Dan Eash-Scott, junior history major; Robert Brenneman, professor of criminal justice and sociology, Criminal Justice and Restorative Justice program director; and Daniel Stoltzfus, junior history major

Two Maple Scholar students research excess death patterns in Amish communities

by Sadie Brenneman ’25

Dan Eash-Scott, a junior history major from Wauwatosa, WI and Daniel Stoltzfus, a junior mathematics major from Harrisonburg, VA, alongside Robert Brenneman, professor of criminal justice and sociology, spent the summer conducting research on excess death patterns in the Amish community, during the years of the Spanish flu era. Using the Budget, a weekly newspaper commonly read by the Amish and conservative Mennonite Community, Eash-Scott and Stoltzfus tracked over 2,800 Amish deaths nationwide, from the years 1914 through 1920.

“We worked through century-old user-generated information to compile a thousand-long data set,” said Stoltzfus about one of the most novel characteristics of the project.

Their research was groundbreaking, and included several key findings that offer insight on the impact of pandemics within close-knit communities.

As Eash-Scott and Stoltzfus neared the end of their data collecting, they saw two clear spikes in excess deaths in the winters of 1919 and 1920, with February of 1920 seeing the most deaths.

“The graves cannot be dug fast enough,” a quote from the Budget during the height of the pandemic was used as the title of Eash-Scott and Stoltzfus’s presentation.

Although the quantitative research of the project was critical in understanding the impact of the 1918 pandemic on the Amish community, the qualitative research found in the discourse of the Budget was equally important.

Amish communities during the 1918 pandemic supported the closing of churches and schools, mask-wearing, quarantine and many other precautions that addressed the danger surrounding the flu pandemic. Vaccinations were also encouraged for a variety of other diseases.

“Our findings are especially interesting because they show that earlier generations of Amish and conservative Mennonites clearly were far less skeptical of public health recommendations from local and national government,” said Brenneman.

The Amish community’s interpretation of death was also eye-opening for both researchers, especially Eash-Scott.

“It was kind of remarkable how at peace they always seemed to be,” keeping in mind that they were writing days to weeks after someone died. “But still, there was always kind of this air of acceptance… [that] It’s God’s will to have us die when we are called to die.”

Eash-Scott and Stoltzfus spent many 8-hour days logging data from the Budget, reading over 350 issues. To eliminate any human error, Eash-Scott and Stoltzfus audited each other’s work. Although the project involved hundreds of grueling hours of reading microfilm, the experience and results were worth it.

“It’s been kind of an eye-opening process into the world of research, in terms of historical and sociological data analysis,” said Eash-Scott.

Goshen College’s Maple and Hickory Scholars Program allows students to spend eight weeks focusing on a particular area of research, alongside a professor who serves as both a supervisor and colleague. While participating in the Maple Scholars program, students live together on campus and take turns sharing updates on their research. The Maple and Hickory scholars programs are a unique undergraduate opportunity for our students to do hands-on research alongside their professors in interesting and diverse subject areas across various disciplines.

Read more about all 2022 Maple and Hickory Scholar projects.