William John Klein died from tuberculosis in 1903. The bacteria in his lungs had withered away his once-vibrant body for three years. He was just 45 years old, and he left behind his wife and four young children.
The youngest of those children was 3-year-old Frank Henry Klein — my grandfather. As the years passed, even the secondhand memories of William John Klein faded.
My father knew little about him. Maybe he was a police officer? Had he once been shot on duty? Knowledge of our patriline seemed to end there.
Curiosity and pandemic boredom led me to start shaking that branch of our family tree.
And indeed, William John Klein had been a St. Paul police officer, a vigorous man, a leader who'd risen to sergeant on the mounted patrol, records show.
When he died in his St. Paul home, he was one of 163 tuberculosis deaths in St. Paul that year, one of 61,487 in the United States.
Like COVID today, tuberculosis raged throughout the country around the turn of the 20th century, with no cure at the time. Like COVID, it usually hit the lungs, and spread through respiratory droplets from infected people coughing or just breathing.
The White Plague, they called it, named for the paleness of its victims.
In some ways, TB hit the nation harder than COVID has. In 1903, the United States suffered 165.7 tuberculosis deaths per 100,000 people, compared to 104 COVID deaths per 100,000 people in 2020. Like our modern coronavirus, even when patients survived initially, the illness could linger and return more ferociously.
St. Paul, in comparison to other cities, had a relatively low death rate — 94.3 per 100,000 in 1903. The northern climate and fresh air were thought to help. Crowded cities with poor health conditions suffered most: The Bronx borough of New York City sustained 428 deaths per 100,000 people in 1903, New Orleans endured 317, statistics from Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) show.
The northern air didn't help my great-grandfather. And his death reminds us of the long-lasting trauma that endures when someone dies before their time: the waste of a life unfulfilled, the holes that remain in the lives of family and friends, sometimes generations later, even when memory fails.
I am learning to remember my great-grandfather now, even though my memories come from state records and photos.
William John Klein was born in 1859 in McGregor, Iowa, the son of German immigrants.
He was appointed a St. Paul police officer in 1882, according to department records. In 1889, William J. Klein married Mary Frances O'Brien, and they had the first of their four children. That same year, they moved to 1838 Charles Av., the house crammed between Midway's massive railroad yard, factories, stock yards and lumberyards. The young family lived there for 14 years.
It was a life in motion. Soon my great-grandfather became a sergeant, a mounted officer, at the Union Park substation on Prior Avenue.
But then he contracted tuberculosis. The sparse notation in the 1903 city directory carries a world of grief: "Died Jan. 25, 1903, age 45. Widowing Mary, at 1838 Charles."
Mary was left to raise her four children, with only her family and her parish to help her. By 1910, Mary and the four children had moved in with her parents — Irish immigrants Patrick and Marie O'Brien, also in the Midway neighborhood, census records show.
In their father's absence, Mary's oldest son Karl stepped up to help his younger siblings, including helping get Frank Henry, my grandfather, a job in insurance, where Karl also worked.
Frank Henry went on to a successful career in insurance (as did his two sons and several of his grandchildren) at the family agency, the Klein Agency in St. Paul. He had grown up without a father, but he became a good one to his eight children. So remembered my father.
Those eight had children of their own, and William John Klein's progeny became a force in the Twin Cities.
What's the meaning of this story? Tuberculosis stole a husband, a father and a son, more than a century ago. It wasn't an uncommon kind of loss in that age, before the discovery of antibiotics and other miracles of modern medicine. To fill the void, a mother and older brother stepped up, others pitched in, and a family survived.
One is curious to know more details beyond the scope of the census documents and city directories. How sharp was Mary's grief and loneliness? Left alone to raise four children, did she discover an unexpected resilience and toughness in herself? Did Karl, the oldest boy, find strength in the leadership he was forced into?
My four siblings and I have always remained close. I text them daily, vacation with them, gather on holidays. Perhaps the trait that formed out of necessity was passed down.
The last time I saw Karl Klein was 30 years ago, at a family event. He must have been 90, and he smiled widely as he asked me the questions that the old ask the young — What's your job? Where do you live? Tell me about your family.
He'd helped his younger brother Frank through a tough time long ago. Now look — right here is Frank's grandson, young and promising!
Modern medicine has tamed many of the plagues and scourges that once killed en masse. Until now. COVID has killed nearly a half million Americans in the past year, although the vaccine may soon bring life closer to normal.
But the vaccine won't take away the grief for so many who have lost a spouse, a parent, a grandparent.
And perhaps that's the lesson: It falls upon us, the survivors, to help those left with a hole in their lives. Just as Mary Frances Klein and Karl Klein did a century ago.
Mike Klein is a writer and editor who lives in Rochester, Minn., and Madison, Wis.