Reading historical death records may not be the exciting of things to do on any given day. However, during a global pandemic, with so many death statistics being the only headline news to be read, maybe, just maybe, historical mortality records, may prove more interesting.
Bahamians in the early 1900s died of many things. From starvation to tertiary syphilis to cholera to typhoid to dropsy to fever to senility, all manner of maladies and diseases were recorded as our causes of death.
La Grippe case recorded in Nassau in March 1917
On March 7th, 1917, in the City of Nassau, 64-year-old Catherine Ann Wright, a white female, died of La Grippe or Influenza.
La Grippe was used in 1890 to refer to the Russian flu epidemic.
By 1918, a new strain of flu, which would later infect some 500million and claim the lives of an estimated 10% of that or 50 million people worldwide, would be called also La Grippe or Spanish Influenza.
La Grippe Influenza, la grippe or epidemic catarrhal fever may be defined as a specific epidemic and contagious disease, caused by a specific bacillus.
(The Weekly News-Democrat, Thursday, 09 January 1890)
(St. Louis Globe-Democrat, Tuesday 21 January, 1890)
CHOLERA AND PHTHISIS
PHTHISIS – Is a old Greek word meaning “a dwindling or wasting away.” Pronounced TIE-sis. Phthisis is an archaic name for tuberculosis. A person afflicted with tuberculosis in the old days was destined to dwindle and waste.
Cholera is an infectious disease that causes severe watery diarrhea, which can lead to dehydration and even death if untreated. It is caused by eating food or drinking water contaminated with a bacterium called Vibrio cholerae. It is transmitted through water with contaminated fecal matter.There were several cholera epidemics in Bahamian history.
CONGENITAL, SECONDARY AND TERTIARY SYPHILIS
Syphilis, was a widely contracted sexually transmitted disease, which left untreated, became a cause of mortality.
Ronald Johnson, 8 months old, negro male, died from congenital syphilis on January 13th, 1917. This meant the baby contracted the disease from the mother.
Olivia Adderley, 26 years old, negro female, a farmer by profession, died on January 20, 1917 from tertiary syphilis.
Harriet Jones, 60 year old, negro female, no profession, died on January 30, 1917 from tertiary syphilis.
Margaret Ford, 30 years old, negro female, a washerwoman by profession, died on February 1, 1917 from tertiary syphilis.
Rebecca Tewey, 56 years old, negro female, general labourer, died on February 5, 1917 from tertiary syphilis.
Richard Forbes, 46 years old, negro male, no profession, died on February 26, 1917 from tertiary syphilis.
Timothy Jones, 60 year old, negro male, no profession, died on February 28, 1917 from tertiary syphilis.
Margaret Rolle, 35 year old, negro female, farm labourer, died on March 18, 1917 from syphilis.
Driscilla Taylor, 18 years old died of venereal disease January 19, 1918
Wernicke-Korsakoff Syndrome (WKS), also called “WET BRAIN”, is a type of dementia that some people going through alcoholism might develop, usually towards the end stages. It’s caused by a deficiency in vitamin B1 (thiamine), which helps the body turn food into energy.
Drowning was an uncomfortably common cause of death because despite living on an island, few Bahamians knew how to swim in the early 1900s.
Consumption: An old and once common term for wasting away of the body, particularly from pulmonary tuberculosis (TB). Other old TB terms include the King’s evil or scrofula (TB of the lymph nodes in the neck) and Pott’s disease (TB of the spine).
BREAST CANCER, ABSCESS AND HEART DISEASE
There were only a handful of deaths attributed to cancer in the early 1900s. Cancer became more prevalent, as a cause of death, as we began to move away from more labour intensive jobs and began living longer thanks to antibiotics and vaccines.
DROWNING AND FEVER
Fever was a very common cause of death especially in young children and the elderly.
Three in the same family drown while probably fishing in Mayaguana.
SENILE DECAY, FEVER FROM WORMS AND CONSUMPTION
Death from advanced years was called senile decay, natural decay, dementia, old age or act of god.
As few people had shoes or access to clean water, worms was a constant ailment, which if left untreated, resulted in a painful death.
DROPSY, INFANTILE TROUBLE AND MEASLES
Contrary to popular misconceptions, dropsy is not a sleeping sickness. Dropsy is an old term for the swelling of soft tissues due to the accumulation of excess water.
Lee, Anne S., and Everett S. Lee. “The Health of Slaves and the Health of Freedmen: A Savannah Study.” Phylon (1960-), vol. 38, no. 2, 1977, pp. 170–180. JSTOR, http://www.jstor.org/stable/274680. Accessed 7 Feb. 2020.
In years gone by, a person might have been said to have dropsy. Today one would be more descriptive and specify the cause. Thus, the person might have edema due to congestive heart failure.
Infant Mortality was high. There were many deaths of children under the age of one and five. If you lived past five years old, you had a good chance of making it into adulthood.
Elsie Wilson: African (race), Female – died at age 110 years old on February 11, 1918
The people on the islands would say, ‘well thank goodness you lived long enough to lose your mind.’ Old age was an achievement in an era of so many then incurable ailments.
STARVATION on Inagua 1918
Bright’s disease is a historical classification of kidney diseases that would be described in modern medicine as acute or chronic nephritis. It was characterized by swelling and the presence of albumin in the urine, and was frequently accompanied by high blood pressure and heart disease.
Deaths from diarrhoea was inevitably caused by worms or dirty drinking water or some form of bacteria. Cholera was also a cause of diarrhoea deaths.
Fever was a catch all category. Few autopsies were performed. Death registrars, especially on the Family Islands, relied on descriptions of the circumstances surrounding the demise of the recently departed. From these post mortem interviews, official causes of death were recorded.
FEVER DEATHS EXUMA DECEMBER 1919
PNEUMONIA, MANIA, PELLAGRA, PHTHISIS PULMONARIS, TYPHOID
Phthisis is an archaic name for tuberculosis. A person afflicted with tuberculosis in the old days was destined to dwindle and waste away. Phthisis was pulmonary tuberculosis or a similar progressive wasting disease.
Infant deaths attributed to a malady called the weakness.
In 1918 to 1920, as the Spanish Flu raged pandemic raged around the world, it appears that a number of deaths in the Bahamas were labelled influenza.
How doctors, in the Bahamas, were able to tell the difference between Spanish flu, influenza, pneumonia, La Grippe and fever, as a specific cause of death, is not known.
INFLUENZA, FEVER, PNEUMONIA
INFLUENZA – Green Turtle Cay
SOME INFLUENZA DEATHS BY ISLAND 1920
6 deaths – Green Turtle Cay March 1920
3 deaths – Western District Nassau March 1920
2 deaths – Eleuthera East End
1 death Spanish Wells – Priscilla Adelaide Pinder – European (white race) age 64
1 death – Marsh Harbour Abaco
1 death – Northern District of Long Island African Estelle Gray Female 20-years old, died March 2, 1920
1 death – Middle of San Salvador African boy six years old died February 28, 1920
1 death – Governors Harbour Barbary Culmer African (race) Female 42 years old Field Labourer
4 deaths – St. Anne’s Parish Nassau including:
Faith Minnis, African, Female, 19 years old Farm Labourer February 23, 1920
Kenneth Finlayson African Male 34 years old, General Labourer died February 6th 1920
4 deaths all Mixed Raced including Augusta Archer – Mixed Race, Female 54 years old died March 26th 1920
1 death – Lina McKenzie African (race) Female 30 years old died March 7th 1920
Harriet Carroll Mixed Race Female 34 years old died January 30, 1920
Abaco Cherokee Sound
2 deaths: 64 year old and an 11 day old baby.
1 death – Emeline Fisher, African, Female 66 years old. Housekeeper
Hannah Knowles aged 1 year and 3 months died June 3, 1920
Green Turtle Cay
African, female, 5 years old died April 28, 1920