The Carlisle Mosquito Online

Friday, October 4, 2002


Memento Mori: Death in Carlisle, 1755-1850

This is the third and final part of a series on birth (baby names), marriage and death in Carlisle, based on Carlisle's Vital Records to 1850.

see Marriage in Carlisle Aug 16


Unlike child-naming or marriage practices, analyzing death records in Carlisle is a different process. First, the information is incomplete. Death certificates were not uniformly used until the mid-19th century, so the available information is dependent on the record-keeping practices of local individuals. Then, causes of death were often not mentioned. In spite of this, the records we do have are rich with information. There is something about sifting through these records that humanizes the names on the pages: knowing how they died allows us to learn something more about the way they lived.

According to the records, consumption (tuberculosis) was the most common cause of death in Carlisle, as it was in neighboring towns. Tuberculosis is an unpredictable disease: it can be fatal within months of contraction ("galloping consumption"), or allow the sufferer to live for many years while the disease alternates between acute attacks and remissions. It is certainly contagious, but usually as a result of close contact and consistent exposure, which is how it made its way through families. In Carlisle, the Adams family lost Benjamin (age 48) in 1843 and his daughter, Mariah (age 15), one year later. In the Carter family, Andrew died of it in July of 1845 and his stepmother Rebeca [sic] that October.

Tuberculosis cuts across all demographics, its victims ranging from the young to the elderly. The Nickles family lost Hannah at 21 (1848), Job, Jr. at 46 (1841), and Stephen at 70 (1843). But it disproportionately affected young adults, those in the prime of their lives. Dressmaker Louisa Skelton succumbed to it at age 19 and Susan Maria Duren at age 24. Females were stricken more often than males, probably as a result of their role as caretakers of the sick, both within their own family and among friends and neighbors.

Death by dysentery

The second most common cause of death was dysentery. However, all but two cases occurred between May and September of 1849. An examination of the records of surrounding towns — Acton, Bedford, Billerica, Chelmsford, and Westford — returned similar results. Weather records for the Boston area for the summer of 1849 described it as a season of normal precipitation and temperatures, not unduly wet, dry, or hot. But any summer might provide the conditions that led to diseases like dysentery. Like tuberculosis, dysentery affected everyone, but infants and toddlers were the most at risk, being more susceptible to the accompanying dehydration.

(Photo by Conni Manoli-Skocay)
Presently we think of winter as the time when people are most likely to get sick, but historically summer was known as the "dying time." An analysis of the dates showed that throughout the one-hundred-year period examined here, September was the month of greatest mortality, followed by August and October, while February accounted for the least. Numbers also rose in March and April, leaving us to wonder whether winter took its toll then, after months of cold and dwindling food supplies. Summer meant insects, stagnant or contaminated water, deteriorating food, and hot, humid weather — ideal conditions for diseases like dysentery, typhus, and cholera. These factors made local populations more prone to disease during the hot weather months.

Other causes

Other causes of death included typhus fever, lung fever (pneumonia), paralysis (probably a stroke), palsy, cholera infantum, cholera morbus, and generalized fever. Dropsy was often listed as a cause of death, but it is actually a symptom. Dropsy was defined as swelling or edema and was probably indicative of heart or kidney disease, as well as many other illnesses. A childhood disease was mentioned only once: when Harriett Morgan died of whooping cough on September 1, 1846, at the age of one year. There is no other record of measles, mumps, or any other common childhood illness.

Though childbirth could be a dangerous event in a woman's life, such deaths were not noted in the Carlisle records, although they were in the records of some neighboring towns. Two cases might be inferred from cross-referencing birth and death dates: Thankful A. G. Buttrick was only 20 years old and newly married when she died in March of 1838, followed in June by her three-month-old daughter, Lois. Sarah Munroe Parlin, age 22, lived less than a month after the birth of her son, Asa, in 1785.

Accidental deaths

In a time before complete information was included in death records, accidental deaths were one of the few causes that appeared to have merited recording. Deaths by accident included Abel Blood being killed "by means of a waggon in an Instant" [sic] in 1803, and Benjamin Foster being "slain by lightning" on August 2, 1819. Two members of the Robbins family, father and son, drowned in separate incidents. A fire at Samuel Heald's house in 1784 (mentioned in various histories of Carlisle) claimed three lives. Samuel himself died as he was attempting to rescue his son, John. It also took the life of James Hubbert.

There were, as would be expected, many deaths among infants and children five and under, with boys significantly outnumbering girls. More unexpected were the number of deaths among boys between ten and fifteen and girls between fifteen and twenty. Women of childbearing age suffered no more than men in the same age range, although the numbers for both were higher than we would find today. Heartening was the fact that many Carlisle residents lived to be seventy-five and older. Included are Lt. Isaac Wilkins, who died in 1826 at the age of 93, and Mary Taylor, widow of Abraham, "who had Children and Grand Children and Greate Grand Children two Hundred & fifty." She died in 1756 in her 94th year.

Works consulted for this article

Statistical information: Vital Records of Carlisle, Massachusetts to the End of the Year 1849. Salem, Massachusetts: Essex Institute, 1918.

Cassedy, James H. Medicine in America: A Short History. Baltimore: Johns

Hopkins University Press, 1991.

Dormandy, Thomas. The White Death: A History of Tuberculosis. New York: New York University Press, 1999.

Robert Ball Edes' Weather Diary for Boston, Massachusetts, 1841-1851. Unpublished manuscript in Special Collections, Concord Free Public Library.

Terkel, Susan Neiburg. Colonial American Medicine. New York: Franklin Watts, 1993.

2002 The Carlisle Mosquito