One of many victims of Spinal Meningitis in 1938 McDowell Co, WV 



Evelyn Stanley died at age eleven in McDowell Co, WV, one of many youngsters who died far too early from contagious diseases in the nation at that time.  Meningitis was in most cases fatal at that time, and still has a high mortality rate, but those who were and are survivors are left with disabilities in varying degrees of severity. 


Evelyn was the oldest child of Goldie May Boling and Robert Smith Stanley, born in Coalwood 3 Nov 1926 and died 7 Apr 1938 while living at Big Four.  She is buried at Norwood Cemetery at Kimball in an unmarked grave, the location of which I don’t know.  Her father, Bob, was born at the head of Coalwood Hollow to Bart Stanley and Mary Hicks.  Bart was the son of James Stanley and Amanda Harman, the great granddaughter of Mathias Harman, the Indian fighter of Harman Station fame.  Small and scrappy like her heritage, Evelyn was meek and mild as a lamb for the most part, with a charming and sweet personality whom the neighbors adored (2), but could change to a wildcat when defending her younger brother, Junior, (1) from bullies.   She loved jumping rope and would jump to 100 everyday, which concerned the neighbors that this might not be good for her.  They were quite involved with her life and were shocked and saddened at her sudden death.  She loved the typical little girl activities like dress up with a friend (3) and dolls (4), but she was also a tomboy and would participate in boy activities and could outdo any of them. 


1    2   3  4


After her death, all of Evelyn’s things were kept in a large truck that was like a free standing closet with shelves and drawers and a rod for hanging clothes.  Every Memorial Day, the trunk was opened and the wonderful treasures taken out while my parents told stories about this special person in their hearts.  I was born six years after Evelyn died, but I grew up knowing her as a part of our family.   I still have many of Evelyn’s treasures and they have a special significance for me since all of my nuclear family has now joined her. 




I made a trip to WV in May, 2006 specifically to find out where Evelyn is buried.  I did find an article at the Cultural Center State Archives Library in Charleston from the McDowell Recorder which gave me a wealth of information that I did not know and has lent closure to the questions in my mind about where she is buried.   



McDowell Recorder 13 Apr 1938 (This newspaper is available on microfilm beginning with its inception in 1911at the Cultural Center State Records Archives at the Capitol Complex in Charleston, WV)


Meningitis Claims Big Four Student


Eleven - Year - Old Evelyn Stanley Dies Thursday Afternoon 


Evelyn Stanley, 11-year-old daughter of Mr & Mrs Robert Stanley, of Big Four, died at a local hospital Thursday afternoon of spinal meningitis. 

She became ill about 9 o'clock Thursday morning and was immediately taken to a local hospital.  Death came shortly after one o'clock. 

The Stanley family has been placed under a 15-day quarantine by doctor J. A. Bennett, McDowell Co health officer. 

Evelyn was born on Sep [sic] 3, 1926 at Coalwood.  She moved to Kimball with her family several years ago and lived in Kimball until last year when the Stanleys moved to Big Four.

She was a pupil in the Big Four School. 

Funeral services were held Saturday afternoon at 2:30 o'clock at the Kimball Methodist Church with the Rev Byrd officiating.  Burial followed at the Norwood Cemetery. 

The Ashworth Funeral home had charge of the body. 


I took some creative license in making Evelyn a virtual headstone and pathway leading to Norwood Cemetery.  The statue of Christ is from a photo I took at Payne Cemetery at Bradshaw.  The stone path leading up the hill is pieces I cut and pasted from a picture I took of the store steps at # 6 Coalwood; no doubt used by my grandfather Bart Stanley and others from long ago.  The basic picture without the additions is a picture I took of the enchanted looking path leading up to Norwood Cemetery in Kimball, McDowell Co, WV, which I was unable to access because of high weeds and brush.   


Meningitis in McDowell Co 1938 


I used the death record images on the Cultural Center website at http://www.wvculture.org/vrr/va_select.aspx  and found there were 884 total deaths in McDowell Co in 1938.  I was interested to see the relationship of spinal meningitis specifically, and contagious diseases in general, to the total deaths.   My limited findings were fascinating.  This represents only one county in one year and does not give an accurate depiction of the misery so many families went through due to contagious diseases, because it only looks at the cases that resulted in death.   I might add, this was an amateur exercise in curiously, and by no means should be considered as anything more than that. 


McDowell Co, WV 1938


January, 1938


96 Total Deaths    59 Adults Not Meningitis Related     37 Children Not Meningitis Related  


One child was listed as a possible meningitis death and was counted only in total children’s deaths. 

One child died from rheumatic fever, two from whooping cough, and one from scarlet fever.  January deaths represent approx 10% of total 1938 deaths.


February, 1938


66 Total Deaths   41 Adults Not Meningitis Related   20 Children Not Meningitis Related 


There was one adult and four children who died from Spinal Meningitis in 1938 McDowell Co, about 7% for that month relative to total deaths for that year.  The one adult was Black.  The children were all White ranging in age from eleven months to five years.   One death was listed as ‘epidemic meningitis’ which may be a reflection of circumstances prior to that particular month and/or year.   Since the CDC considers 10% of the general population in a given area significant enough to be deemed an epidemic, one could not say spinal meningitis was in epidemic proportions in the month of February in 1938 McDowell Co.  It is possible, but unlikely, there was a large meningitis survival rate which could have determined whether it was an epidemic or not.   


March, 1938 


115 Total Deaths   Adults 73 Not Meningitis Related    Children 40 Not Meningitis Related   


There were two adults and no children who died from spinal meningitis in March.  Of the two adults who died, one was a Black orderly at the hospital in Welch and the other was race unknown; she was merely listed as American.  They represent about 1% of the total deaths for March.  March deaths represented about 13 % of total deaths for the year.  


April, 1938 


76 Total Deaths   50 Adults Not Meningitis Related   23 Children Not Meningitis Related   


Two adults died from spinal meningitis in April as well as one child (my sister, Evelyn).   April deaths represented about 8% of total deaths.  Deaths from spinal meningitis represented less than 1%. 


May, 1938


68 Total Deaths    36 Adults Not Meningitis Related    30 Children Not Meningitis Related   


There were two deaths from spinal meningitis, both children, one White, one Black, four and 11 years old respectively.  One child died from whooping cough.  Total May deaths represented 7% of deaths for 1938.  Meningitis deaths were less than 1%.  


June, 1938


45 Total Deaths   25 Adults Not meningitis Related   18 Children Not Meningitis Related


There were two meningitis deaths in June, one adult, a Black man who also had tuberculosis and syphilis, and a white child, age 19 who was still in school.  A person that age listed as a child and a school boy could have been for a number of interesting reasons in daily mountain life at that time.  One may note the death numbers are down from previous months.  This probably had something to do with living conditions being less rigorous in warmer months than it was in colder months.  My mother was extremely clean, but it was difficult to have enough water to drink, cook, wash dishes and clothes, and bath in, much less have available water from a frozen spring to scrub wooden plank floors with lye soap.  Those folks had a hard life.  I can remember my mother melting chunks of ice in a wash tub on a coal stove, and carrying in Daddy’s bank clothes from the clothes line that he wore in the coal mines and they would be frozen stiff.  June deaths represented 5% of the year’s total, and meningitis deaths were a mere fraction of 1%.   I saw four diseases in June represented for the first time in the year:  Measles, Tetanus, Typhoid Fever, and Rickets.  There were also an inordinate number of deaths by being hit by trains this month.  


July, 1938  


62 Total Deaths    36 Adults Not Meningitis Related    26 Children Not Meningitis Related 


There were no meningitis related deaths in July.  There was one death from Diphtheria.  The total number of deaths represents about 7% of the deaths for the year.  


August, 1938


64 Total Deaths   36 Adults Not meningitis Related   26 Children Not Meningitis Related  


There were two meningitis deaths in August, one White and one Black, ages 11 months and four years respectively.  


September, 1938 


69 Total Deaths   37 Adults Not Meningitis Related   32 Children Not Meningitis Related 


There were no deaths from meningitis in September.  There was one death from scarlet fever and two from rickets.  The total deaths that month were just under 8% of the yearly total of 884.   


October, 1938


64 Total Deaths   42 Adults Not Meningitis Related   22 Children Not Meningitis Related 


There were no deaths from Spinal Meningitis in the month of October.  There was a very large number of mining accident deaths, mostly from slate falls.  October’s deaths were approximately 6% of the deaths for the year.  


November, 1938


60 Total Deaths   42 Adults Not Meningitis Related   18 Children Not Meningitis Related


There were no deaths from spinal meningitis in November.  Two children died from childhood diseases of the time; one death from whooping cough and one from diphtheria.  One child died from rheumatic fever.  The deaths for November were just over 6% of the year’s total.    


December, 1938 


81 Total Deaths    52 Adults Not Meningitis Related   26 Children Not Meningitis Related 


There were three deaths from meningitis in December; one adult and two children, two of whom had either tuberculosis or pneumonia.   There were three deaths from diphtheria, one death from typhoid fever, and one death from rheumatic fever.  December deaths were approximately 9% of the year’s total. 




Many deaths, especially in children, were due to malnutrition and flu, along with premature births which were numerous and a window on the health of the mothers.  Most adult deaths from illness and disease were due to pneumonia and tuberculosis.  Most accidental deaths were due to mining accidents and gun shot wounds, with deaths from drowning, burns, and falls also being relatively high in number compared to the totals.  Many of the deaths caused by illness and disease were probably due to the living conditions of that time and lack of medical care, as well as malnutrition which was listed as a secondary cause on many death records.  I can personally remember drafts coming in through walls, ceilings and floors of coal camp company houses that we lived in when I was a child growing up in McDowell Co.  Our walls were covered with tattered, faded floral wall paper, newsprint, and pictures of Jesus and FDR. 


In searching through the death record images for victims of spinal meningitis, I was surprised to see three young children had died from syphilis, no doubt born with it from the mother.  There was, what seems to me, to be a large number of adult deaths from this sexually transmitted disease considering the demographics of this relatively sparsely populated county.  There were a large number of deaths due to coal mining accidents which one would expect, and an equally large number of gun shot wounds, which one would not expect.  There were deaths from mining accidents, mostly slate falls, in every month.   The most intriguing record was a hitchhiker from Idaho who died from spinal meningitis in McDowell Co, WV; however, he seems to have contracted it locally instead of bringing it into the community.    


I may have made mistakes, and probably did. This was not a scientific study; just a curious fellow researcher interested in the impact of contagious diseases in rural Appalachia early in the century and their impact on family history.   My interest lay in one child, in one county, in one year, but overall I learned some fascinating facts surrounding the causes of death in the residents of McDowell Co that one could extrapolate into the daily life in general of the people who lived and died there in 1938.   


Evelyn’s Family 



1.     2.     3.      

    Bob & Goldie Stanley        Robert Stanley “Junior”        Eleanor Stanley “Tiny”



  1.  Bob Stanley was b. 12 Jan 1906 in McDowell Co and died 9 Apr 1976 in Raleigh Co, WV.  Goldie May Boling Stanley was born 28 Nov 1909 in Johnson Co, KY and died 13 Oct 1980 in Benton Co, WA.   Picture # 1 was taken at the Junkyard at Big Four in November, 1944 because I had just been born and it was too cold to bring me outside so my Mom wrapped up a doll for the picture. 
  2.  Bob Stanley JR, “Junior”, was born 5 Apr 1929 in McDowell Co and died Nov, 1985 in Benton Co, WA.  Junior spent his 16th birthday in boot camp at Great Lakes, IL and was then stationed in Pasco, WA where he married a girl and settled here locally.    
  3. Eleanor Irene Stanley “Tiny” was born 26 Aug 1938 in McDowell Co and died Christmas Day, 2000 in Benton Co, WA.  Picture # 3 was taken at the Junkyard at Big Four where the Wal-Mart store is now located.  The junk cars were lined up along the top of the bank by the river where the edge of the parking lot now ends by the guard rail.  My mother was probably standing on the porch of the house we lived in when she took the picture of Tiny.   


… and me in May, 2006 at the Big Creek Cemetery in McDowell Co where my Dad is buried.



christine stanley hayes

b. 23 Nov 1944, Kimball, WV 






McDowell County