The Accidental Doctor

A simple reason so many of my posts relate to my mother’s side of the family is that many of her ancestors came over during colonial times. All arrived before the Civil War. On my father’s side of the family, the DeBackers did not come over from Belgium until 1883. So it pleases me to say that, for once, I have found something regarding my great grandfather, Dr. August Vital Francois Joseph DeBacker of Renaix (Ronse), Oost-Vlaanderen, Belgium.

I recently renewed my subscription to after having allowed it to lapse for a year. It was something that I had not planned on doing because I think its service is overpriced. But recently, a couple of cousins have contacted me with questions that piqued my curiosity. Although I have free access to the library edition of through my local library, that did not allow me access to their newspaper archives. The paid subscription to gave me access to two newspapers of familial import, the Marietta Journal and the St. Mary’s Star.

Marietta is a town northwest of Atlanta, and St. Mary’s is a small town in the north of Kansas. It is in St. Mary’s that my great-great-grandparents, Vital & Hortence DeBacker, and eight children ranging in age from five to twenty, arrived in October 1883 and immediately settled there.

Dr. Aug. DeBacker

What I did not know about my great-grandfather is that within only a few months after arriving in the country, August and another man went into the grocery business in the town of St. Mary’s, and things, shall I say, did not end well.

I went to the newspaper archives from, and I searched for “DeBacker,” specifically narrowing my search to only Kansas. And as a result, I received back several hundred hits spanning from the early 1880s down to the current decade. But what struck me was that for just the year of 1884 alone, there were over 40 hits, 39 of which were in the town of St. Mary’s.

Sorted by date ascending, the first entry was from page 3 of the St. Mary’s star for Thursday, June 19, 1884. The item reads: “Messieurs Antoine Mueller and August DeBacker are fitting up the Blackman building, and will in the course of a week put in a stock of groceries, queensware, etc. they are enterprising gentlemen and will be a credible addition to the already number of business houses in this city.”

So, it seems that at the age of twenty-one, my great-grandfather and a fellow Belgian went into the grocery business in the tiny village of St. Mary’s, Kansas. What happened next would have made for a memorable episode of the “Little House on the Prairie.”

The plot of the episode would go something like this… Two handsome young men with Frenchie accents arrive in town from Belgium and set to work to build up a grocery store in a two-story brick-building right next door to the town’s newspaper office.

Pretty soon, the business is booming, and Burma-Shave style adverts like the following appear in the local paper.

And then, when business got really good, the ads in the St. Mary’s Star were larger.

Then midway through the story, there is a terrible life-changing accident. The entire town catches on fire and burns to the ground. Well, half the town, that is.

Here’s the headline from the St. Mary’s Star, Thursday, December 18, 1884. Evidently, this is not the first time the town has experienced a major fire. The main headline reads “AGAIN!”

Here’s the headline from the largest newspaper in the state, the Daily Commonwealth (Topeka, Kansas), Sunday, December 14, 1884, page 1

Here’s the text from the account published in the St. Mary’s Star on December 18, 1884. I have highlighted portions of the text:

“For the second time in the brief space of two months, it is our unwelcome duty to chronicle the fearful ravages of the fire fiend within our little city. And in this instance, the narration is saddened and its horrors are intensified tenfold by the fact that human life was sacrificed-emotionally aided, as it were, upon the altar of chivalrous, self-abnegation, generous-hearted friendship.

“The startling cry Fire! was first sounded at 12 o’clock last Friday night, and scores of earnest, willing workers were soon doing all in their power to check and subdue the now fiercely raging flames. That but little headway could be made in this direction is not a matter of surprise when we consider the rapid spread of the flames and the totally inadequate facilities possessed by our city for contending with such an emergency, and it was only by the tearing down and removal of a frame building on the west that the progress of the flames in that direction was checked and on the east and open space between the buildings made it possible for the earnest workers to gain the ascendancy. [According to another account, the town of St Mary’s did not have a fire department .]

“The flames having been brought under control and the tired people at liberty to gaze upon the ruin rot, and mentally compute the damage done, the natural query arose as to the origin of the fire.

Careful investigation proved beyond a doubt that it commenced in the rear part of Mueller and DeBacker’s grocery store, in an apartment used as a sleeping room. The fact that a lighted lamp was left in the room during the absence of the proprietors, gives color to the theory of an explosion, advanced by some, and which is correct; be this as it may.

“The first intimation of danger was received by the family of Mr. Urbansky, who occupied apartments in the adjoining building, and who noticed that the rooms were fast filling with smoke; steps were taken at once to locate the cause, and an alarm was given Mr. J Hammer who occupied rooms on the same block had not yet retired and was the first to respond to the call and was shortly joined by Mr. Westgate a compositor employed upon the STAR, and who was sleeping in the office, directly above the grocery store, and had been awakened and nearly smothered by the dense clouds of smoke that penetrated to that apartment.

“At this time a faint light could be discerned in the rear part of the storeroom, but as the room was seen to be filled with smoke it was decided to break open the door, which was accordingly done, and no sooner had the air been admitted than the previously smothered flames burst out with hauling fierceness and the whole rear end of the store was seen to be enveloped in the fiery element, which quickly communicated to an oil tank nearby, and instantly the whole interior of the building was a seething furnace, while volumes of flame poured from the doors and windows seized upon the adjoining buildings, which upon each side of the stone buildings occupied by Mueller & DeBacker and A Urbansky were of wood and burned like tinder.

“While the excitement was at its height, and brave and tireless workers were making superhuman efforts to subdue the flames and rescue property from its devouring grass, a fearful explosion occurred in the store in which the fire originated and the whole front came crashing to the ground.

“Covered from sight in the debris was the bravest worker of them all – honest generous and kindhearted Alva Higbee! A man over whose head near three score years and 10 had passed leaving times traces upon face and form, but failing to quench the ever-flowing spring of sympathy, kindly deeds, and words of cheer that ever flowed from his noble heart. The unfortunate man was not seen to be entering the building just prior to the explosion, and no thought of his fearful faith was entertained until inquiries were made as to his whereabouts and diligent search throughout the city failed to give any trace; and then sadly, the conclusion was forced upon all that he had met his terrible fate death in the discharge of a self-imposed, unselfish duty; this suspicion became a certainty when, on Sunday morning, other articles known to belong to him were found in the debris caused by the explosion. [Another newspaper account states that the other article found was the man’s knife.]

“But slight traces of the body were discovered, a few charred and crumbling bones alone escaping complete incineration. The heart-rending occurrence has caused a gloom to over-spread the community that mere pecuniary loss, however great, could never bring. The property losses are distributed as follows:

A Urbansky on building and stock $40,000, insurance, 16,500;
Mueller and DeBacker on stock $3090, insurance $26,000;
Mr. Blackmun $2000 on the building; insured;
John O Flanagan on Star office $1500, no insurance;
Mr. Palmer $800, no insurance;
Mr. Hammer $800 no insurance;
Mr. Gambler, $50;
HC Lynn $500 no insurance;
B Sheridan on stock $800, insured;
Jay Wood damage on building $200; express office damage in moving $50; insured.”

So what happened next? From all of the newspaper accounts, it seems that Mueller and DeBacker were well insured; however, it appears that Mueller and DeBacker groceries went out of business because the last ad printed in the St. Mary Star appeared on January 15, 1885. That ad may have already been paid for.

The text of August’s obituary from the June 23 1921 edition of the St. Mary Star, then published by his brother-in-law, W E Miller, will tell the rest of the story:

“The community was shocked and saddened Wednesday afternoon to learn that Dr. August DeBacker, resident of St. Mary’s for over a quarter of a century had been found dead at his home as a result of a fatal stroke of apoplexy.

His family was visiting down on his farm in southern Kansas at the time and no one was home at the hour of his death. His body was found at about 1 o’clock yesterday afternoon, believed to be dead already several hours. His wife and children were telegram to once and arrived Wednesday night.

“Dr. DeBacker was 58 years old at the time of his death and was born in René, Belgium, on August 12, 1863, he came to this country and St. Mary’s at the age of 21 and later graduated from the school of medicine at Creighton University in Omaha. After short practices in Omaha and Earling Iowa, he has since practiced here for 22 years. Here he met and married his wife Miss Della Gaume at the Immaculate Conception Church. At an early age, he became known for his vocal talents and sang tenor at the Royal Conservatory of Brussels for some time. For over a score of years he has been the leading tenor and director in the Immaculate Conception Church choir here. At the time of his death, the doctor taught French and biology at St. Mary’s College and was the college physician.

“He is survived by his sons, Victor, Frank, Felix, Vital, Dr. Leopold, Andrew, John, Gustav, Joseph, Albert, and daughter Marie. Theophile and another son [Camille] died in youth.

“Also by his wife; mother, Mrs. Hortence DeBacker, and sisters Mrs. Camille Pessemier, Mrs. WE Miller, and Miss. Vitalia DeBacker, as well as one brother, Achille DeBacker.

“Funeral services and high mass will occur Friday morning at 9 o’clock from the Immaculate Conception Church. Burial by Mount Calvary Cemetery. Six of his sons will serve as pallbearers.”

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