Monday, January 26, 2009

a snapshot of death in 1855

As the poet William Butler Yeats once put it, "a man awaits his end, dreading and hoping all." In mid-19th century New York, John Morrissey and the city's other residents had more to dread than hope for as far as their chances of survival went. Death came in many forms in a time before science had clued in on the causes and cures of diseases. Many of these would be all but eradicated, at least in the United States, 100 years hence.

According to the New York Times—it once posted a list of numbers and causes of death weekly—there were 441 deaths in the city of New York for the week of March 31 through April 7, 1855. The numbers in this snapshot of death were not an unusual weekly toll.

At that time there were approximately 650,000 people living in the city, so this weekly number, averaged out over a year, meant that almost 10 percent (compared to less than 1 percent today) of the population was dying. But not to worry, a huge influx of immigrants were continually swelling the population, as was the birth rate.

Of those who died that week the largest percentage—40 people—came from one of the biggest and poorest wards in the city—the 17th. That ward contained the Bowery and part of the Lower East Side.

The 17th ward had a seemingly ever-increasing population in the 1800s, growing from 18,619 in 1850 to 95,365 in only 30 years. All within less than a half-mile square.

The 17th ward did not contain the poorest and most famous neighborhood of 1800s New York—the Five Points. The Five Points was in the 6th ward, which came in sixth in amount of dead residents that week, but then there were twice as many people living in the 17th at the time in an area almost four times the size. And since this is not based on per capita data, it's probable that these numbers don't accurately reflect the level of death that occurred in the 6th ward. Needless to say, the poor were dying in droves as compared to the richer classes living uptown. For instance, the 22nd ward located above 40th Street on the West side, which had roughly an equivalent number of residents in 1855, only saw 12 deaths that week.

But even those who could afford clean water and medical care could and did succumb to a number of diseases, including Tuberculosis, then known as Consumption, and Scarlet Fever. In that week in 1855 there were 49 deaths from Consumption and 24 from Scarlet Fever. Children had it even worse than adults, that week there were 41 stillbirths and 21 children who died from Marasmus, better known as starvation.

Medicine in the mid-1800s was rather a crude affair, with many doctors still relying on the ancient idea of the body's four humors—yellow bile, black bile, blood and phlegm—to treat their patients. Too much black bile? You have melancholia and must be bled. Too much yellow bile? You are choleric and must be bled. You get the point. Many times the cure was worse than the disease. Mercury was used extensively in cures and would often lead to poisoning and death. Surgery was worse yet, with doctors unaware of the need to sterilize instruments or hands before working on a patient. Surgeons would wear the same blood and gore stained smocks in surgery after surgery as a badge of honor to show that they were old hats at their profession.

Morrissey suffered at the hands of doctors who tried in vain to cure his Bright's Disease, now known as Chronic Nephritis. He died of pneumonia at 47, most likely brought on by a weakened immune system, due in part to the "cures" he had taken.

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