For some ancestors tucked away in the pages of our genealogical notebooks, the details on them are scant. They are reduced to a name, a few lines of dates, and perhaps a photo or two (only if we are lucky!). And yet, to a careful eye, it is amazing how empathetic we can still become to these elusive figures and to the loved ones they left behind.
I’ve spent the last few days digging around for details on the life of Howard Bagnall, a boy who could have been a great-great uncle I may have possibly known in my lifetime, had he not succumbed to a tragic turn of events at the tender age of 16.
John Howard Bagnall was born the year after my Nana (my great grandmother), a woman I grew up having in my life until I was twelve (she, like the majority of her 12 siblings, lived a long life and died at the age of 94). Nana–(Mary) Blanche Bagnall–was born in 1901, which always made it easy to keep track of her age, even for a young person like me (I needed only to subtract one from whatever year it currently was). Her younger brother, John Howard (or simply Howard, as he was known to his family), was born the year after her, on August 27, 1902. The second last of twelve siblings, I imagine he was a baby surrounded by love, and liveliness, and guardians looking out for him at every corner (surely it would be both a blessing and a curse to be the baby boy to eleven older siblings!). The pages of history don’t tell me much about this boy, and the bit of information that I do know comes to me passed down the generations from my Nana to my grandmother to me; historical dates I’ve been finding out serve to back up the tales.
Apparently, Howard, along with his father George, suffered badly from asthma. After having some health troubles in their home in Hazel Grove, Prince Edward Island, they had heard or been told that perhaps a change in climate and location would help their health to improve. Since the two oldest Bagnall sons (Louis and Cantello) had already made a move out to Alberta for work, Edmonton seemed like a likely place to relocate. And so, the remaining twelve family members made the long train journey from Prince Edward Island out to Edmonton, Alberta, coming in two waves. Howard and his baby sister Hilda came out first, with their parents, George and Margaret. Soon after, the rest of the siblings who still lived at home came on out, chaperoned by Grandfather MacMillan. I am still trying to pinpoint an exact date for when they made the move, but, to be sure, it was between 1911 and 1916 as can be inferred from the location change in the census records for those years.
Regardless, the family settled in blossoming Edmonton, Alberta on 95 street and 106 avenue, in the heart of downtown. Howard’s sister, Uldene, recounts in her memoirs that she remembers wandering the streets of their new city, exploring their strange new surroundings and fearing getting lost in such a big city. She also pleasantly recalls memories of skating outdoors in the winter to live band music in the park.
Then the years of war hit, and several of the older Bagnall brothers are conscripted under the Military Service Act of 1917. Although no memories have been specifically recorded about this period, no doubt these must have been times of tension, or fear, or economic stress. And yet, even through moving across numerous provinces and surviving a hard period of war, the Bagnalls could never have known that the most stressful and taxing and tragic event loomed just beyond this, in 1918.
As 1918 drew to a close and the relief from war was just around the corner, the unforeseeable happened when the Spanish Influenza–a worldwide pandemic–hit Edmonton, Alberta in October. EdmontonJournal.com recalls: “During the last two weeks of October , 337 patients were treated in city hospitals and 1,926 others treated at home. Twelve people had died by Oct. 26. Between October 1918 and May 1919, more than 600 people in Edmonton died of influenza and its complications.” (view an eye-opening account of the full events in this online article). Canada.com also shares an article relating other gruesome events from this period in Edmonton’s past–of an undertaker so overwhelmed by bodies that he had to keep 54 of them stacked in his personal stable, of the heroic doctors and nurses that fell ill and died after caring for the sick, and of the mass public fear and quarantine (read more in “A deadly path tore through the city” at canada.com).
In an aggressive move, Edmonton shut down the majority of the city’s public places, hoping to contain the plague-like outbreak. They issued mandates for citizens to wear self-constructed masks (made from household gauze or even cheesecloth) whenever they left the house, and signs were posted all over the city illustrating how to make a homemade mask. Unfortunately, in a time before vaccinations or even antibiotics, there was no stopping the deadly virus, and it would over half a year for it to fully run its course. By that time, in May of 1919, it had killed off over 1% and infected over 10% of the fledgling city’s 60,000 citizens, affecting primarily those who were young and fit and strong. Considering what it could do to even a strong, healthy twenty year old, it was no surprise that the virus also preyed on the vulnerable; in my family’s tragic case, it claimed the life of vibrant, sixteen year old Howard, the asthmatic that had, only a few short years before, uprooted his whole life to come to Alberta seeking a better quality of life and health.
As if this bit of cruel irony weren’t painful enough, I recently tracked down Howard’s precise death date, along with a stark headstone to serve as a visual reminder of it; Howard died on December 26, 1918. On the first Christmas Day since the war had ended and families should have been reunited by homecomings and hope for a brighter future, this tiny genealogical record weighs me down by the cruel reality my Nana must have faced that bleak Christmas. At age seventeen, she most likely sat at her younger brother’s bedside with a heavy heart, possibly even sick with flu herself, instead of rejoicing in presents and carols and festive meals as should have been the case. Twenty four hours later, this tender boy that brought the entire family out to their new home in Alberta, would be snatched from them painfully early.
To date, I’ve not located an obituary or funeral announcement for Howard’s death. From the articles I’ve read, it’s evident that some families waited days, or even weeks, to bury their dead. Funerals were held around the clock, at all hours of the day and night, just to accommodate the huge strain from the pandemic. I contacted Mount Pleasant cemetery in Edmonton, where Howard is buried, and they said their records do not indicate an exact burial date but that the date of January 1, 1919 indicates the likely date for when the grave marker was made or placed.
I often think about this young boy, a kindly-faced lad who brought his family west, and–in an indirect sort of way–is the very reason my Nana was able to meet her husband here in this same city, and ultimately why I am here today, as well. For years I’ve commuted to work down Edmonton’s 97th street, whizzing by 106th avenue daily, all this time only two blocks away from where my great-grandmother grew up, made memories, and gave her young brother a final kiss. It more than tugs at the heartstrings.
This spring, when the snow thaws, I plan to visit Howard’s grave at Mount Pleasant–not so far from my current home, in fact–and lay some flowers down beside him, a full 95 years after he himself was laid to rest. He may never have married, nor had children of his own, but I still remember him.