Unusual Ways to Die in Old New York

Friday, October 20, 2017 - 9:15am

In honor of the Halloween season, we cracked open our “spookiest” records - New York City Coroner’s reports from the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries - to see what we could learn about sudden, untimely death in Old New York.

The Coroner - an official position since before the American Revolution - was charged with assessing sudden, mysterious or suspicious deaths in New York City, and documenting information about the circumstances and individuals involved.

We looked through three volumes of Coroner’s records published by the NYG&B:

  • Minutes of Coroner's Proceedings, 1748-1758
  • Coroner's Reports, New York City, 1823-1842
  • Coroner's Reports, New York City, 1843-1849

These collections are available in our eLibrary - NYG&B members can search by name or browse through the volumes. By the way, as a special offer for this October, new NYG&B members receive a print copy of their choice of Coroner's Reports as a gift. Select your desired choice when filling out the membership form! 

In combing through these records, we learned a lot about the perils our ancestors faced in Old New York City. In short, it was a hazardous place, especially for the lower working classes.


Drowning was a surprisingly common occurrence
found in these records - New York was a busy 
port with rough, frigid waters, and many passengers
boarding and disembarking ships couldn't swim. 

 

The most unusual deaths we found

Overall, the cases with the most unusual circumstances described by the Coroner fell into two general categories - work accidents and ailments attributed to head-scratching causes.

The former is unsurprising given the time period - New York was a booming city with an unfathomable amount of construction and industrial activity, and workplace safety considerations were non-existent. Structures collapsed, items fell, and back then, even a minor injury by today’s standards could lead to death without proper emergency medical treatment.

Even so, we were surprised at how many seemingly innocuous activities could lead to one’s demise.

In many reports, the Coroner attributed death to causes that seem quite bizarre to the modern reader, but give us a fascinating look at ideas about health, wellness, and plausible causes of death that existed among previous generations.   

Read on for a selection of the most unusual cases we found in these records. We haven't changed or exaggerated any wording - the causes written here are exact transcriptions of what was originally written by the City Coroner. 

 

Unexpected accidents

“Suffocation in privy” - Henry Zeigler, b. Germany, age 35 (4 Aug. 1838)


An 1868 report of a fire engine explosion in the Bowery, in
Harper's Weekly. Much of the technology we take for granted
today came with a risk of catastrophic failure in the nineteenth
century. 

“Bursting of a soda fountain” - Lawrence Switzler, b. Germany, age 30 (20 Aug. 1839)

“Wool Accident” - Mary Bracken, b. Ireland, age 61, packed wool for some merchants at 111 Nassau St. where a whole bale of wool fell on her (19 Feb. 1839)

“Gored by a cow. He worked for Mr. Evan Davis at his milk dairy in 15th St” - Griffith Griffiths b. Wales, age unknown (2 July 1843)

“A stove fell on him - had been employed to carry the stove a short distance.” - John Wright, age 50  (29 Nov. 1839)

A bank of earth of the N.Y. and Erie R.R. falling upon him” - Thomas Cray b. Ireland, age 25 (8 Oct. 1849)

 

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Mysterious maladies

Visitation of God”- Martha Black b. Ireland, age 60

“Old age and excitement” - Edward Simmons, b. Ireland, age 81 (16 Oct. 1847)

Drinking cold water when overheated” - Charlotte Sturdevant, b. Albany, age 36 (23 Aug. 1831)

"Inflamation [sic] of the thigh” - John Spears, b. England, age 24. He was a hand on board the sloop Martha Ann, of West Farms, Capt. John Dennison. (3 July 1838)

“Disease from irregular habits” Alice Cullen b. Ireland, age 30 (14 July 1849)

“Cause unclear - He had venereal disease and was discharged from U.S. Service” -  John Bruen, b. New York, a sailor. (7 Mar. 1839)


There is a grain of truth in this Temperance
Movement drawing - accidentally deadly concoctions
caused more than a few deaths in New York - the sale
of alcohol and medicine was largely unregulated. 

“Taking tincture of bloodroot” - Edward Carrigan age 47 (15 July 1841)

“By ignorance took 1 oz. of strychnine” - Susanna Shaw, b. County Sligo, Ireland, age 30 (29 Mar. 1843)

 

Investigate for yourself 

Overall, the Coroner’s reports contain hundreds of cases, and these are just the tip of the iceberg. These fascinating records are well-worth exploring, especially if you’re in the mood for investigating some eerie genealogical material.

And of course, don't forget the immense genealogical value of these records beyond their interesting subject matter. The descriptions, in many cases, mention relatives, associates, and other useful information. 

The records themselves serve as crucial vital record substitutes, which is especially important because New York State vital records can be very difficult to find. And of course, for those who can locate ancestors in these volumes, these records can solve (or create) family mysteries that will remain share-worthy stories for years.

Take a look and let us know if you find anything interesting in the comments!

 

More Genealogy Reading

 

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