Grand Pockets’s Blog

Genealogy, Family, Poetry and Peeves

Chasing the City Past


As genealogists we are intimate with death. We chase dead people through records every day, and we become involved with the records of those deaths. What caused them. What happened in those last days?

Medicine was backward, doctors often trained simply by working with another doctor for a few years then taking exams often administered by the same doctor. Later, as more credentialling was required, and medical colleges opened the methods were crude, the things learned often wrong, and discoveries were made by experiments with the poor unfortunates of the slums. There was no regulation of medicine to speak of.

So, medicine was one problem pioneers faced – had I been born in 1854 rather than 1954 I would be dead for a half century now since I had rheumatic fever early, developed a heart murmur and then followed that with scarlet fever. Approximately in 1858, my mother would have wept, my father would have measured and built for me a small wooden box, and you might be hunting my records to complete some pioneer family’s history.

Another problem that led to death was the bathtub. Or the lack of them. And any other form of cleanliness. People rarely washed. Lice weren’t unusual – it was unusual not to have lice, or sleep with bedbugs.

Food spoiled easily, especially in summer, yet it was too precious to waste so you’d cook it anyway. In a stew or soup with lots of pepper or some other pungent herb to mask the flavor. You’d cook it with rain barrel water that you swept clear of flies or mosquitoes with your unwashed hands, and dice the rancid meat on a table that was pitted, scarred and creviced with grime that couldn’t be scrubbed completely out, with an unwashed knife that you also used for a dozen other things that day, cook it on a small iron stove top, and you served it in the few pieces of crockery you possessed, also unwashed, simply scraped clean.

The kids came in for dinner after running barefoot all day in filthy streets coated in horse dung and pig manure and urine. You’d serve Granma, and Aunt Nell, your spouse and your 9 kids, all of you living in a 2 room 14 x 22 foot unheated, brick tenement without running water or toilets. You tossed the slop bucket behind the curtain in the corner (called the necessary) through the back window into a trough in the street that was supposed to sluice it to the sewer. The brick wall outside that window had never been washed and was stained black all the way to the alley below.

You were lucky, though. At least your family didn’t dwell in the alley like so many others did. You faced the slightly less smelly street. You weren’t of the “unhoused poor” as the city’s newly formed committee to try and deal with those huddled unfortunates, orphans, and cripples was named.

Every single day of your life living in an early American city was a dance with death. You were only a chill, a cough, an infected cut from contracting one of the diseases that raged rampant through the streets and then you were at the mercy of a doctor who might be relatively skilled, given the time, or you might be at the behest of a butcher, a charlatan with little real knowledge at all. At the last, though, was the final indignity if you wouldn’t die fast enough. The hospital. This is pre-civil war when hospitals were more morgue than places of healing. The sick went there to die because not many ever came out. And through this horrid cityscape, this Dali like nightmare, you’d love and laugh and cry just like we do today because you never knew any better. You strived and attempted and survived, and because of what you lived with and learned, I, born in 1954, live and love and laugh and read about you with awe and wonder and can never, it seems, find out enough about you.

One thing I do know, though, TV and the movies have spoiled us into believing false portraits of what our forefathers lives were really like. They’ve cleaned them up and educated them and made them much more like us than they actually were. That’s probably a good thing, though, because not too many of us could handle the truth about them, let alone the work load or hardships they endured.

grandpockets1

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January 19, 2009 - Posted by | genealogy | , , , ,

2 Comments »

  1. I survived rheumatic fever in the 1950’s, too, supposedly without heart damage or a murmur, but I’m not so sure,
    as by 7 I was having migraine headaches, which I have read are linked to heart murmurs. You described very graphically what would have happened to us if we had had it in the 1850’s instead. Did you know that Robert Burns died so young because he had rheumatic fever?

    Kathryn Snodgrass Schultz,
    descendant of John and Lydia Ann Conaway Hawkins
    and surprised to see my name on your site in the
    footnotes about Helen Hawkins Snodgrass’s family Bible

    Comment by Kathryn Schultz | March 12, 2011 | Reply

    • Glad we’re both here, Kathryn, and cheers to a cousin..
      Chuck

      Comment by Grandpockets | November 12, 2011 | Reply


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