A Fatal Scratch: The Death of a Pioneer Woman

Anna_Margaretha_Poesch_Thoma_Obituary“After almost a week of extreme suffering, caused from blood poisoning, Mrs. Margaretha Thoma, one of Garnavillo’s oldest residents, passed away at 4:00 o’clock last Saturday afternoon. About two weeks ago the lady accidentally scratched the back of one of her hands with a pin. The scratch at the time was a mere trifle and was given no further thought by her until a few days after when the hand began to swell and cause more or less pain. A physician was called and found it necessary to lance the hand, but desired results did not follow and twice later the lance was employed, and still no relief came to her sufferings, but instead the wound continued to grow worse and the swelling commenced extending into the arm. Everything possible was done to allay the pain and comfort her in her unendurable suffering, but nothing could be administered that would combat with the situation and the result was death came as a relief after nearly a week of incessant torture.”1

Anna Margaretha (Poesch) Thoma was born in Weißenstadt, Wunsiedel, Bavaria, the daughter of Wolfgang and Barbara Poesch.2 She came to Iowa with her family at a young age, and was later deemed “one of the venerable and loved pioneer women of Clayton County.”3 Margaretha married William Henry Thoma, a local merchant, in 1857, when she was still in her teens.4 They had eleven children before his death in 1876; Margaretha never remarried, and in fact continued to operate his mercantile in the years following his death.5 Perhaps it was this role in her community that brought her the recognition to be remembered so fondly in the years following her death from blood poisoning on 9 November 1907.6

Margaretha’s unfortunate plight might remind some of Caroline Ingalls’ encounter with a rusty nail in a particularly drama-filled episode of Little House on the Prairie. Indeed, albeit tragically, little could have been done to relieve Margaretha’s suffering at this time and place. Her age, estimated at near seventy, might also have contributed to her susceptibility to infection, whether she in fact suffered from sepsis or tetanus. Although not soon enough for Margaretha, it would be just a matter of time before the use of penicillin – and the tetanus vaccine – would become widespread. 

Copyright © 2015 Melanie Frick. All Rights Reserved.


SOURCES

1 “Garnavillo Lady Dead,” Guttenberg [Iowa] Press, 15 November 1907, p. 1, col. 1; digital image, A Digital Archive of Guttenberg Public Library (http://www.guttenberg.advantage-preservation.com : accessed 25 January 2014).
2 “New Orleans, Passenger Lists, 1813-1945” digital images, Ancestry.com (http://www.ancestry.com : accessed 25 February 2015), manifest, Heinrich Von Gagern, Bremen, Germany to New Orleans, arriving 27 April 1854, Margaretha Polch; citing National Archives microfilm M259, roll 39.
3 Rialto E. Price, “Christ Thoma,” History of Clayton County, Iowa: From the Earliest Historical Times Down to the Present, Volume II (Chicago: Robert O. Law Company, 1916), p. 406-7.
4 “Iowa, County Marriages, 1838-1934,” index, FamilySearch (https://familysearch.org : accessed 25 February 2015), Wm. H. Thoma and Margeret Porsch, 28 May 1857; citing Clayton County Courthouse, Elkader.
5 “Local and Other Matters,” The Postville (Iowa) Review, 9 August 1876, p. 1, col. 2; digital images, Newspaper Archive (http://www.newspaperarchive.com : accessed 16 April 2014), and 1880 U.S. census, Clayton County, Iowa, population schedule, Garnavillo, Enumeration District (ED) 133, p. 21 (penned), dwelling 178, family 188, Margaretta Thoma; digital image, Ancestry.com (http://www.ancestry.com : accessed 16 April 2014), citing National Archives microfilm T9, roll 333.
6 “Iowa, Deaths and Burials, 1850-1990,” index, FamilySearch (https://familysearch.org : accessed 25 February 2015), Margaretha Thoma, 09 November 1907.

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