A few years ago, I read a comic strip where one senior asked another senior, “how old do you have to be to die of old age?” This is interesting because I have often asked myself the same question. Doctors today try to pinpoint the exact cause of death when in reality, some bodies simply wear out. Disease or accidents haven’t claimed them, they have just reached their expiration date.
More than a century ago, medicine wasn’t as exact as it is today. When an elderly person passed away without any visible reason, the cause of death was often recorded as old age or worn out.
Another cause of death occasionally found while researching is ‘visitation of (or from) God’. This usually indicates a person died of natural causes, regardless of age. Often the person was alone at the time. In these cases, no accident occurred and no illness preceded the death. A baby dying of crib death may have been recorded as dying of this cause.
A ‘visitation of God’ may also indicate the individual died peacefully in their sleep. A ‘sudden visitation from God’ might indicate the person died suddenly of a heart attack or similar natural ending. This cause was freely used if the actual cause of death could not be determined.
Studying the dates of death can sometimes reveal the cause of death or at least ignite a search that might uncover further information. For example, if more than one person in a family died on the same date, maybe there was an accident and it was reported in the local newspaper. If it was a large accident involving others in the community, there is a better chance of finding a newspaper story.
Sometimes when more than one person died in a family on the same date or within a few weeks of each other, it might indicate a highly contagious sickness such as diphtheria, small pox or scarlet fever was the cause. Unfortunately, it wasn’t uncommon for a family to lose half or all their children during an epidemic.
The cause of death may never be found for all individuals in a family, but by searching newspaper reports and the deaths of others in the same community around the same time, clues may be uncovered. Analysing the death dates of those buried in the same or nearby cemeteries may also help.
To learn more about the illnesses of the past, visit Rudy’s List of Archaic Medical Terms, a Glossary of Archaic Medical Terms, Diseases and Causes of Death website.
Among the causes of death found in Rudy’s List is Barrel Fever. If someone died of this fever, it meant the person ‘killed himself by drinking’. This was also called Bottle Ache, the Quart Mania and the Gallon Distemper. In other words, they probably died of alcohol poisoning.