Case Study of Tuberculosis Deaths Reported in Alexandria Gazette, 1887-1896
A key word search for the Alexandria Gazette for ten years, 1887 to 1896, found 134 reports of individuals who died of consumption. For each reported death, a survey form was completed with all available information about the deceased. These reports suggest the following profile of consumption victims during this period of time in this locality, as reported in this one newspaper. The victims were 63% male and 37% female (N=134). In these death notices, 5 victims (4%) were identified as “Colored,” with the remainder (96%) presumably white. One quarter of deaths were in the age group, 31-40 years (25%); the next largest cohorts were ages 21-30 (22%); 51-60 (18%), 41-50 (16%) and under age 20 (113%). Only 5% of reported deaths from tuberculosis were victims older than 60 years (N=55 for age at death). Approximately one-third of the reported victims died in Alexandria (48 individuals); Baltimore and Washington DC made up the next more frequent locations, and the remainder died in other locations in Virginia. The newspaper reported on a few cases out of state, if they had a connection to Alexandria. The newspaper did provide a few reports of consumption victims who were in the news nationally but did not have any connection to Alexandria; these reports were not included in this survey.
Taken collectively, these reports provide revealing insights into the length of time individuals spent “dying from consumption.” Fifty five of the death reports, approximately 40%, provide some indication of the length of time individuals were ill with consumption before they died. As the table showing the distribution of deaths suggests, almost two-thirds of consumption victims were ill for six month to one year prior to their death. Only two victims, of the 55 for whom this information is available, were sick for less than one week. Less than 10% were ill for less than one month. This evidence confirms that this illness had a long term effect, not only on the individual victim, but on friends and family who may have been involved over this long period of illness that would most likely end in death.
The language used to describe the deaths of individuals provide further evidence of the impact of this disease on victims. Some of these reports make simple statements about the length of illness prior to death: the deceased “had been suffering from consumption for a long time” (Angelina Harper, died July 29, 1895) at age 55), “He had been in poor health for some time” (C. T. Swart, died on May 9, 1892, at age 37), “after a lingering illness” (Thomas Gardner Preston, died October 2, 1890, age 64, and J. T. Jeter, died September 19, 1892, age 50) or simply died of consumption (Bessie McKinney, died September 19, 1893, at age 23, and many others). In some cases, consumption was modified by adjectives that provided further evidence of the way the disease was perceived: “that dread disease, consumption” (James Woolf, died August 8, 1890, and Gertrude Thomas, died October 29, 1896), “galloping consumption (Robert C. Pendleton, died February 16, 1891, age 20; John Schaeff, died January 2, 1893, age 35; and Oscar Sprinkle, died November 25, 1896), and “hectic consumption” (Lillian M. Hite, died November 7, 1889). The few individuals whose disease was a shorter time span were seemingly singled out for the brevity of their suffering. In the case of Ella Gilroy, who died on October 12, 1890, her illness lasted “a few short weeks.”
In some cases, the death notices provide a narrative of illness and death in ways that further illustrate the impact of this disease. Theodore Maddux, who died on March 8, 1887 at age 27, was “a man of apparently robust health” just two months previously. (AG, March 8,1887) Clarence W. Taylor, who died at age 22 on July 15, 1893, “for sixteen months past has been sick with consumption and a great portion of that time being extremely ill.” (AG, July 17, 1893). Joseph Horseman, who died on January 22, 1887, had been ill for some time, and “for several weeks past his death had been momentarily expected.” (AG, January 24, 1887). Wm. H. P. Berkley had suffered from consumption for several years period to this death on August 31, 1893, but he “was able to be about almost up to the time of his death, having been on street at a late hour yesterday evening.” (AG, August 31, 1893). One of the longest accounts related to the death of Bessie Janney, a “young lady” who died February 1, 1896: “Miss Janney, while going to Europe last summer, contracted a heavy cold on the steamer, and at Carlsbad had a severe attack of pneumonia. The physicians there feared that the disease would develop into consumption, and on the return home of the young lady she slowly weakened until death to her in the South, where she had gone in the hope that the warmer climate would stay the ravages of the disease.” (AG, February 3, 1896). University of Virginia student James Burr Deatherage died on April 27, 1887: “he fell asleep as quietly as a babe on his mother’s breast.” (AG, May 5, 1887). Hugh Ross “had been in delicate health for months past, but was not confined to his bed more than three weeks” prior to his deth on August 11, 1887. (AG, August 27, 1887)
The death notices occasionally reference the research being done on consumption. T. F. Wallace, who died on September 19, 1893, “had taken the new Amick cure, but had derived no benefit from it.” This cure, developed by Dr. Amick in Cincinnati, was widely advertised as a potential cure for consumption, and attracted interest and endorsements from physicians. Nancy Poindexter made a dying request to be “cut open,” and the post mortem resulted in a diagnosis of tuberculosis after her death on April 6, 1895. Carter Harrison, who died April 20, 1891 in Richmond, “was one of the patients inoculated with Koch’s lymph, but in his case it was not productive of any good results.” (AG, April 21, 1891).
Finally, some of most evocative death tributes were the poems that accompanied just a few of the death notices. The obituary for Edward B. Philips, who died September 10, 1889 at age 22, included this poem: “Sadly we mourn and drop a tear / For on to memory ever dear. / But wipe the tears from every eye – / His worth and friendship never will die. / Blighted hope and gushing sorrow / Weigh our spirits down with grief. / But a gentle, loving presence / Calms, and soothes and gives relief / Slowly fading, lingering, dying, / Like a leaf he passed away, / Heeding not our tears of anguish / Heaven claimed its own that day.’ (AG, September 11, 1889).
The 134 death reports located by the key word proximity search for “consumption” and “died” within 50 words make up approximately 16% of all the results using this search technique and 5% of all reports with key word “consumption” or “tuberculosis.” Most of the remaining results for the proximity search “died” and “consumption” are for advertisements, which often appeared repeatedly within certain periods of time. The newspaper did have several news reports about consumption, including articles, editorials, and letters dealing with the research on tuberculosis by scientists in the US and overseas, especially in Western Europe. The twelve deaths from consumption reported just for Alexandria for 1892, 1893, and 1894 make up approximately one-third of the total number of deaths from consumption recorded by the Office of Auditor of Public Accounts in three annual reports on burial permits (AG, March 2, 1893; March 19, 1894; and May 23, 1895).
 “Consumption Cured,” Los Angeles Herald, June 26, 1893, p. 1: http://chroniclingamerica.loc.gov/lccn/sn85042461/1893-06-26/ed-1/seq-1/; “The Amick Cure,” Los Angeles Herald, October 9, 1893, p. 2: http://chroniclingamerica.loc.gov/lccn/sn85042461/1893-10-09/ed-1/seq-2/; “Curing Consumption,” The Columbus Journal, November 1, 1893, p. 1. http://chroniclingamerica.loc.gov/lccn/sn95073194/1893-11-01/ed-1/seq-1/