Childhood mortality

Millard Leslie Morse, ca. 1916, of Wareham, Massachusetts.

We are not far removed from a time when parents, as a matter of course, endured the loss of one or more of their children. In fact, each of my grandparents had a sibling who died in infancy or early childhood. Some years ago, as part of a field study in a local cemetery, one of my students, obviously struck by the number of children’s graves, asked me: “Do you think parents back then just didn’t get attached to their children because they knew some of them would die?” My answer to this question has deepened over the years as I have listened to family stories and discerned poignant signs of remembrance.

In experiencing vicarious sorrow in how parents coped, I believe the frequency of deaths did not diminish the intensity of their grief. Parents from all classes knew the common bond of losing a child, and many would have been comforted by their religious beliefs and rituals. For example, Catherine (Blais) Vallée (1882–1949), a Québec immigrant to Vermont, recorded the births of her thirteen children. Next to the four who died in infancy, she wrote “Ange” [Angel]. Other pieces of evidence have survived through oral history.

My grandfather’s only brother, Millard Leslie Morse (1914–1917) died at the age of three from scarlet fever. Myrta, their mother, succumbed to the disease at the same time, losing most of her hair. Myrta’s next child, Avis, born six years later, recalled filling  childhood loneliness by talking to little Millard’s picture, a poignant reminder of the child’s brief life.  Avis confided that her mother mourned this child for the rest of her life.

Mary Dwyer (1883–1900) of Newport, Rhode Island.

To me, one of the great ironies of my nineteenth-century Irish immigrant families is that in their pursuit of a better life here, they experienced higher rates of infant mortality in the densely packed neighborhoods of American cities than they would have in rural Ireland. Even Newport, Rhode Island, at the height of the Gilded Age, had congested tenements with poor sanitation. In the 1880s, Mary Ann (Sheehan) Dwyer had four babies die from cholera before the age of three. Her only surviving daughter, Mary, lived long enough to graduate from high school, but succumbed to tuberculosis at the age of seventeen. Mary’s photo always had a place of prominence in the family home. Two of Mary’s grandsons, whom I knew well, often said that their grandmother never fully recovered from the loss of this daughter.

Falvey/Mahoney stone, St. Joseph’s Cemetery, Willimantic. Courtesy of Jeff Lee

My most heart-wrenching discovery occurred while canvassing graves in St. Joseph’s Cemetery in Willimantic, Connecticut. One side of a sturdy obelisk bears the name of County Kerry native Jeremiah Mahoney, who died 4 September 1890, age 46.[1] The adjacent side lists with no dates eleven children, including two daughters named Mary. Research in the town hall brought home the terrible truth: none of these babies lived past their second birthday, dying from cholera, croup, or diphtheria. I used to think that naming one child after an earlier one who died was morbid – as I put myself in the place of parents who hoped another child would fulfill a life cut short. Sadly, that did not happen for the Mahoneys, with second infant Mary faring no better than her sister. Undoubtedly, Jeremiah’s widow Mary (Falvey) Mahoney erected this stone for her husband and children, but when she died in 1900, no one inscribed her dates or age on the stone. If she hoped that the names of these children would not be forgotten, though, she succeeded.


[1] In fact, “Jeremiah,” was six years older, having been baptized in Caherdaniel in Kerry in November 1838 as Demetrium O’Mahony, son of Johannis O’Mahony and Gubnetta Dwyre.

About Michael Dwyer

Michael F. Dwyer first joined NEHGS on a student membership. A Fellow of the American Society of Genealogists, he is a contributing editor of The Maine Genealogist and The American Genealogist. His articles have been published in the Register, American Ancestors, and Rhode Island Roots, among others. The Vermont Department of Education's 2004 Teacher of the Year, Michael retired in June 2018 after 35 years of teaching subjects he loves—English and history.

48 thoughts on “Childhood mortality

  1. It’s not just grandparents that experience loss. My sister died at 3 months old, my father was in the Marine Corps at the time. She is buried at Golden Gate National Cemetery where row upon row of infants and young children are buried. It’s the concentration of young lives buried together that is so poignant. Although the death of a child is not as common, it is still a very real part of our lives.

  2. My uncle born in Westchester, NY in 1921 survived scarlet fever as an infant. Does anyone know the mortality rate of this disease at that time?

    1. In that era, before antibiotics, your uncle was fortunate to survive unscathed. As for the mortality rate, I’ll leave that question to someone who has done statistical research.

  3. An ancestor of mine had eleven children; three were named Ira and none of them lived more than two years while the other eight children all survived into adulthood plus.

  4. Interesting take and very accurate. In my research I have come across a lot of ancestors that have lost multiple children and like you felt it was morbid to name a child after a deceased sibling. My Great Grandmother died in NYC of the Spanish Flu, 1918 while pregnant with twins. I always heard my grand mother and aunt talk about this and that inspired me to research.

    1. I’ve done a lot of research on how that epidemic impacted local communities, especially how it cut short so many people in the prime of life. I knew several people who grew up in foster homes or orphanages because their parents died.

  5. My mother’s (b. 1912) two grandmothers had a total of 23 children. Six died very young, two in their teens, and two in their early twenties.

  6. A very poignant situation repeated in so many families, especially in the immigrant generation. One family among my extended Quebec emigrants to New England also had a large number of early child deaths, though not quite matching the Mahoneys. Olivier Trudeau (1844-1921), his two wives and eleven children are buried in St. Mary’s Cemetery, Sprague CT. One lived into her teens and two into their twenties, but these remained single. Olivier did have four other sons, buried elsewhere as they lived to have families of their own.

  7. I had occasion to explore cholera infantum for a project I’m working on; it was was listed as the cause of death of a 9-month-old infant in September 1897. Reviewing the City of Boston death records for that month, cholera infantum was named as the disease that killed about 50 children, primarily under 2 years of age. There are several interesting articles on the malady, including one from the New England Journal of Medicine (26 Nov 1851) which I found a bit chilling in its tendency to assign at least partial blame the mother: “The anxious mother seeing her child laboring under other predisposing causes, and perhaps weak and feeble, imagines the ‘dear little thing’ needs more nourishment and consequently she is never satisfied unless when loading the already weak stomach of her darling with some nice preparation to ‘give it strength,’ not realizing that she is to see her kind and unwearied endeavors, and anxious solicitude, rewarded by a fearful and often fatal disease! She does not realize that she is killing her child with kindness!” How many women, in the course of mourning the loss of a child, were also (implicitly or explicitly) led to hold themselves to blame? Tragedy upon tragedy. Thankfully over time a sound etiology of the disease was developed, and diagnosis and treatment became more enlightened.

  8. My great-great-grandfather had 23 named children with two wives — all but two of the nine children of the first marriage died young (although another made it to adolescence). The fourteen children of the second marriage did rather better: only three died in childhood, and the average age of the survivors was close to ninety.

    Several names were used more than once: William (for their father), Francis or Frances, Emile, Josephine, Gabriel, and Mary or Maria/Marie (as a forename or middle name). Given one order of names at baptism, the children sometimes dropped or rearranged the order to suit themselves.

    My great-grandmother grew up in the middle of the second family, and I wonder how much she was affected by tight quarters and the residual misery of all that death within the family.

    1. Residual misery is an excellent way of putting it. While parents had their own motivations for naming a child after an earlier one, I know, from experience, that some surviving children who carried the name felt odd about it.

  9. And not just in cities. Two great granduncles whose wives were sisters lived in Kansas and Colorado. In the 1900 Census, one of the wives had eight children, but only two were living. The other had six, but only two were living. I’m sure that tuberculosis, cholera and various infections took quite a toll. Imagine the pain those parents endured!

    1. That is one of the most telling columns of the 1900 census: the number of children born and the number who lived.

  10. Rare indeed was the family that did not lose at least one child, and often more, to an early death. It was as anguishing to them as it would be to us today. I found one of the most unusual and touching testaments to that in the 1870 US census. There, my great-great grandparents, William and Ann Sheehan, born Ireland, listed their children, including the oldest, Julia. I couldn’t find Julia anywhere else. Many years of research proved what I had come to suspect. Julia had died a few weeks after birth in 1861–nine years before the census. When asked to list their children, my ancestors listed them all, including a beloved baby who had died but was not forgotten.

  11. What a poignant story. My father’s parents were first generation immigrants. Before my father, the youngest of my grandparents’ family was born, his parents lost a baby boy to “inanition”–in other words, starvation.

  12. The saddest story I’ve encountered so far in researching my family history involves the brother of my paternal grandmother. He immigrated to Bridgeport, CT and had 10 children born there. Although all of them survived infancy, at least nine, and probably all of them, died before their father. I haven’t identified cause of death for all of the children, but several died from infectious diseases like tuberculosis and meningitis. Since his wife had also predeceased him by many years, my grand uncle died apparently alone in Bridgeport’s Hillside Home, which was publicly maintained. He is buried in an unmarked grave in the Catholic cemetery in Stratford, CT.

  13. I am so grateful for your decision to embrace your personal history. Beyond the tree there are roots, soil etc. that are so often invisible in a family history. And of course you chose to embrace me…which has been one of the greatest privileges of my life.

  14. My father-in-law was one of 10 children born between 1900 and 1923. Seven of these died in early childhood, primarily due to illnesses for which we inoculate babies today, but the oldest one to die was bitten by a black widow spider at age 14.
    It was once asked of their mother how she endured the loss of so many children. Her reply was that when each one had died, she was pregnant with another and she had to live for the future.
    Doing family research, I’ve also found a family with 10 children who lost six of them in one month; and just this week I learned of a related family where the father and four children died within a few days. I even saw the mortuary bill for their graves and headstones. That must have been a burden for the widow/mother, too. I haven’t found the cause of death for these, but I’m sure they were communicable diseases, for which there was no treatment at the time. I am grateful for modern medicine!

  15. I am the youngest of 6 children. I lost 3 siblings during my childhood. My sister died when she was 11 of rheumatic fever. Three years later my brother died of rheumatic fever at age 9. Three years after that another brother died in a racing car accident at age 21. My parents never recovered from the loss and grief. Nor did I

  16. On my mother’s paternal side a family member did an extensive genealogy in the 1960s. For the people listed it is remarkably accurate. It is not accurate for children born into the family. It seems the respondents only listed their living children. I have stopped being surprised when doing research to discover another child, who either died at birth or in infancy, that is not listed. Usually they are found by accident as I always read the entire page of vital records as you never know what else may be in it. Recently, at a funeral, I mentioned that there were twins, who died within a day of birth, also buried at that grave site that don’t appear on the marker and their names. Their elderly siblings were unaware that their mother ever had twins. They weren’t the only children she lost, but are the only ones without mention on the marker.

    1. My paternal grandmother lost a baby that perhaps even my father did not know of–it happened well before he was born. I had never known of it; like you, I found it by accident while looking for something else. Very sad, and I guess commonly kept more or less secret in those days.

  17. As a mother who has lost a child I was astounded to learn that my great great grandparents buried eight of their twelve children. Several died in infancy however, some died as young children and three died in their early twenties. It is difficult to imagine the grief and effect these deaths might have had on the family.

    1. Yes, it is difficult to comprehend the extent to which these deaths impacted families; however, we have learned that silence does not mean diminished intensity.

  18. You don’t have to go back very far for such losses. My father was the second Paul, the first having been lost to cholera infantum; I was named after the sister who was premature and only lived about 12 hours.

    1. One of the important things I have learned through these posts is understanding the difference between cholera and cholera infantum. I think the more we know about these diseases, the better we can understand the environments of our ancestors.

  19. Thank you for writing your story. I’m trying to understand what you wrote about Millard Leslie Morse’s mother dying at the same time as Millard but her next child was born six years later? I can’t seem to read it any other way. What am I missing? I’m going to feel really stupid if I read this tomorrow and discover I misunderstood.

    1. My uncle said the same thing! I should have used a different verb than “succumb.” In its first definition it means to yield or be overpowered. Its second meaning of to die has a much stronger association. Usage lesson learned for me.

      1. I had also checked the dictionary and saw both definitions. I had no idea of the first definition. I was just surprised that no one else mentioned it. Lesson learned here too.

  20. Cholera infantum appears to be an antique diagnostic term for infants up to age 2 years displaying the symptoms of vomiting, diarrhea, rapid weight loss and death. It was used in the era before modern microbiology and the identification of specific bacteria or viruses as the cause of disease. I have copied some relevant data from Wikipedia for context.

    Cholera is an illness caused by the bacteria, Vibrio cholerae. This bacteria infects the intestine where it then causes severe diarrhea. V. cholerae can be spread by eating contaminated food or drinking or making skin contact with water contaminated by infected human feces. V. cholerae was first isolated as the cause of cholera by Italian anatomist Filippo Pacini in 1854,[2] but his discovery was not widely known until Robert Koch, working independently 30 years later, publicized the knowledge and the means of fighting the disease.

    It took a long time for modern sanitation to be implemented and even today, diarrheal disease in infants is a major cause of death in the less developed parts of the world.

    (Wikipedia, under medical microbiology:
    In 1676, Anton van Leeuwenhoek observed bacteria and other microorganisms, using a single-lens microscope of his own design.[2]

    In 1796, Edward Jenner developed a method using cowpox to successfully immunize a child against smallpox. The same principles are used for developing vaccines today.

    Following on from this, in 1857 Louis Pasteur also designed vaccines against several diseases such as anthrax, fowl cholera and rabies as well as pasteurization for food preservation.[3]

    In 1867 Joseph Lister is considered to be the father of antiseptic surgery. By sterilizing the instruments with diluted carbolic acid and using it to clean wounds, post-operative infections were reduced, making surgery safer for patients.

    In the years between 1876 and 1884 Robert Koch provided much insight into infectious diseases. He was one of the first scientists to focus on the isolation of bacteria in pure culture. This gave rise to the germ theory, a certain microorganism being responsible for a certain disease. He developed a series of criteria around this that have become known as the Koch’s postulates.[4]

    A major milestone in medical microbiology is the Gram stain. In 1884 Hans Christian Gram developed the method of staining bacteria to make them more visible and differentiated under a microscope. This technique is widely used today.)

    1. Such an interesting article and comments. Very moving. At first when coming across children with the same name as an earlier sibling who had previously died before their birth, I too thought, “How morbid”, but now I wonder, “Were the children named after an older family member or friend?” In which case, the parents kept trying to honor or remember that special adult.

      In researching 17th century ancestors to New England, I noticed that many fewer children died here in Massachusetts than in England. The circumstances were reversed. England was more crowded, but life in the early colony provided more space for families and thus probably better water and sanitation. Those families were often large with most children surviving to adulthood.

  21. the morbidity of my NYC relatives was quite high due to the transmission of highly contagious diseases in crowded conditions. It explains why doctors recommended patients go west for cooler dry air or the Adirondacs

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