Bills of Mortality (HLD 157)

26 Aug 2020

I’ve long been interested in how deaths were described in times gone by. As I’ve talked about earlier, as part of my family tree research I investigated with somewhat morbid fascination the causes of death of members of a particular family. My great grandfather was one of ten children born to an immigrant couple (Scottish/Irish) in South Australia in the late 1800’s. There were nine boys and one girl in the family. Only three of these children (according to research so far) got married and reproduced. One of the ten children died very young, one within a couple of years and two in their late 20’s. So of course I had to find out what they died of, because I’m nosy like that.

The one who died at 3 weeks of age had a cause of death listed as ‘defective nutrition’, the other one who died under the age of two died of convulsions, while his brothers who both died in their 20’s died of tuberculosis – although when the first one died in 1896 cause of death was listed at phthisis but by the time his brother died in 1900 it was listed as pulmonary tuberculosis. Apparently it’s possibly the same thing. Or so Mr Google told me.

The father of these ten children, by the way, died at a relatively early age of 43 – from cirrhosis and anasarca (generalised oedema, apparently) although a newspaper report suggested that the poisonous gases from the sewerage which ran through the Adelaide Botanic Gardens where he worked as head gardener may have been involved in his death. Keep that sewerage in mind when you admire pretty flowers at botanic gardens, people!

Anyway, back to the topic of the day – bills of mortality. I heard about these on a television show last night, and immediately went to my usual research option to learn about them. These were weekly mortality statistics from London, first appearing in late 1500’s and then continuously from 1603. And by golly they are a fascinating thing to look at. Researchers obviously have used them to track diseases like the plague, but for the rest of us it’s fascinating to see what people died of and how it was described.

Causes of death are nowadays something that is investigated with much due diligence. Anyone waiting on a death certificate following an unexpected death knows that coroners like to know exactly how and why someone died – and they won’t give you an answer until they’re good and ready. But obviously in the 16th and 17th century, things were determined much quicker – on December 14, 1742, for instance, 56 people were ‘found dead’. Not too much investigation went into those diagnoses!

On that same day, another 3 people died by the bite of a mad dog, 206 of mortification, and 7 of lethargy. People regularly died of fright, itch and grief. King’s Evil took out a few, and let’s face it that sounds more interesting than mycobacterial cervical lymphadenitis. Other fascinating causes of death included rising of the lights, purples, teeth, griping in the guts, stopping of the stomach, wind and worms. Oh and plannet. That took care of quite a few people. Cancer gets a mention, but usually combined with something else – like Cancer, and Wolf, which took out ten people in 1632.

Obviously the plague features heavily in these lists – in one list from 1665 where only one person died frightened, 6544 died of the plague. But in some lists you have as many infants dying, and people dying of consumption or fever, as you did the plague. Childbed gets a frequent mention.

We’ve come a long way, thank goodness. Most of these causes of death have been eliminated from our modern reality. But to be on the safe side if you’re battling cancer, please stay away from wolves.

And pity the poor person in 1632 who died of piles.

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