In my earlier post this morning, I wrote about little Milton Josephs, not yet two years old, whose cause of death was listed as marasmus on the Federal Census Mortality Schedule for 1880. I was horrified that a child living in Philadelphia in a middle class home in 1880 could have died from starvation.
My medical consultant, whose expertise is in pediatrics and anesthesia (and who is also my brother, for those of you who haven’t figured it out), also thought that it seemed strange that a child would have died from severe malnutrition without there being some other underlying cause such as cancer or some syndrome that prevented him from being able to absorb nutrients.
His questions made me go back to see if I could find the actual death certificate for Milton on line. My initial searches on both ancestry.com and FamilySearch.org had failed to pick up Milton’s death certificate no matter how I tried searching or spelling his name. But this time I realized there was another way to search. Ancestry.com had a record for Milton in the index of Philadelphia death certificates, but no image of that actual certificate. But the record included the FHL film number, that is, the catalog number for the microfilm in the Family History Library in Salt Lake City.
For some reason, I’d never before tried searching by the FHL number on FamilySearch. I know to those out there who are experienced genealogists this must seem like a terrible rookie mistake, and I am quite embarrassed that I’d never thought to do that before.
But it worked. Plugging the film number into the FamilySearch search engine resulted in the retrieval of this document:
It is a bit hard to read, but if you look carefully you can see that on the certificate it says Milton died from bronchial pneumonia, not marasmus. My brother agreed that this was a much more likely cause of death for a boy living at home with his family in Philadelphia than starvation, and he thought it was unlikely that somehow marasmus led to pneumonia or vice versa.
Then why would the 1880 Federal Census Mortality Schedule have said the cause of death was marasmus? Well, once again I am embarrassed. I looked more closely at the mortality schedule, and sure, it says M. Josephs, and sure, ancestry.com retrieved it as relating to Milton Josephs, but I should have looked more closely. Because now that I have looked again, I realize that the schedule says that M. Josephs was 5/12, that is, five months old.
And a little more research uncovered the death of a child name Mike Josephs who died of marasmus in December 1879 at five months of age. So stupid mistake number two: I too quickly assumed that M. Josephs was Milton without reading the document carefully and without even stopping to think that Milton had died in November, 1880, too late to have been listed on the Federal Census Mortality Schedule for 1880, which was dated May 31, 1880.
So I apologize for my carelesness and for maligning the reputation of my ancestors whose son died from pneumonia, not starvation.
Do I feel any better about Milton, knowing that he did not die from starvation? I suppose that I better understand how a toddler can die from pneumonia than starvation, especially in the era before antibiotics. But no, I don’t feel better. A little boy died what still must have been a painful death, and his family still lost a beloved child.
And another family, that of Mike Josephs, did lose a five month old baby to starvation.
There is no good news here, but I did learn a few important lessons. Thanks to my brother, I was able to find my mistakes and set the record straight.