A young doctor faces diptheria

Dr. James Luther Allaben in undated tintype, taken in Brooklyn. From the HSM archives.

The year 1879 was a traumatic one for several local families and, we suspect, for one young doctor who tried to keep their children alive during an outbreak of diptheria.
Dr. James L. Allaben was one of half a dozen physicians working in Middletown that year, when ten children died of the contagious disease. Diptheria is caused by a bacteria that creates toxins and throat lesions and blocks breathing. It is fatal in a high percentage of cases contracted by children. Queen Victoria’s daughter, Princess Alice, and a granddaughter, died of the choking disease in 1878, years before a preventive vaccine was developed.
The Mortality Schedule of the 1880 census lists Middletown people who died the previous year. It shows that five families suffered unimaginable grief when diptheria visited their homes. George M. and Angeline Winn Griffin lost three children in September and October – Etta, 6, Harry, 3, and Fannie, eight months. Willie, the only son of John M. and Jemima Blish, died in August, age 7. The Blishes are believed to have lived in Clovesville, near blacksmith John Ludeke and his wife Louisa, German immigrants whose children, Amelia, 10 and John, 5 contracted diptheria and died in June. 12-year-old Frankie Winn, and three children of John and Angeline Halcott – Mathalia, 11, William, 6 and Freddie, 3 — all died in October.
Treating them as best they could were Doctors S. M. Decker, H. W. Garrison, J. H. Banker and James L. Allaben. The latter was just 34 years old. He and wife Hattie had three little ones of their own, almost the exact ages of the Griffin children he cared for that terrible autumn. James Luther Allaben came from a family of physicians, ministers and lawyers. His father William was both a clergyman and a dentist! His uncle, Dr. Orson Allaben, is credited with spurring development of the village of Margaretville in the 1840s.
Among the patients Dr. James Allaben saw in 1879 were the Griffins. This was a family that had already seen more than their share of tragedy, having lost two infants in 1873 and 1877. The death by diptheria of three more left them with just one child, 11-year-old Bertha.
The same affliction visited the Halcott family. Losing three of their youngsters in October meant only one child, 8-month-old Alvin James, survived.
It would be logical to assume that such heartache would make for a bleak future for families such as these. But the Griffins and the Halcotts, ordinary laborers of little means, were made of sterner stuff. Perhaps obeying the biological imperative or a deep need to fill the empty spaces at the table, both couples had several more children. By 1892, John and Angeline Halcott and son Alvin had welcomed Christopher, Lula, Charles, Harvey and Harry. Neighbors George and Angeline Griffin had two more sons, Howard and Albert, to join older sister Bertha. All of them lived to adulthood.
And what of Dr. James L. Allaben? Well, the good doctor and wife Hattie grieved the loss of three of their own – Orlie, George and Harriet Marie — who died as infants during the 1880s. But in 1889, with four sons aged 11 to 15, the Allabens rejoiced at the arrival of a daughter, Deidamia (known as Damie). She would not know her father, however – Dr. Allaben died of pneumonia in 1890 at the age of 46.
Hattie carried on with five surviving children who all became successful adults, several building lives in California. One, John Hamilton Allaben, stayed in Middletown. He was a barber in Arkville for 50 years. Hattie passed on in 1932, and is buried in the Margaretville Cemetery with James, their babies, and many other treasured children he could not save.