Saturday, February 5, 2011

James N. Ryan - The Unthinkable Happens

On May 1, 1911 twenty-two year old James Nicholas Ryan died -- of diphtheria.  Just four months shy of fulfilling his commitment to the Navy, he died of a disease that most of us don't even know existed.  We are vaccinated against it as babies.  His parents got the telegram that no parent ever wants to get.

Cincinnati Enquirer, May 2, 1911

Along with the telegram came disbelief. Jim's father could not accept that his young, healthy son was dead. There had to be some "other" explanation than the "official" one. Newspaper articles of the time reflect this confusion. Despite a Death Certificate that clearly states the cause of death as , the article states that "it was stated by some naval officials that there is some doubt as to the cause of Ryan's death." When contacted by the Enquirer, the officer in charge on the Virginia stated that "Ryan died of natural causes" but then added that he "did not care to discuss it."

Cincinnati Enquirer, May 2, 1911

It's no wonder the father questioned the cause of death. The telegram received by the parents simply stated:

"Your son, James M. Ryan, died suddenly this afternoon. Wire as to disposition of remains."  

I can't imagine getting a telegram telling me about the death of my firstborn-son and namesake that seems so matter-of-fact and unfeeling.  I would be in shock.  He was determined to get to the bottom of this. (You can click on the article to enlarge it).

Cincinnati Enquirer, May 4, 1911, p.4

The article states that Jim's death was due to heart failure, owing to diphtheria. It also adds that Ryan had been sick with diphtheria for five days, a fact reflected in Jim's service record. However, members of the crew stated that Jim was "up and around the ship an hour before his death." One officer stated Ryan "was ordered to the sick bay at 12:20 and died at 1:05." Reports such as this probably led to the speculation that Jim died by choking on tobacco. (See next clip)

I've not been able to ascertain the source of this article, but it contains a few errors. It lists Jim's age as 27 and his middle initial as an "M'. It attributes Jim's death to choking on a piece of tobacco that became lodged in his throat.  However, the article goes on to state that "Ryan's inquiries to the Navy Department resulted in a statement that the sailor had died of diphtheria.  This was followed by a statement that he had choked to death."

I think the evidence is overwhelming.  Jim died of diphtheria.  Everyone agrees that he was ordered to sick bay in the last hour of his life.  No one goes to sick bay for an hour to choke to death on tobacco.   It's hard for us to accept 100 years later that someone so healthy and young could die of a bacterial infection that we are vaccinated against and that can be cured by an antibiotic.  Yet antibiotics did not yet exist.  Needless to say, the family was devastated.

1 comment:

  1. Perhaps because we've so many young men and women are serving in the military now, but I find the Navy's communications infuriating. I can't imagine his father's anguish.


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