There is great joy in researching your family’s history and finding that elusive ancestor, But there is a sadness too. For most of them are dead.
Looking at death records is a window into the past when people died who would have lived today. The lack of antibiotics and vaccines is a major cause of death. So many died of pneumonia, septicemia, infections, measles, TB, scarlet fever, peritonitis, tonsilitis, Bright’s Disease, and La Grippe. That last one is what influenza was called at the turn of the century. Bright’s Disease is kidney failure.
People also died of malnutrition. The first time I saw that listed as a cause of death, it was an infant who had an intestinal blockage. The child was under a doctor’s care for more than 2 months, but at 3 months the child died. All I could think, was how awful for the parents who could only stand by and watch as their child slowly starved to death. Today there would have been surgery to correct the blockage and an IV to keep the child alive. And it was not just children who died from starvation. I was shocked to see adults in 1921 who died from lack of food. My view of life in the Roaring Twenties will never be the same.
In the 1900 and 1910 U.S. Federal Census one of the questions asked of the women, was, “Mother of how many?’ and “How many living as of this date?” It was not unusual to see listings like, “mother of 11, 4 living.” A lot of children died before reaching maturity, including one four-year-old who died of rheumatism. And there were those who died accidentally. One certificate listed the cause of death of a three-year-old as “playing with paper around stove, clothing caught fire and inflicted 2nd and 3rd degree burns.”
Other causes of death that have turned up on death certificates; “Cleaning revolver, accidentally discharged and entered head on left side.” Or right side. “Softening of the brain,” which could be anything from senility, paralysis to Alzheimer’s. And one doctor who obviously had a weird sense of humor or acute lack of sleep wrote, “About 2 tons of coal fell on this man while he was working in the mine on or about 22 January 1906. All bones broken, all organs flat, obviously DOA.”
Every time I look at death certificates I feel a sense of loss, these people were someone’s family and were loved and lost.
But every once in a while I am surprised. I had long believed that my great-great grand uncle Reckess had died of sadness after the loss of his wife, Hannah. They died so close together and I am a romantic at heart. Then I discovered that they had both died of arsenic poisoning.
After a further search historical newspapers I found that they had been murdered by their son’s mistress who was also their housekeeper. There were articles from as far north as Buffalo and as far west as Chicago. But the best article, full of juicy gossip and family information was from the New York Times. It was on the front page and even included a passage that told of Hannah running across the street to her cousin Joshua’s house to beg for help to save her from “that woman.” Joshua was my great-great-grandfather.
There were so few murders in the country in 1878 that this double murder in a small town was big news. The newspapers covered the trial and letters of outrage were written to the editors when “that woman” was pronounced innocent because she was under the influence of laudanum that she took for “women’s troubles.” Her boyfriend, the son was found guilty and served 8 years in prison for bringing “that woman” into his parents’ house and not stopping her from killing them. Nowadays that would make a great episode of “Snapped.”
A death certificate gives a genealogist the names of parents, spouses, an address where they lived, their age, date of birth and the name of the person giving the information. All of this data helps when researching your family tree. But when I read someone’s death certificate they become more real. They lived, loved, were loved, were part of a family and died.
Now they are remembered.