fall of 1895 had been unusually wet and cold, conditions conducive
to "catching your death."
With no vaccines or pharmaceuticals to prevent or mitigate a viral
infection, anyone who came down with the flu basically had only their
immune system to rely on. That and a strong dose of luck.
A hardworking Navarro
County farmer who didn't have much to show for his efforts other
than a loving family and their modest household goods, fell ill with
influenza. The transplanted Tennessean, a practical, frugal man, tried
to shake it off on his own, but his condition continued to worsen.
After several days, his worried wife sent word to Corsicana
that her husband needed a doctor.
The good doctor managed to make it over muddy roads to the man's farm
and hastened inside the house to examine the patient. Alas, it did
not look good for the ailing farmer. Outside the patient's presence,
the physician quietly conferred with the family. Likely, he told the
man's wife, the father of her children had only a day or so to live.
A considerate man, the doctor told the farmer's sons and their mother
that since there really wasn't anything else that could be done, there
would be no need for him to make a follow-up visit. That, he explained,
would save them $2, a not inconsiderable sum back then.
Their mother overwrought, the boys paid the doctor for that day's
house call and said they appreciated his gesture. But their father
was suffering. Was there anything the doctor could do to make the
old man's last hours more comfortable?
That the doctor could do. He scribbled down a narcotic-laden prescription
and handed it to one of the boys. If their father lived through the
night, he whispered, get this filled and give it to him. The medicine
wouldn't cure him, but it would at least make him feel better.
When their afflicted father indeed made it through the night, the
boys called a family meeting. No matter the washed-out bridges and
muddy roads, they would hitch the family's four mules to their farm
wagon and try to make it to Corsicana
to get the medicine for their father. Too, the family was just about
out of food. It would be a hard but desperately important trip.
With the bad weather persisting, it took them half a day, but the
boys finally made it to the county seat. They got the prescription
filled at a drug store on the square and bought groceries for the
family's larder. Before they left for what they knew would be an equally
arduous trip home, the boys had a somber discussion.
Given the difficulty of traveling from their farm to town, and with
the rain showing no sign of abating, the two sons made a hard decision.
Since the doctor had said they were about to lose their father, they
might as well go ahead and buy him a coffin. Surely, they thought,
if not delirious from fever their father would appreciate the practicality
of what they had decided to do.
On the other hand, they also realized that their mother still clung
to the hope that her husband would get better. So, not only would
showing up with a coffin leave their mother further distraught, it
certainly wouldn't do their father's morale any good. Assuming he
was still alive.
After a bit more discussion, they decided that they would get the
coffin but hide it in the barn before either of their parents had
a chance to see it.
By the time they succeeded in navigating the bog-like roads, it was
almost dark. Reaching their farm, the son handling the team slapped
the mules' flanks with the reins and raced them past the house to
the barn, fearful one of their parents might notice the coffin in
the wagon bed.
The fast-moving wagon made a fair amount of noise. Though still sick,
their father was still alert enough to realize something was up. The
boys oughtn't be running those mules like that. Peering out the window
adjacent to his sick bed, the farmer saw something long and black
sticking out from the back of the wagon. He knew what it was and he
didn't like it one darn bit.
When the boys came inside, he told them he wasn't about to die. After
upbraiding his sons for their costly and unneeded purchase, once he
calmed down the father demonstrated how the boys had come by their
pragmatic outlook on life. As long as you've bought it, he said between
coughs, we'll keep that coffin and use it as a food trough for the
Whether due to divine providence, the surge of adrenaline on seeing
his own coffin or plain ole country toughness, the farmer recovered
from the flu. And as soon as he was able, he attached four legs to
the coffin in the barn and used it to hold corn for the mules.
More than 20 years passed before the farmer did die. And when he did,
his sons had him buried in the former feed trough.