Dying in Monroe County: Old time disease names

Looking back through the Monroe County Register of Deaths is interesting and truly tells many stories.
By Amy Leiser, Executive Director
Monroe County Historical Association

As Halloween looms, there is always a feeling of macabre in the air. Neighborhood children will don costumes of zombies, mummies, or ghosts in hopes of trick-or-treat goodies.

But the genealogical and historical importance of death cannot be taken lightly. As of January 1, 1906, all records of human deaths in the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania were required to be submitted to a newly-formed department of state government, the Division of Vital Records. Prior to this date, death records were maintained at the county level. Some counties had well-maintained records, while other counties had very little documentation regarding the departures of their citizens.

Many genealogists use death certificates as a way to help them trace their family trees. The certificates provide a great deal of information about the deceased. Death certificates offer not only the dates of birth and death for the deceased person, but they usually contain the names of the deceased’s parent as well as birthplace, next of kin, occupation, burial location, and cause of death. If a death occurred prior to 1906, genealogists and researchers must often use records other than death certificates to document their ancestors; sources of information include church records, cemetery listings, census reports, and funeral home logs.

Locally, Monroe County officials kept a register of deaths from 1852 to 1855 and from 1893 to 1904. The Monroe County Register of Deaths is a large ledger book. The book itself is rather fragile and is held at the courthouse. Fortunately, the Monroe County Historical Association has a photocopy of the oversized book in its library archival collection at the Stroud Mansion.

The Monroe County Register of Deaths contains all available pertinent information about the deceased, including: the deceased’s name; age; occupation; marital status; date of death; internment location, and; names of parents (if the deceased was a minor). Perhaps one of the most interesting fields that was recorded in the hand-written ledger was the deceased’s cause of death.

Over 60 forms of dying are listed in the Monroe County Register of Deaths, and it is clear that officials took considerable time to document each individual carefully, recording as much information as possible about the deceased. A majority of the entries in the ledger are uniform, with all of the fields having been completed by the recorder. The penmanship of some of the entries is beautiful, but other entries are barely legible.

Below is the list of some of the causes of death that appear in the Monroe County Death Register. Many of the terms that describe ailments, conditions, or causes of death are no longer used today. Because of the out-of-date nature of some of the terms, many of their descriptions are paraphrased from the 1895 volume of “The Century Dictionary and Cyclopedia” housed at the Monroe County Historical Association. The causes of death include:

Apoplexy – A stroke with subsequent paralysis or a sudden hemorrhage.

Blood poisoning – A bacterial infection marked by the presence of a toxic substance in the blood. Today more likely referred to as toxemia or septicemia.

Brain fever – Inflammation of the brain, now more likely meningitis.

Bright’s Disease – An infection of the kidneys. Bright’s Disease was named for Richard Bright, a physician who, in 1827, was the first person to describe the disease. The conditions is now typically considered a form of nephritis.

Catarrh – Inflammation of the mucus membranes especially in air passages of the throat and head. It is also known as the common cold. There is a listing in the 1895 dictionary for Summer Catarrh which is hayfever.

Cholera – A contagious bacterial disease that is spread by drinking contaminated water. The term is still used today to describe an infection of the small intestine.

Confinement – Women died from this following childbirth.

Consumption – A disease of the lungs that is accompanied by a fever and emaciation. The disease was also known as the “wasting away sickness,” but is now termed tuberculosis.

Debility – Dying from a lack of movement / living life in bed.

Diphtheria – A highly contagious bacterial respiratory disease that affects the air passages. It is spread through coughing and sneezing, and the disease is frequently fatal. Unclean conditions exacerbate the symptoms. The disease has been kept in check in developed nations but is still a concern in underdeveloped parts of the world.

Dropsy – The presence of a morbid amount of fluid in the cavity or tissues in the body. Dropsy is typically referred to as edema today.

Dysentery – The term was used generally for gastrointestinal disorders but is now used for severe cases that are typically caused by bacteria or parasites.

Fits – Seizures

LaGrippe – Influenza

Lockjaw – A tetanus affecting muscles of the neck and jaw. If left untreated, death was in 8 days.

Marasmus – Malnutrition in infants and young children. The term is still used in cases of severe protein malnutrition.

Mortification – Gangrene of tissue. Death to one part of the body while the other parts survive.

Nervous prostration – This was a condition where individuals suffered extreme exhaustion from inability to control physical and mental activity.

Peritonitis – An inflammation of the abdominal area.

Scarlet Fever – A fever caused by streptococcus bacteria. Symptoms include sore throat, fever, flushed cheeks and a bright red rash that may cover most of the body. This condition was once much more common than it is today because of the efficacy of antibiotics in treating streptococcus bacteria.

Scrofula (AKA King’s Evil) – Scrofula was a condition often caused by tuberculosis bacteria that affected the afflicted’s the lymph nodes and was likely spread by unpasteurized milk from infected cows. Most often children suffered from scrofula.

Summer Complaint – Diarrhea and subsequent dehydration, usually in infants caused by spoiled milk and occurs during the summer months.

Tuberculosis – A highly contagious bacterial infection that affects the lungs. There were no antibiotics at the time of its original description, so patients were housed together. It is spread through sneezing and coughing.

Typhoid Fever – A bacterial infection of the micro-organism found in intestinal ulcers. It is passed through food through urine and stool of a person with poor hygiene.

While disease takes its toll on every population, some Monroe County citizens suffered tragic deaths including “falls, froze to death, accident, hit by car, hit by train, narcotics, morphine pills, suicide lightning strike, and murder.” There are many forms of death recorded in the Register the terms for which we still use today, including “cancer, measles, diabetes, child birth, tumors, heart disease, and meningitis.”

The ages of deceased Monroe County residents ranged from newborn to 97 years old. Some diseases that were fatal a century or more ago are curable with today’s modern medicine; some are not, and all are sad. A few unusual cases stand out.

A very sad death was that of a 9-month-old from Delaware Water Gap who died on August 20, 1900 from marasmus. The duration of this child’s condition was 8 months.

Reuben Hye, a 59-year-old farmer from Effort who died September 10, 1902 had the cause of his death listed as “don’t exactly know.” Another Monroe County citizen died at the age of 83 years. His cause of death was listed as “old age” and the duration of his illness was “one day.” Another 83-year-old Monroe County resident died from “old age,” but he lived for three years with this condition.

The Monroe County Register of Deaths in extremely interesting and is a valuable piece of local history. It gives a snapshot into a small period of time in Monroe County’s history. While it may seem morose, this unique form documentation provides invaluable information to researchers who are able to learn not only their family history but also a description of the living conditions in our area over a century ago.