Chalfant: Cold weather made poor’s problems worse
December 1901 brought a cold wave to the West and Midwest. The Sedalia Democrat reported on the storm’s intensity, noting that a “terrific blizzard raging” through southern Wyoming delayed trains for up to five hours. Western Nebraska and the Black Hills of South Dakota reported six inches of snow and high winds.
Temperatures reached record lows, with Lisbon, N.D., recording 33 degrees below zero. The cold came on suddenly. In Fergus Falls, Minn., the temperature dropped 50 degrees, from 25 above zero to 25 below zero, in 15 hours.
Sedalia was also hit by the storm. Dr. H.C. Evans’ official government thermometer showed 10 degrees below zero at 7:30 the morning of Dec. 15. Other thermometers in Sedalia recorded temperatures ranging from 8 to 12 degrees below zero.
The suddenness of the storm caught many Sedalians unprepared. By noon, 50 poor people had appealed for help to Mrs. E.A. Coe, secretary of the city’s Associated Board of Charities. Most of those applying for assistance were African Americans.
Coe was able to fill all of those requests for aid, as well as those that came in later in the day. Early in the fall, the city had accumulated a large supply of firewood and coal for distribution to the poor in anticipation of a sudden cold snap. Coe reported that she desperately needed warm clothing and shoes to distribute.
The hoboes who hitched rides on the trains and slept in the train yard had been provided with warm beds in the city jail, “the ‘Wandering Willies’ being unable to put in the night in a box car with a brick for a pillow and a newspaper for a covering.”
A Democrat reporter interviewed Coe, who noted that “no cases of appalling destitution had come under her observation.” She also pointed out that if aid from the city had not been available, “considerable suffering” would have occurred.
However, Coe was unaware of the extent of the destitution of one of those she helped until after a shocking report came from Dr. William S. Shirk on Dec. 20. Miss Davis, who had received a small amount of coal from Coe, was living in a “dilapidated old house” in the Lincolnville subdivision on Sedalia’s north side; the house, in which her mother had frozen to death four years earlier, had cracks in the walls “through which the wind continually whistles in zero weather.”
Dr. Shirk was called to Davis’ home and found that her 6-month-old baby daughter had frozen to death during the previous night. Davis and the baby had been sleeping on the floor of the house with only thin blankets. She had traded her bed for a peck of potatoes to keep from starving.
Dr. Shirk and Coe had Davis admitted to City Hospital in a “precarious condition,” suffering from frostbite so severe that her legs would probably have to be amputated.
Davis was well-known to most Sedalians so Coe’s lack of awareness of her condition is surprising. Davis was developmentally disabled, and had been taken advantage of by one or more “scoundrels” who had fathered two illegitimate children, a 5-year-old boy and the baby girl. During the summer, she walked frequently on Ohio Avenue, pushing the baby in a carriage.
Davis had lived at the county poor farm south of Sedalia for a brief time in 1899, but had been kicked out because the manager of the farm said she was “lazy.” The poor farm at that time was operated by a manager who submitted a bid for its operation to the county; the county commissioners awarded the contract for its management to the lowest bid. Grand juries in the 1890s regularly commented on the inadequacy of the accommodations and food provided for the inmates there.
One white woman had befriended Davis and had pled that she be allowed to return to the poor farm. Judge Harris refused to send her there, echoing the farm manager’s belief that she was lazy and refused to work. The woman pointed out that Davis was disabled and should have been admitted either to an asylum or the poor farm months before.
The Democrat did not report on what eventually happened to Davis. Her case is evident of the degree of poverty in which some Sedalians lived, and the inadequacy of system for helping those who could not help themselves.
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