In 1851, Sarah Townsend lost two of her children. Eighteen-month-old Martha died on December 11th and four-year-old Parkes followed just two weeks later, the day after what must have been a grave and solemn Christmas. Three years later, her six-year-old namesake Sarah died as well -- also in December. Sarah and her husband John buried their children side by side in the tree-shaded Townsend family cemetery in Hazel Green, Alabama. Today, low white pillars carved with stone wreaths still mark their graves.
Child and infant deaths in the 19th century were extraordinarily high. In 1850, the mortality rate for American children under the age of five was approximately 399 deaths per 1,000 births. Or in other words: for every 1,000 babies born that year, nearly 40% would die before the age of five. Respiratory illnesses like influenza and pneumonia caused 22% of child deaths under the age of 14 in the year 1900; gastrointestinal diseases like dysentery and cholera accounted for another 20%. Fifty years earlier, those numbers would have been even higher. Martha, Parkes, and little Sarah may have died from something as seemingly insignificant as a winter cold.
John and Sarah were cotton planters and slave-owners who relied on the labor of enslaved men and women to support their comfortable lifestyle. In 1853, John had received a significant inheritance from his uncle Edmund, but promptly squandered the money with "dissipated and reckless" behavior and was completely insolvent by 1856. Perhaps the shame of his financial troubles is what drove John from his home that summer. Perhaps he wanted out of the house that reminded him of his family tragedy. Or perhaps that's too generous. He may have simply been the "rascal" that his relatives claimed.
In any case, the events that shattered the Townsend household in the 1850s would affect far more people than John and Sarah alone. John Townsend was insolvent, and when slave-owners needed ready money, they sold their human property. As a result of his actions, enslaved women on John and Sarah's plantation were about to lose their children too.