Hidden Histories

The Bizarre, Sad, and Regrettable: Selections of Deaths from the 'Federal Mortality Schedules'

Monday, 6/20/11
Between 1850 and 1880, an often under utilized historical resource was kept by the Federal government, a 'record group' commonly referred to simply as, the 'Mortality Schedules' or the Non-Population Census Schedules: 1850-1880, composed for all the states within the Union. It is particularly a great supplement for family 'vital records' research, a valuable compilation available not only at the various 'Regional Libraries of the National Archives,' but also at such popular genealogical web sites as http://www.ancestry.com/, which one can examine online here at The Historical Society of Pennsylvania.

The Mortality Schedules list such important information as the names of every person who died within the year of the census, from 'January first through June first of the 'census year itself,'  but also to June first of the previous year as well, thus including portions of 1849, 1859, 1869, and 1879. They also provide such significant data as the following: age of the deceased, place of birth, month in which the person died, his or her occupation, profession or trade, as well as the individual's cause of death, plus the number of days or months they were ill.

Thus, the 'potential for gleaning serious 'social history' facts and statistics from the information contained within these records are enormous, everything from infant mortality rates, ethnicity, the types of diseases which ravaged or plagued a given locality at particular times or seasons of the year, as well as 'accidents' common for that period of history, which people were prone to be victims.

Also, often times a 'recorder', in the 'Remarks' section, included at the bottom of the page, additional data not required, which gave an added depth or insight into the actual history of a given area, as well as the productivity of the soil, climate, and water sources.

For example, within the 'Remarks' portion for 'Schedule 3, of the 'Mortality Schedule: 'First Ward of Allegheny City, Allegheny County, Pennsylvania, p.641, 'ending 1st June, 1850,' the recorder states:

"This First Ward as the Fourth, is bounded by the Allegheny River, indeed I may say that a portion of it is now in the River; that to which I allude is known to the old residents here by the name of Kill Bucks Island, the name of an Indian, who for his faithfulness to the Whites in troublesome times, Received from PA, a farmland to reside upon it-in early times, so that he might be under their protection from hostile Indians.

This Island, is no more, the River some years ago, has swept every vestige of this historic spot away. Nothing now remains but a Gravel Bank to designate where Kill Buck lived and when our old and long departed friend, Roderick McKinney Raised plentifully corn and wheat. Col. Smith in his interesting narrative in the year 1755, when a Courier to the French in Fort Duquesne, says the day after Braddock's defeat {1755} he could see the savages across the River in Motion making their preparations in order to burn the English prisoners taken at Braddock's Field..."

For 'Schedule 3, for 'Shaler Township, Allegheny County, Pennsylvania,' 1st June, 1860, p.3, one can read of the death of a Mary O'hara, age 34, married, born in Ireland, who died in October (thus in 1859), of "voluntary starvation." At the bottom of the page, in the 'Remarks' section, the recorder stated how, "Mary Ann O'hara, actually starved herself to death. She would neither eat or drink any thing, for 14 days previous to her death." Regrettably, we aren't told why Mary starved herself to death, but these 'individual' details, as well as the existence of a death record at this time, is a valuable and rare tool, usually not available in Pennsylvania vital records for most counties, except perhaps in a church record, or even within a more rare newspaper obituary.

I have found accounts within various Pennsylvania Mortality Schedules, of individuals who "became insane,"  the cause listed as "Spiritualism," which was very popular within the 19th-century. Regrettably, one frequent cause of death which is often recorded, is that of women, such as that of Catherine McFarland, of Philadelphia's 'Fourth Ward,' who "was murdered by her husband while he was drunk," to a number of ladies who are often described as having been "burned to death by her clothes taking fire from a pipe which she was smoking and died instantly."

According to the Mortality Schedule for 1860, a man named John Guntzer, originally from Wurtemburg, Germany, died in Philadelphia's 'Second Ward,' in December of 1859, from being "caught in Machinery." The 'Registration of Deaths: 1803-1860,' a compilation of cemetery records and physician's returns, reports how Guntzer was buried in 'Lafayette Cemetery,' and had died December 9th, 1859, from, "Injuries accordingly received." The Philadelphia Public Ledger, for December 10th, 1859, gives the results of a 'Coroner's Inquest,' that the man had died "from the effects of injuries received at a sugar mill..," with the actual 'Lafayette Cemetery' records at the Historical Society, simply stating how Guntzer was 47 and had died from being "injured."

A Philadelphia mortality schedule recorder wrote in his 'Remarks' section, how in 1870, many individuals reported deaths from unknown causes, one telling him how "she supposed 'God sent for him," while a woman named Mary Bear, of 'North Coventry' in Chester County, Pennsylvania, died at the age of 64 in October of 1869, purportedly as the result of "being insane, wandered off into the woods and was found dead--evidently from fatigue and exposure."

William Shuler, age 54 on the other hand, died in June of 1869 in Montgomery County, Pennsylvania, Norriton Township, "while disinterring a dead body in {a} Cemetery, having a cut on his finger, had his blood poisoned, from which he died." 

The sad death, of a two-month old child, Frederick Charles Emder, is listed as having died in February of 1870, in Northampton County, Pennsylvania, "of neglect." Within the 'Remarks' section, more sordid details are given:

"Charles Emder was left at the Eagle Hotel, Bethlehem, PA, by some person unknown--and was adopted by Mr. & Mrs. Ember. But owing to neglect and exposure--besides being nearly drugged to death by its unnatural and fiendish mother, the kind people who took it were unable to raise it, and it died in a few days after they had baptized it, and given it their name."
Consequently, one can see the valuable contribution which Mortality Schedules can make in regard to individuals, as to the added details of a death, as perhaps recorded elsewhere in other 'record groups,' yet relate data which otherwise may have went totally unrecorded. These schedules once again, exist for the entire state of Pennsylvania, and are readily available for the public's perusal at The Historical Society of Pennsylvania; another example of the variety, diversity, and interesting materials awaiting both the academician and genealogist.