Select Page

Mary’s short life

She came into this world on an early spring day in what was then a tiny little town in northern Texas.

It was 111 years ago today that Mary Holley was born to Henry Dixon Holley and Nettie Hyburnia Cottrell, The Legal Genealogist‘s great aunt and her husband.

The population of the city of Iowa Park, Texas, as of the 1910 census was 603 people. Founded in 1888 as a railroad town, there wasn’t much else but the railroad until an oil boom just before 1920.1

So… a little tiny town when Mary was born.

She was Henry and Nettie’s first-born child — Nettie being the older sister of my maternal grandfather Clay Rex Cottrell — and the fourth of the known grandchildren of Clay’s parents, Martin Gilbert and Martha “Mattie” (Johnson) Cottrell.2

And it was likely clear from the moment she was born that there was something wrong.

Terribly wrong.

Mary Holley markerSo wrong that Mary left this world just six months and 26 days after she was born — on the third day of November 1907.3

She died, as she was born, in Iowa Park, and was buried at Riverside Cemetery in Wichita Falls where both of her parents were later buried.4

The disease that killed her was hydrocephalus — at that time effectively a death sentence from the moment she was born.5

Hydrocephalus — water on the brain — was a medical condition recorded in the medical literature as far back as ancient Egypt. Yet it remained “an intractable condition until the 20th century, when … treatment modalities were developed” but even today is “a lesser-known medical condition; relatively little research is conducted to improve treatment, and there is still no cure.”6

You can’t help but think of these first-time parents and what they went through in those months with their first-born child. Oh, she was under the care of a doctor — her death was recorded by J.M. Bell, a Tennessee born graduate of the St. Louis College of Physicians and Surgeons7 — but there was so little that a doctor there on what was essentially the frontier could do for a child like Mary.

Between 1898 and 1925, treatments were being developed but they had “a very high operative mortality and were seldom successful in the long term.” It wasn’t until roughly 1960 that a combination treatment was finally developed that offered real hope to children born with this condition.8

So even with a fully-trained doctor in attendance, there was so little that could be done. Henry and Nettie would have watched Mary fail and fade along with their hopes and dreams for this little girl over the six months and 26 days between her birth and her death.

Helpless. Hopeless. Wanting so much and being able to do so little.

They went on, in 1909, to have another child, a second daughter Myrtle who thrived, grew to adulthood, married, and had children and grandchildren of her own.

None of which either of her parents lived to see. Henry died in Young County, Texas, in 1915 of tuberculosis,9 and Nettie died in 1934 after a terrible fire in Lubbock.10

No, you can’t help but think of those first-time parents. You can’t help but think they must have despaired that their child, their Mary, would be remembered after they were gone.

Which is why, as my friend and fellow genealogist Rick Fogarty reminded us in a Facebook post earlier this year, we have a special role as family historians, especially in the case of the children our families have lost: we can “let their legacy and memory continue…, no matter how short or long their time on earth was” — and it’s our obligation to “do it for those who need their tragically short stories told.”11

Six months and 26 days.

A tragically short story, yes.

And one that needs be told.


  1. Wikipedia (, “Iowa Park, Texas,” rev. 25 Mar 2018.
  2. Nettie’s younger sister Addie had married at age 16, in 1897, see Wichita County, Texas, Marriage Book 2, Holley-Cottrell, marriage license and return, County Clerk’s Office, Wichita Falls, and had produced the first three grandchildren by the time Mary was born: Gilbert William “Bill” in 1900, Sam Walter “Pete” in 1902, and Mattie Lucille in 1906. See 1910 U.S. census, Wichita County, TX, population schedule, Justice Precinct 2, enumeration district (ED) 228, p. 19(A) (stamped), sheet 19(A), dwelling 29, family 30, Emmit Harris household; digital image, ( : accessed 14 Oct 2011); citing National Archive microfilm publication T624, roll 1597.
  3. Wichita County, Texas, Death Register 1:17, entry for Mary Holly, Wichita County, 3 Nov 1907, recorded 5 Dec 1907.
  4. Riverside Cemetery, Wichita County, Texas, markers for Henry Dixon, Nettie Hyburnia and Mary Holley; digital image, Find A Grave ( : accessed 7 Apr 2018).
  5. Wichita Co., Tex., Death Register 1:17, entry for Mary Holly.
  6. Wikipedia (, “Hydrocephalus,” rev. 31 Mar 2018.
  7. See “Directory of Deceased American Physicians, 1804-1929,” index, entry for Jonathan M. Bell, ( : accessed 7 Apr 2011).
  8. A. Aschoff et al., abstract, “The scientific history of hydrocephalus and its treatment,” ( : accessed 7 Apr 2018).
  9. Texas Dept. of Health, Death Certificate No. 14222 (1915), Henry Dixon Holley; Bureau of Vital Statistics, Austin.
  10. See Judy G. Russell, “Remembering Nettie,” The Legal Genealogist, posted 8 Mar 2014 ( : accessed 7 Apr 2018).
  11. Rick Fogarty, Facebook status update, 18 Jan 2018.
Print Friendly, PDF & Email