Missouri News in the 1870s: How People Died

Bellefontaine Cemetery (Library of Congress)





Let us end our time travel with death, the most revealing state of all. There was no privacy between the 1860s and 1880s; one learned from the newspaper exactly what ailed one’s neighbors. An awful lot of dropsy, the swelling we now call edema, and specifically, dropsy of the heart; also congestion of the brain and tons of contagious respiratory diseases. In 1875, the editor of the Jefferson Democrat announced wearily, “This has been the sickliest season ever known.” There were so many infant and child deaths, it breaks your heart in half. Grisly accidents, hands mashed to a pulp in machinery, people thrown headlong from buggies or horses. One poor chap got his foot caught under the wheel of a train and was thrown against the cars and one of his legs run over. He died. I am surprised to read this; I expected only that he might lose his leg. But blood was not as easy to replace then.

Because health was precarious, it was news. “Jos. W. North has been quite sick for the last month, but has sufficiently recovered to come down town occasionally” was a news item. So was the happy fact that “Richard Hoeken’s little boy has been relieved of the silver quarter he swallowed, and is now ready for another adventure.” And we learn that “Mr. Samuel Medley, of Belew’s Creek has nearly lost the use of his left arm and leg, from rheumatism. He has been suffering with it for some months, but he is still able to get around.”

Obits included told how people had died—and by that I mean not just the cause, but their state of mind at the last minute, which was assumed to be the consequence of their Christian virtue (or lack thereof). It was typical for a man to be praised because he was “conscious until nearly the last moments of his life, and was resigned and wiling to die.” Of a twenty-five-year-old woman, we read that “the deportment of her life was under the control of almost every moral quality that adorns and exalts the character of her sex. Her sweet affable disposition endeared her to many valued friends, whom she called to her bed side, and in that natural flow of touching, soothing language so familiar and peculiar to herself, that disarmed death of all its terrors, entreated to all be prepared to meet her in that better land, where earthly sorrow shall be changed to everlasting joy.”

The underlying belief system, in other words, was thoroughly Christian. Also, of grim necessity, philosophical. “Death is no respector of persons,” we are reminded when someone in robust health keels over. A teenager’s sudden and inexplicable death “illustrates that our ‘life is even as a vapor that appeareth for a little time, and then vanisheth away.’” And a father who broke his back trying to cut down a tree became “another example of the uncertainty of man’s life.”

That happened in 1866, and the man “was cut loose by his own son, not more than eleven years old.” Later that year, a ten-year-old (kids grew up fast in a different way back then) wrote an obit for the Sunday school librarian: “He has gone to his long home, never to return…. He was only absent from Sunday school one Sabbath, and before the next came around he was missing forever.”

Less wrenching was the news that a gentleman “died of old age and a general wearing out of the machinery of life. He passed away like a child sleeping.” That was a life come full circle, unlike the shocking “death of young William Kloepper, at St. Louis last week. He was a brave, manly fellow, seemingly possessed of unusual bodily vigor, and as if likely to outlive us all. He was endeavoring to care for his mother in the city, and his death will be to her as the loss of a right hand.”

Death drank a lot of ink in those days, what with children dying and women dying in childbirth and men dying in farm accidents. Anticipatory goofs were to be expected, as when the editor wrote, “We learn from a reliable source that Mr. P.A. Helterbrand is not dead—reports to the contrary not withstanding—and we are glad to correct the statement we made last week in that regard. He was very sick, for a time but was not expected to live, but he considers himself yet better than several dead men.”

It happened again: “Sam. Helterbrand is not dead as reported…. The man brought to Farmington to be identified, was of dark complexion; had long dark whiskers and black eyes, while Sam is very light complexioned, had light blue eyes, scarcely any whiskers, and very light hair.”

And again: “The report of that man having killed himself and wife was false. Mr. Wilcox visited us Friday and informed us that they were both at his house and there had been no difficulty at all. It is queer what lies some people will originate.”

There were eloquent and sympathetic accounts of tragedy: “Dr. Stegman returned from Russia, to find that his wife had died the previous day. The shadow of grief cast over the once happy family can be better imagined than described.”

A three-year-old who died of “congestion of the brain” had breakfasted with her family; by eight that evening, “the spirit of little Alice had taken its flight to dwell forever with the angels.”

And even the jaded newspaper editor was verklempt when a woman went to her ailing father, only to find him already dead, and sending word home to her husband that their baby was ill, she learned that her husband was also dead. Then the baby died, and the bereft woman fell ill with grief and shock, and her doctor “administered a wrong remedy [that] would undoubtedly have killed her if the other physician had not been called in.”

Subdued, the editor reminded those with greater fortune to be grateful. In one death announcement, he wrote that this well-to-do man’s widow, “while sorrowing for her husband should remember to be thankful that her lot has been so much better than that enjoyed by the average of the human family.”

Such rhetorical delicacy fell away, though, when the paper recounted grisly accidents. A little boy “was eaten up by wolves.” Henry Beaster stuck an axe in his knee and seemed to be getting better, but after he had it lanced, “convulsions ensued, and on last Sunday morning Mr. Beaster was a corpse.”

Deaths by suicide were reported even more bluntly. The editor sounded almost impressed by the ingenuity of a young widower, out of his mind with grief, who killed himself “by using an ax handle as a lever and raising a rail fence from the fourth rail and placing his neck upon the third rail, pulling the ax handle out and letting the fence fall upon his neck, breaking it instantly by its weight.”

The paper was rather casual, though, about the schoolteacher who “suicided” by shooting the side of his head off and leaving “a ghastly corpse” for his landlord to find. “There was pinned on the coat of the deceased, a postal card bearing this inscription: ‘Here’s a sign for those that love me and a smile for those who hate me. I die by my own hand.’ His rash act can only be accounted for on the theory that he was out of money and position, and had got tired of life.”

Another attempted suicide was also attributed to “his getting tired of life”—and there may be more truth in that simple phrase than we want to realize. The man “was still alive at last accounts,” the editor added, “though is probably dead by this time.”

And he probably was, because I could not find a correction in the next edition.


Read more by Jeannette Cooperman here.


Read also:

“Missouri News in the 1870s: Marriage and Its Scandals”

“Missouri News in the 1870s: How People Lived”

Missouri News in the 1870s: Race and Social Issues”

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