Cause of Death
October 14, 2022
Some people might find it creepy, but I am on a quest to find the cause of death of as many of my ancestors as possible. Finding the cause of an ancestor’s death can reveal a lot about their life.
People in earlier times died of conditions and diseases that we rarely worry about. Vaccines for diphtheria, smallpox and polio have changed these diseases from the nightmare of parents to making them almost non-existent. We still have accidents, particularly automobile accidents, but accidental deaths caused by large domestic livestock are rare. Even when we do have accidents, medical care nowadays is much more effective than it was a hundred or so years ago.
I’ve recently learned that some of my great grandfather’s siblings died of typhoid. Typhoid is a disease that is seldom seen in the United States now, but in the 19th century it was common. The disease is devastating with symptoms such as fever, vomiting and diarrhea, headache and muscle aches. It can last for weeks and is debilitating, sometimes resulting in death. Children are especially vulnerable.
Typhoid is caused by a bacteria spread through unclean water, food and through contact with an infected person. A little research into the early settlement of the part of Utah where my ancestors lived revealed that the settlers often got their drinking water from the local river. The river passed through upriver settlements where human and animal wastes ran into it.
I grew up in the same part of Utah that my ancestors had settled, but I never realized how prevalent typhoid had been there only fifty or sixty years before my birth. Modern sanitation had wiped out the disease by the time of my birth.
Finding out about typhoid helped me understand why my grandmother never wanted my siblings and me to play in the irrigation ditches on our family farm. The water in those ditches came from the nearby river, the same river that had spread typhoid in her childhood. She was afraid we might accidentally swallow some and become ill.
One of the best parts of finding Causes of death is that they are often surprisingly easy to obtain. Death certificates and cemetery records often list them. If an ancestor died in the same year as a federal census was taken, federal mortality schedules were taken in 1850 through 1880. They list cause of death and often predate other civil death records.
Obituaries and other newspaper articles also sometimes list cause of death. That is especially true if the cause of death was an unusual accident. Finally, don’t overlook church records. They frequently list cause of death in death records.
Once you’ve found a cause of death, it may take some sleuthing to figure out what it means. You may find archaic terms such as dropsy, phthisis and lung fever. The easiest way to figure out what those terms meant is through a quick Google search.
With Halloween right around the corner, it may be just the season to do a little death research. You never know what your ghoulish sleuthing may reveal.