So Many Secrets, part 8: A Burden on the Family

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If someone in your family had fourteen children and seven of them died before the age of two, what would be your first thought?

I discovered two ancestors, my Great Great Grandfather and Grandmother, Joseph Maltby and Anna Simpson, had fourteen children in the span of about 25 years, between the mid-1870s and early-1900s, and at least seven of them died before the age of two, many of them before their first birthday. I say “at least” because there are several for which I cannot find a date of death. Son Samuel was born in 1880, died in 1881. Daughter Gertrude was born in 1885, died in 1886. Daughter Vernie was born in 1887 and died the same year. Son Edwin was born in 1888, died in 1889. And the list goes on. One of their children, Elsie Maltby, managed to remain alive to the age of 36, married James Alfred Dunn, and gave birth to my Grandma Ruth.

I’ll admit, my first thought on the dead Maltby children went right to a dark place… someone was living out a Munchausen by Proxy scenario, or maybe a dark, evil pattern of simply killing children that were unplanned, unwanted. However, my searches for death announcements or obituaries for these babies turned up nothing. I wasn’t quite sure what to make of the find, so I filed it away in my head for use at some point in the future. As I began writing this story and asking questions about how my family ended up with this sordid tale of murder, suicide, infidelity and long lost family, I began to understand how the Maltby children might be relevant to this story.

Dysfunction Finds a Way

I’ve long been interested in how dysfunction gets passed down through generations of families. We see it in homes where domestic abuse is common — dad beats mom and 20 years later, the son who witnessed the abuse is beating the woman in his life. In cases of child sexual abuse the victim often (but not always) becomes a victimizer. Those are extreme examples, but even in more benign circumstances, dysfunction finds a way to live on in a family. A mother with an acid tongue passes it on to her daughter, who in-turn passes it on to her offspring. A cold, detached father who can’t bring himself to share his feelings or show pride in his son raises cold, detached sons himself, and one-by-one, generation-by-generation, they die regretful, lonely and unfulfilled. Kids mimic their parents, and dysfunction is the gift that keeps on giving, generation after generation.

Also passed on to the younger generation are the insecurities that come with having flawed, debilitated families, and if you make note of those insecurities, like you would make note of the strange color of the sky before a thunderstorm or the familiar smell of a home you haven’t visited in a decade, you start to ponder the cause of the phenomenon, attempt to trace it back to its origin and explain it.

I grew up in a broken home and struggled with feelings of being unrecognized, unloved, and unwanted. Step back one generation and it’s clear my mom felt the same. She was from a defective family. Her father killed himself, and she was raised by a mother without dreams, who felt her value was that of a cook, a maid, and a romantic partner to men, but nothing more. The men were frequently undesirables who did nothing to lift them up. From a young age my mother and my grandmother both learned to reflexively seek out the attention they craved, the love they required, particularly from men, and the needs of the children weren’t always the priority.

My generation, my mom’s generation, my grandma’s generation… skip one generation further back and that brings us back to the Maltby/Simpson children. Fourteen kids, and seven of them died before they reached age two. Were they neglected? Did they have enough to eat? Joseph Maltby was a brakeman in the Michigan Central railyard in Jackson, Michigan, and if his experience was similar to others of the time and trade, he worked long hours and didn’t make a lot of money, so it’s entirely possible his children had mom as their only support.

In 1898, Joseph had an accident at work and his hand was crushed in a coupling between railcars. He lost portions of several of his fingers. Was he able to keep working? Did his injury hurt his ability to make a living? I can only speculate, but one can imagine it was a hard life. Did the kids who were still alive feel unwanted, like they were a burden on the family? I would be willing to bet they did. It’s also a strong likelihood that they picked up the behaviors they witnessed and, in an unthinking pattern, mimicked them with their own families as they aged, passing them on to another generation.

The question of what happened to the seven dead Maltby children may never be answered. Newspapers in the late 1800s were not what they are today and I’ve come up empty in my search for death announcements or stories about mysterious deaths in the family. It is possible that the children died of natural causes. Pneumonia and tuberculosis were common at the time, cholera and typhoid, too, and the loss of a loved one is painful no matter the cause, but when a couple loses half their children (in separate instances) at such a young age, you can’t help but feel suspicious, especially considering the legacy that got handed down through the generations.

Maria Montessori, the Italian physician and educator, said “The greatest development is achieved during the first years of life, and therefore it is then that the greatest care should be taken. If this is done, then the child does not become a burden; he will reveal himself as the greatest marvel of nature.” It’s an inspiring quote, but I wonder if people wouldn’t be more motivated by stories of the consequences of not honoring their children. Maybe some should be reminded, failure to do so hurts not only the next generation but potentially an entire family, a century or more down the line.

Go back and read So Many Secrets from the beginning



Troy Larson is a father, author, and photographer originally from Minot, North Dakota, now residing in Fargo.