Friday, August 2, 2013

Can Senility Kill You?

      Several death certificates in my possession list senility as the cause of death.  I’m pretty sure they don’t mean the mental state that we think of when the word senile is mentioned.  The Victorians weren’t that subtle, you were either idiotic or you were insane -- possibly an insane idiot, but you weren’t senile.  Check the census questions back then, they came right out and demanded to know if you or a family member were impaired.  Senility at that time was something entirely different than today's definition, it referred to a breakdown of the body and its functions, as in old age.  I’m not sure when the meaning of senility changed or why; perhaps it was advances in medicine enabling a more precise cause of death to be determined that saw that general term fall into disuse.

     Another odd one is exhaustion.  One of my “senile” relatives, Uncle John Crotty, was also exhausted.  Was he tired of being senile -- to the point of fatal exhaustion?  He was in good company anyway, Bram Stoker, the author of Dracula, (and also born in Ireland), died of exhaustion too.   I’m guessing this was a term used when an organ like say your heart just upped and gave out.   This one is peculiar too, a great, great aunt died of, “a formation which recently appeared at the base of the brain and caused great suffering”.  An aneurysm perhaps?  Another newspaper termed it a cerebral hemorrhage.

John Crotty's death cert listing senility & exhaustion as causes

      By the way, above is a typical New York death certificate from 1894.  In addition to cause, it gives place of birth, parents names, place of death, date of death and duration of illness, deceased's occupation and informant.  We see here James Wallace provided the information, which is a clue that James was in some way related to John, either as a friend or blood relative.  Turns out he lived next door to John and was his brother in law.

     You don’t hear causes like these much anymore either-- prostatic abscess and cystitis, paralysis of the colon, or how about peritonitis with intestinal obstruction.  One of my ancestors each died of those ailments.  The son of my great, great grandfather James O’Hora died of brain fever at age 27.  Online sources disagree about this one, could be meningitis or it could be typhus.  I tend to go with the meningitis theory.  I don't think typhus was all that common in 1881 Shortsville, NY.   

     These maladies are just a few that show up in old death records, all are treatable today.  How sobering that just a century ago people suffered a great deal with them, and lost their lives.

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