Keepapitchinin, the Mormon History blog » James and Sophia Anderson: Christmas in the Time of the Plague

James and Sophia Anderson: Christmas in the Time of the Plague

By: Ardis E. Parshall - December 22, 2009

I know what you’re thinking, or at least what you’ll be thinking in a few minutes: You’ll be thinking that I made this up, or that I’ve watched too many sappy holiday movies. No. The story, so far as I have been able to verify what seem to be absolutely legitimate sources, is true.

James Albert Anderson (“Jim”; 1874-1926) married Martha Sophia Heiner (“Sophia”; 1884-1978) in the Salt Lake Temple in 1907. They settled in Morgan, Morgan County, Utah (that’s northern Utah, in the general neighborhood of Ogden). Morgan was, and is, a small community, but one that provided great economic opportunity for Jim. He was a successful businessman in coal mine management, among other enterprises which included either a cannery or the wholesaling of canned goods; he was the ward’s bishop, and represented the community in state politics at various times, and served on community boards of all types. Sophia was a gracious hostess, a Relief Society worker, and a woman who watched hopefully for children who never came.

Well, in one sense, children did come. The Andersons built a large home, beautifully landscaped, with a grass tennis court at its side. Their large basement was finished elegantly with a maple floor and stage curtains. Children and youths flocked to the home, using the basement as a gymnasium by day and as a theater or ballroom in the evening. Great crowds of them came on Christmas Day for the treats and gifts that the Andersons dealt out liberally – after the Andersons had spent Christmas Eve day every year delivering gift boxes to widows and others throughout the valley.

The Andersons had developed these Christmas customs through the first decade of their marriage and expected the eleventh year to be no different, unless it was more joyful because World War I had come to an end – but that was 1918, the first year of the flu epidemic that killed millions worldwide. Morgan and its surrounding farming communities were not spared. Jim and his brother Joseph (1872-1927), who lived next door, were summoned day and night to give priesthood blessings to the sick. Sophia did her share of nursing. And although young mothers and fathers on all sides were swept away in the plague, none of the Andersons – none of the children in Joseph’s family, and neither Jim nor Sophia, nor the niece Irene (1892-1970) who was living with them – was ill.

In the midst of the epidemic, Jim was called to Washington, D.C. for mid-November meetings of the national Food Administration, and to other eastern cities to deal with his own business concerns. While in Washington, he received telegrams notifying him of the deaths of a neighbor’s wife and of one of his most valued employees. Both had left families of small children. Jim knew there were other families in the valley where one or both parents had been taken by the flu or its even more deadly aftermath of pneumonia, and he thought about their prospects for a melancholy Christmas. He had to do something more this year, he decided, than he had ever done before.

Jim wired his clerk and asked the man to prepare a list of every child in Morgan valley who had lost one or both parents, every widow, every person in special need that Christmas season. The list – 72 names long – was waiting for Jim when he reached Chicago a few days later.

Setting his business concerns aside for one day, Jim stood outside the great Marshall Field department store, waiting for its doors to open at 8:00. He went immediately to the children’s floor and asked for the woman in charge of that department, who turned out to be an elegant, gray-haired, grandmotherly woman. When Jim explained that he needed the help of one of her clerks to select gifts for every one of the people on his list, her eyes grew bright and her smile deepened, and she offered her own services for the entire day. It took them all day, too, to choose suitable presents for each, based on what Jim knew of their ages and family circumstances and personalities. The department store took care of crating the enormous pile of goods and shipping them by train to Morgan.

Christmas fell on a Wednesday that year. Late on the Friday before, Jim returned home from his extended travels. He took care of necessary business on Saturday. Then on Sunday – a day with no church meetings, since all public gatherings had been canceled to slow the spread of the disease – Jim and Sophia tagged each gift with the name of its intended recipient. The presents for each individual family were packed into boxes, the corners filled with apples and oranges and nuts and candy. The boxes were sealed, with a friendly plea “Please don’t open until Christmas morning” written across the seal.

On the morning of Tuesday, Christmas Eve, one of Jim’s heavy trucks pulled up outside the Anderson home. The family decorated the truck – including strings of jingle bells – and Jim, dressed in a Santa suit, wearing a flowing wig, and hidden by a face mask – set out with his driver to call on each stricken home. It was a day of hard work, an emotional day filled with both tears and the gratitude of recipients, and darkness had deepened by the time a weary Santa reached home and the Christmas Eve dinner prepared by Sophia and Irene.


That’s enough of a story, I’ll bet you’re thinking. We could make a sentimental movie of our own now, couldn’t we? I’d cast a young Jimmy Stewart in the role of Jim Anderson, but since he’s not available maybe you have alternate casting suggestions?

But the story of that Christmas Eve isn’t over.

After dinner, in full darkness of the mid-winter night, Jim’s secretary Edward Anderson (1883-1948) and his wife Lillieth (1885-1971) came to call on the Andersons, bringing with them a Christmas plant as a token of their affection. While the two couples were chatting, they heard an unusual car horn, one playing a chiming tune, and glanced out the window to see a limousine, its lights off, stopped in front of the house. “That’s odd,” they remarked, as the car drove off without its lights, and they returned to their conversation.

A few minutes later, the same chiming horn sounded again, and they looked out to see the same car, its lights still off, pull away from the Andersons’ house again. This time they opened the door, intending to see where the car went. But as they opened the door, the porch light disclosed a large basket on the doorstep, left beside a large cardboard box. Lillieth Anderson laughed nervously and said, “Wouldn’t it be a good joke if there were a baby in that basket?”

Irene stepped forward and pulled the covering aside.

And yes, believe it or not, a little boy, about six months old, with deep blue eyes, gazed up at them.

They hurriedly brought the child and his box inside and searched for a note of explanation. They found this card:

Mr. and Mrs. James A. Anderson.

This darling little Sunbeam is presented to you as a Christmas gift in answer to the earnest prayers of a dying young mother.

This mother was indeed good, loving, and kind. Her babe was very sacred to her in life, and her last request was, “Will some kind Saint please take care of my darling baby?”

Other papers included a detailed report of the baby’s sleeping habits and food needs, and explained that the child’s mother had died of pneumonia following influenza. The accompanying box was filled with delicate clothing sewn by the baby’s mother.

Family members and friends were called. The doctor was summoned. No one was told the cause of the excitement until they arrived and found Sophia rocking her sleeping son.

My sources tell me nothing of the legalities involved, nor whether there was any indication as to the name of the child’s mother, or why the father, if there was one, was agreeable to placing his son this way. In any case, the baby stayed with the Andersons, and was named Lane Marcel Anderson (1918-1949). He was joined a few years later by an adopted sister, Alice. The Andersons continued their Christmas traditions until Jim’s unexpectedly early death in 1926. Sophia, a youngish widow, now with two children, kept her family together and, as the saying goes, kept Christmas in her heart the year ‘round.



  1. Yes. (can’t say more… watery eyes messing up keyboard view)

    Comment by Coffinberry — December 22, 2009 @ 11:37 am

  2. What a lovely story. What wonderful people. What a talented writer you are, Ardis. You really need a special category in your Topical Guide for “Articles Guaranteed to Make A Grown Person Cry.”

    Comment by Researcher — December 22, 2009 @ 12:37 pm

  3. Thank you, Ardis.

    Comment by Jami — December 22, 2009 @ 1:44 pm

  4. Oh, man … [wiping eyes] … not fair, Ardis, not fair!

    Comment by bfwebster — December 22, 2009 @ 1:48 pm

  5. Hard to think of anything to say. Thanks. I knew I couldn’t read it out loud, so I printed it off for someone else to read out loud to my family.

    Comment by Ugly Mahana — December 22, 2009 @ 2:12 pm

  6. What a sweet story. Even better that it’s true.

    Comment by Amy — December 22, 2009 @ 2:57 pm

  7. Ooo. I’m already a teary wreck from current beautiful experiences — I’m not sure how much more I can handle. I thank God for good people doing good things.

    Comment by Martin — December 22, 2009 @ 3:03 pm

  8. “Will some kind Saint please take care of my darling baby?”

    Oh, is this not the very definition of “bittersweet”?

    Comment by Hunter — December 22, 2009 @ 3:39 pm

  9. wow, so would you be happy with just a few tears, or do you feel compelled to go for sobs?

    Comment by ellen — December 22, 2009 @ 4:49 pm

  10. Ahh! I had hoped for lumps in a few throats, but all these reports of tears are a surprise. Thank you. I guess sometimes what I am feeling about an incident comes through in the words on the screen, and I appreciate your telling me that.

    There are so many good people in the world, no?

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — December 22, 2009 @ 5:10 pm

  11. Beautiful story; I’m also teary after reading it.

    Comment by Maurine — December 22, 2009 @ 10:24 pm

  12. Would you be ok with me printing this and sharing it for my neighborhood gift? (Maybe with a package of kleenex?) I would include your name and website.

    Thank you for adding a special something to my day…a sorely needed something.

    Comment by m&m — December 23, 2009 @ 12:50 am

  13. Amazing story, Ardis, thanks. That poor mother. What a wonderful way to start the day.

    Comment by Anne (U.K) — December 23, 2009 @ 2:28 am

  14. That is a beautiful story. And so wonderful that it is true! It has me all choked up, too!

    I hope you have a Merry Christmas!

    Comment by NorahS — December 23, 2009 @ 6:36 am

  15. Thanks, sisters, for these wonderful overnight comments.

    m&m, and others, you’re welcome to print and share any Keepa post, as long as my name and Keepa’s URL are included, and as long as it’s in a private, informal setting the way m&m describes here. (Without specific permission, no Keepa post may be republished on another website or turned into a multi-forwarded email or put in print anywhere for general distribution — use Keepa stories only for private circulation among friends, family, and perhaps your ward Relief Society. Thanks.)

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — December 23, 2009 @ 8:22 am

  16. Thank you for sharing this story. James and Sophia are my husbands grandparents and Lane Marcel was his father. I thought you might like the rest of the story. Lane Marcel grew up and married LaRae Cheney who he met at the University of Utah. They had one son, my husband, James Lane Anderson. Unfortunately, Lane was born with an incurable kidney disease and passed away in the arms of LaRae when my husband was only four years old. However, my husband and I have nine children, nine wonderful sons and daughters in-law and 37 grandchildren for a total of 55 progeny – so far. Seven of our nine children have served missions. Seven have graduated from BYU and two from the University of Utah.One has a doctorate and two have master’s degrees, and one is a Physician’s Assistant. Two are captains in the U.S. Army. Sophia lived a long and wonderful life.She was a strong and valiant member of the church. On her 85th birthday I moved the candles around to say “58”. I said, “Look grandma, now you’re only 58 years old!” She responded with,” Honey, if I was 58 I’d set the world on fire!” This has had a lifelong effect on my vision of what I was capable of doing as I have become a grandma myself.

    Comment by Loretta Anderson — September 16, 2010 @ 4:06 pm

  17. Wonderful! Thank you, Loretta.

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — September 16, 2010 @ 4:08 pm

  18. Loretta, I’m so glad you found this post and gave us an update It’s like an epilogue but so much better because it’s real. Congratulations on your piece of the dynasty!

    Comment by ellen — September 16, 2010 @ 5:13 pm

Leave a comment

RSS feed for comments on this post.
TrackBack URI