How Two Nashville Families Coped with a Dreaded Illness

Two Tennessee families share a unique history of a property and family connection along with an oral history about how they coped during a diphtheria outbreak in Nashville, Tennessee during the mid-1880s.  Travellers Rest, home of the Overton family was built in 1799 while Glen Leven, home of the Thompson family was built in 1857; their properties abutted each other with Franklin Pike as the main road south of Nashville running through the acreage of both farms.

John M. Thompson, son of John and Mary Thompson, first courted Martha Overton, daughter of John and Harriet Overton.  But after Martha refused to marry him, he then married her younger sister, Mary McConnell White Overton, known as Con.  They had 5 children – Mary, Conn, Harriet, John, and Overton.

During the mid-1880s there had been many deaths in Nashville due to diphtheria, which is a highly contagious bacterial infection spread through respiratory droplets.  It claimed the life of young Harriet on February 27, 1886 at the age of 5 years and 7 days as noted in the Thompson family Bible.  Harriet’s father was her primary care giver during her sickness and after the funeral, held in the parlor at Glen Leven, John in his desperation to protect the family from also succumbing to the disease moved the family to Travellers Rest for a year’s duration.  During this time, he set about “purifying” the home.  Formaldehyde candles were burned, and the house sealed up for a week.  All the carpets, draperies, and bedding were scrubbed and sunned.  Fearing the kitchen held germs a new one was built on the rear of the house along with the addition of a bathroom.  Wallpaper was removed in the front entry hall along with woodwork in the north side rooms and replaced with Eastlake style trim.

During the years’ time the Thompson family lived with their Overton relatives at Travellers Rest no one contracted the disease, but soon after the family returned to Glen Leven Mary came down with the same illness that killed her sister.  John wondered if he did not do enough to purify the house, but the doctor indicated the carrier of the illness could have been the family cat or some of the areas that may not have been thoroughly cleaned.  Mary had damage to her heart but did recover and lived another 80 years.

This story of two families is very relatable to what our current society is experiencing with the COVID-19 pandemic and how best to protect your family.  Today much more is known about how germs, viruses, and diseases are spread than in the 1880s and we know to “safe at home” is more advisable than to move to a relative’s home.  As scientists and medical professionals are constantly learning how best to contain the spread of infection, it will be interesting to see what will be written in medical/scientific journals and passed down through family stories about our current times a hundred years from now in the 2120s.  For more info visit and

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