Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Carnival of Genealogy's Orphans and Orphans: Baby Irene

I glanced at the title of this COG, and thought, “Nope, I don't have much to say o this topic.” Then I read past the “first type of orphan,” and I read about the second type, the reverse orphan who has no one to tell their story. I had that clenched, breathless feeling – like being hit in the solar plexus -- doubled over, protecting and gathering strength to get up and go again. I knew this was a story I had to write.

Baby Irene, while the first, is only one of many reverse orphans in my mother's family. She was born on June 9, 1904, the first child born to my grandparents Agnes Laura Keyes and Frank Clemmon Sigford. She died on Friday, September 1, 1905 after a lingering illness spanning at least 4 months. The Grant County, Oregon death certificate indicates the cause of death as Marasiuus Juvenile, probably Tubercular sclerosis. Baby Irene Sigfrit (spelling according to death certificate and newspaper clipping) was laid to rest in the Canyon City cemetery. These are the documented facts of her short life.

I have other memories of this child that I never knew. When I was a little girl, I remember the large oval gilt framed picture of a beautiful baby girl hung prominently on a living room wall. I was always told reverently, “that's Baby Irene, Grandma's first baby who died when she was only 1 ½ years old.” She was named after my grandpa's favorite sister, Lettie Irene Sigford. Many years later, long after my grandparents had died, my Aunt Joyce then had the picture of Baby Irene hung in her dining room, next to the hutch that housed precious family trinkets handed down from my grandmother.

As I became the keeper of old pictures, records, and letters, I came across a letter written by James E. L. Keyes, my grandmother's father, in which he sent words of sympathy to his daughter for the loss of her first child.

Mitchell Oregon

Sept 9th, 1905

Mrs. Agnes Sigford

Dear Daughter I received your letter yester Day was sory to hear of the death of your Baby. I simpathise with you with all mi hart. I was at Barway haying and did not hear it til yesterday. We are all well I am figuring to send a few horses to Serman Co to Day I will send Ray with them. Olga was getting alright last that we heard from her. Please write soon from your father


Much later, and after the death of the last of my aunts on my mother's side, I received, in the mail, a box of miscellaneous papers, pictures, books, and memorabilia. This box also held the picture of Baby Irene that I remembered from my early childhood. The lovely old gilt frame had disappeared, leaving a strangely more dull picture, with the heavy cardboard backing of the day cut in an irregular oval shape. The picture still is not in a oval gilt frame, but I have scanned the picture into my computer and touched up a copy so as to resemble my memory of the picture I knew as a child. I promised myself that I would look more closely at the life of Baby Irene. I never did until now.

One of the interesting things about this little girl is even though she had a very short life, she was remembered and talked about often. Her brother and all of her sisters grew up knowing Baby Irene. Even my sister and I who were born over 40 years after her death grew up knowing that the picture on the wall was grandma's first baby. I never, until this moment, realized the impact that baby had upon my grandma to keep her memory so fresh in their minds.

If the cause of her death (Marasiuus Juvenile, probablyTubercular sclerosis) was correct, this child that I has always imagined to have died of a disease such as pneumonia or whooping cough, most likely died of a genetic disease. Current useage would be “tuberous sclerosis” or TSC syndrome. In the late 1800s, the term “marasiuus” was linked with mental illness and epilepsy, which would indicate that the benign tuberous tumors were located in her brain, but possibly around the heart as well. Had she lived she might have suffered mental retardation, epilepsy, autism, cardiac and/or renal failure. Even now it is hard for me to reconcile the lovely picture of Baby Irene with this terrible disease that ravaged her little body and took her life.

However, due to this genetic disease, I may have another clue to my curious questions about my grandmother and her family. In a day when large families were still the norm, I was always curious why there was such a long span between children. Why was there was four years between the birth of Baby Irene and my twin aunts, Loise and Joyce? Why seven years between the twin aunts and my uncle Clem? And six years between my uncle and my mother? The answers to these questions that I got from my mother and Aunt Gail ran the gamut from “birth control”, “she just didn't want to have very many children,” or “she was always mad at grandpa and kept away from him” (this last quote told more about my Aunt Gail, than about the relationship between by grandparents). None of these made too much sense to me, especially considering that near the end of Grandma's childbearing years she had three daughters about 1 ½ to 2 years apart. Did miscarriages from a genetic disease account, in part, for the sporadic childbirth pattern? Also it is now known is that even if the parents are asymptomatic but having the genetic predisposition for tubercular sclerosis many times the fetus dies in utero. I may never have an answer to these questions, however Baby Irene may have provided another clue.

No matter what the circumstances of her death, Baby Irene's 1 ½ years of life was well remembered. Now, over 100 years after her birth, the story of this reverse orphan Baby Irene has been committed to print. T'is not the story I intended to tell, but then it's not my story.


  1. You did a wonderful job on this piece. What a heartfelt way to honor a life now matter how short. She was loved...for generations and remembered still. Beautiful.

  2. Great post. I loved reading about Irene. What great research you have done here.

  3. Herstoryan and Hummer, thank you for reading about Baby Irene. I knew bits and pieces but never thought her story before. So glad you liked her story.

  4. Great post. We don't often think of genetic diseases in those times, when death from infectious disease was so prevalent. You did a great job with the research and telling the story. I'm glad Baby Irene's photo ended up in your hands.

  5. This is a lovely but sad story. It reminds me of my great-grandmother and how she kept a picture hanging in her hall of the only child she ever lost. It makes me want to hunt down his death certificate so I could learn more about his life. Baby Irene is a story so often lived in our ancestor's lives but so often lost to time. It's wonderful that you kept her story alive.

  6. I am so glad you told this story. It's genealogy and genealogical writing at its very best - a fascinating mystery and touching story perfectly combined.

  7. Thank you, one and all, for these kind words. once I started thinking about Baby Irene, I could not stop until I felt at ease with Baby Irene.

  8. My experience is that so often when a baby dies, the conversations about the baby die too. Others feel uncomfortable so the topic is avoided. I find it amazing that the family continued to speak of Irene and heart wrenching that the family continued to refer to her as "Grandma's first baby who died.

  9. This is a great post! Well written, Joan, you have a great start on a great blog which I am going to be following!