Early Sedalia saw itself as a thriving, “live,” city, “worshipping the new business gospel.” Its prosperity was apparent, according to the 1882 History of Pettis County, in Sedalia’s “fine, broad, paved streets, substantial two- and three-story brick business houses and dwellings, churches, and schools.”
The city’s prosperous appearance, however, masked the grinding poverty of the city’s working class. In the late 1860s and early 1870s, workers building the Missouri, Kansas, and Texas Railroad earned one to two dollars per day, barely enough to support a family. Many wives took in boarders or washed clothing for others and teenaged children dropped out of school to work to increase the family’s income.
Most of Sedalia’s working class citizens were able to survive as long as the family bread winner and perhaps other family members worked. Financial crisis struck when a wage earner became sick or was injured and could no longer work. Worker’s compensation, health insurance, and supplemental wage insurance did not exist, so the families of the sick or injured worker faced dire poverty.
In 1876, the Sedalia Democrat reported on a family in such circumstances. Patrick O’Malley, a fifty-year old section man for the M. K. & T., was an “honest, hard-working man” with a wife and seven daughters under fifteen years of age. The family lived in a house in Heard’s Addition, getting by until O’Malley developed consumption.
Consumption was the name given to the disease now known as tuberculosis, caused by an air-borne bacteria. During the 19h century, it was the most common cause of death in the United States. Consumption caused a gradual weight loss, low-grade fever, coughing, and weaknesses. The symptoms were exacerbated by inadequate food, crowded living conditions, and a cold, damp climate. As the disease progressed, the lungs filled with fluid and death was inevitable.
O’Malley continued working as long as he could, long after “many a man would have been in his bed” in order to support his family. In October, the disease finally forced him to quit work. Mrs. O’Malley nursed her husband and took in laundry while the two older girls found jobs as servants in local homes and contributed their small incomes to the family’s support.
The amount the mother and daughters earned was not enough to pay for Mr. O’Malley’s medicine and the family’s food. Mrs. O’Malley, who “deprived herself of food to give it to her hungry and crying children, and grew so weak she could barely stand up.”
As winter approached, some money had to be spent for fuel, and they “frequently suffered with cold and hunger for days at a time.”
In mid-November when the oldest daughter became ill and could no longer work, the family’s situation became even worse. Mr. O’Malley died on Nov. 14, 1876. At that time, the Democrat generally printed only the obituaries of noted, well-to-do residents, and rarely even printed death notices of members of the working class.
The Democrat did, however, print a lengthy column detailing O’Malley’s death, using the emotion laden language of the era to elicit sympathy for the family. The paper pointed out that the O’Malley family was “so poor they could not even furnish a winding sheet” for their beloved husband and father.
The Democrat saw itself as something of a tool of social change, advocating for political candidates and civic improvements. In addition, the Democrat took charge of fundraising drives for a variety of causes, including charity for the poor.
When the family’s friends discovered the extent of the family’s poverty, they began a campaign to raise money to help them. Martin Riley solicited donations, and within an hour had accumulated $24.25, the equivalent of between two and three weeks’ wages.
The Democrat printed a list of those who contributed and the amounts they gave in order to encourage other to give and perhaps to shame those who hadn’t yet contributed. Donors included several prominent businessmen such as saloon owner Patrick McEnroe, attorney U. F. Short, contractor Ed Hurley, banker C. M. Chaney, merchants Vitt and Meyers, saddle maker Herman Schmidt, James Glass, Thomas Quinn, Mr. Ready, William Moore, P. Mead, and the Democrat office.
The Democrat assured readers that more donations would be solicited and that the list of donors would be printed again in Sunday’s paper. The Democrat followed this statement with the assurance that “a donation could not be more worthily bestowed.”