June 13th, 2009
08:17 AM ET

Dear President Obama #145: Rabies and the family tree

Reporter's Note: I am writing a letter every day to the White House. I started on Inauguration Day and have not missed a one since. Probably I could be helped with some sort of medication.

[cnn-photo-caption image=http://i2.cdn.turner.com/cnn/2009/HEALTH/03/12/angola.rabies/art3.irin.angola.jpg caption="Rabies is a disease transmitted from animals with infected saliva to humans. "]

Tom Foreman | Bio
AC360° Correspondent

Dear Mr. President,

I had a great, great uncle who died of rabies. Why I am telling this to you, I can’t even say, it’s just that the news today is not lighting me up and my mother and I had a fascinating talk on the phone about this old bit of family lore.

His name was William Perry Free, and he came from her side of the family. (BTW, he was the first William Perry Free. There was another one later on. Just for the record.) My dad’s side came from Chicago; hard core German-Irish. But my mom’s people came from the red dirt roads of the very Deep South, knowing little about their heritage, and not caring much about it for that matter, as they struggled to raise the three C’s: cane, corn, and cotton. My mother tells me stories now and then about dragging the long cotton sacks through the fields, her fingers bleeding from the sharp edges of the bolls.

In any event, no one knows how Great, Great Uncle William came to be infected, but it was certainly a great trauma to the whole community. Even I recall the near panic with which adults greeted even a hint of rabies in any animal when I was a child and we would visit Alabama. Bats, cats, dogs, raccoons, possums, and especially skunks and foxes were always viewed with a wary eye if they behaved oddly. The mere appearance of the nocturnal wild kin in broad daylight was enough to send someone scurrying for a shotgun. Remember the scene with the rabid dog in To Kill a Mockingbird? The author, Harper Lee, grew up just thirty miles from my mother and around the same time. She still lives there, as a point of interest.

Anyway, rabies was one of the most horrifying scourges of the countryside back when this ancient uncle died. I don’t know the year, but I suppose it was sometime in the decades following the Civil War. We do know his wife had passed away before him, and he had two young daughters. He was only 39. At this point, the story gets particularly murky, and spins off into an area that my mom and I agree must be viewed with a degree of skepticism. As a little girl, she was often told the story of a man who died of rabies, and in retrospect she thinks it is possible that she was being told the story of this great uncle.

But what a story. Back then everyone knew rabies could produce mania in human beings, and they feared it would turn even a reasonable soul into a violent madman capable of infecting anyone he touched. So as the tale goes, this uncle chained himself to a tree and ordered the entire family to stay away as he descended into insanity, to let him die there, and to free him only after he had breathed his last. My mother was never given any more details about what actually happened. All we know for sure is that this uncle really did die of rabies, and she really was told this story when she was young. She also knows her grandfather wound up raising the two daughters as his own.

The tale is extraordinary enough to make us suspect that it may be traced to some kind of old folklore or a long forgotten book, not our family’s history at all. It brings to mind the whole notion of werewolves, for example, and the idea that a character in some dusty old story might have chained himself to a tree when the moon was rising fat and yellow over the darkening woods.

Still, it’s a heck of a story.

Hope your weekend is going well. Call if you care to chat.



Find more of the Foreman Letters, here.

soundoff (One Response)
  1. paula golato

    I just love your daily letters. I look forward to reading each new one. The letters seem to speak for the common man in all of us. Please keep them coming.

    June 13, 2009 at 10:27 am |