lucas County and that area of Monroe County just to the east, so I explored a little further here, too, and discovered that B.R. Prather was Dr. Basil Robert Prather (1823-1890).

Here's a brief paragraph about him from a 1931 edition of The Journal of the Iowa State Medical Society: "Dr. B. R. Prather was a native of Bartholomew county, Indiana, and was born March 23, 1823. He commenced the study of medicine when twenty-one years of age. He then emigrated to LaGrange, Lucas county, Iowa, in 1860, and practiced medicine there for two years. In 1862 he helped make up Company G, 34th Iowa Infantry, and went to war as a private. He soon thereafter was surgeon of his company in which capacity he continued for seven months. The latter years of his life were spent in the practice of medicine at Columbia."

Dr. Prather was a son of pioneers David J. and Matilda (Noon) Prather, who are buried in Prather Cemetery, along U.S. Highway 34 between the Russell and Melrose corners. Also buried in the Prather Cemetery are Dr. Basil Prather's first wife, Mary Anna (1823-1861) and three of his infant children by his second marriage, to Hester Ann McEldowney.

Dr. Basil Prather eventually moved from Columbia to Ellis County, Kansas, where he died during 1890.

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