spanish flu, how our ancestors died

How Our Ancestors Died

Editor’s Note: The following article is written by author Dr. Terrence Punch. His work includes multiple volumes on Irish immigration to Atlantic Canada, Some Early Scots in Maritime Canada, Volumes I-III, North America’s Maritime FunnelThe Ships that Brought the Irish, 1749-1852 and Montbeliard Immigration to Nova Scotia, 1749-1752. Dr. Punch has authored other articles we’ve shared on this blog including Canadian Maritime Provinces and New England: Differences in Record Keeping, Part I and Canadian Maritime Provinces and New England: Differences in Record Keeping, Part II. He can also be heard as a resident genealogist on CBC Radio. 

In this article, “What Our Ancestors Died Of,” Dr. Punch shares tips on how to identify how our ancestors died when the causes can be mislabeled or unclear. This piece contains a list of frequently seen causes of death, and what they actually mean, as well as additional resources to help you on your search. 

Some genealogists collect only ancestors, that is, people from whom they are personally descended. When traced out on a sheet of paper or a spreadsheet you often have a pattern resembling an inverted Christmas tree, wide at the top and pointed at the bottom. Others take a great deal of trouble to track down collateral relatives, the siblings of ancestors and their descendants. If they began with a couple of progenitors, the result will tend to spread more widely with the passing of the generations.

This is not always the case. One couple had eleven children, sixteen grandchildren, but just four great-grandchildren, all four of whom grew to adulthood, two of them married and none of them had children. Within three generations a large family had completely died out. Imagine the original matriarch, dying in 1883 leaving eight children and nine grandchildren, and in 2003 her last descendant died, childless.

One of the reasons why people try to compile genealogies linking collateral relatives as well as direct ancestors is to produce a health history of their wider family circle. They ask questions about age at death, causes of death, conditions that appeared to run in the family, handicaps, tendency to accidents and mishaps, even towards suicide.

A circumstance that interferes with this effort is that records, if they exist, often fail to reveal people’s cause of death. Another snag is that the deaths were attributed to conditions and ailments with unfamiliar names. We really do have to wonder who made the diagnosis written down as the cause of death. We can understand “drowned,” “typhoid,” or “pneumonia,” but what did someone mean by “senile decay?” Had the patient become mouldy with age? And what did the sexton mean when he entered “senility” as the reason that a 3-year-old died? To allege “premature ageing” would be ridiculous. Since the same man gave that cause of death to more than one child, we can assume that he did not understand the word.

Whenever possible, learn whether there were outbreaks of epidemic disease in an area about the time your relative died. If a child died while a smallpox outbreak ravaged the vicinity, consider the possibility that same outbreak may have killed your family member too. Halifax had smallpox at the turn of the nineteenth century, as well as cholera epidemics a few decades later. There was even a visitation of the misnamed “Spanish” influenza after the end of World War One.

Nor should we forget disasters such as the Halifax explosion of 1917, or mine disasters. In coastal communities several men may have perished in a marine mishap. Diphtheria wiped out households of children, as did scarlet fever and so forth. In doing a genealogy, be alert to these group deaths, as they may signify the presence of contagious disease or some tragedy, such as a house fire. Not to be morbid, but the media tended then, as now, to cover such events. Victorian papers seem to have revelled in headlines such as “Melancholy Accident,” “Tragedy at Sea,” etc.

Halifax Explosion, How our ancestors died

Aftermath of the Halifax Explosion from Canada, Library of Parliament Collection.

Here are some examples I’ve seen in records:

ague – any of several feverish conditions, e.g., malaria (not so odd when you remember how many seamen visited tropical ports in the age of sail, and contracted illnesses).

bad blood  – euphemism for venereal disease, especially syphilis.

bilious fever – any of hepatitis, malaria, typhoid (caused by bacteria salmonella)

bladder in the throat – diphtheria

carbuncle – large boil (not usually fatal); skin cancer (then often fatal)

consumption – tuberculosis

cramp colic – appendicitis, peritonitis; also simply ‘colic’.

debility – lack of energy or movement, probably due to an unrecognized illness.

dentition – teething (hard to imagine this as fatal in itself; probably other complications)

dropsy – congestive heart failure; also noted as ‘hydrothorax’

falling sickness – epilepsy

flux – diarrhea; hemorrhage

gleet – inflamed membrane in the urethra

green sickness – anemia

horrors – delirium tremens

infantile paralysis – poliomyletis

jail fever, ship fever – typhus (caused by bacteria rickettsia)

king’s evil – tuberculosis in the neck and lymph glands; also called scrofula (until Queen Anne, monarchs actually touched the afflicted; popular belief was that the king’s touch cured it)

milk fever – children contracted this bacterial disease from milk from cows having brucellosis

mortification – gangrene (common before antiseptics)

nostalgia – homesickness; the belief that immigrants died pining for their native land

old age – applied to people as young as 55 (making some of us positively ‘ancient’)

palsy – paralysis; also uncontrollable jerking of limbs; also entered as ‘fits’.

screws – rheumatism

senility – advanced old age; perhaps alzheimer’s; wrongly applied to young people

visitation by God – many sudden deaths due to natural causes, e.g, strokes, were called this

There are two websites I recommend for those who would like a list of more complete obsolete diagnoses. They are Old Disease Names, By Sylvain Cazalet and Olive Tree Genealogy.

Cover Image Credit: 1918 flu epidemic: the Oakland Municipal Auditorium in use as a temporary hospital. The photograph depicts volunteer nurses from the American Red Cross tending influenza sufferers in the Oakland Auditorium, Oakland, California, during the influenza pandemic of 1918. By Edward A. “Doc” Rogers, 1873-1960 [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.


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