Disease and Death in the Gilchrist-Shearer Letters

Disease and Death in the Gilchrist-Shearer Letters

I am working my way through a series of letters sent between my Scottish ancestors and their families and friends in Scotland, Canada, and the USA. You can find my introduction to the letters here. Their authors have included some fascinating morsels of information about everyday life, and the nature of their letters also tells us about channels of communication that were maintained by Scots, regardless of where they travelled.

One thing that is immediately noticeable across these letters is that the authors were focussed on the putting the most important news first: that of their health and the health and wellbeing of family members and close friends. Unfortunately, this means that a number of the letters begin with news of recent (and not so recent) deaths.

Funeral Card, Gilchrist-Shearer Letters

Funeral Card for Helen Gilchrist, Clanbrassil, Ontario, October 1919

This practice tells us a few important things:

  • How long it’s been since the sender and receiver communicated
  • Prevalent illnesses
  • Familial and community ties
  • Dates and causes of deaths

In this week’s post, I’ll be looking at some of the diseases that are discussed in the letters and the prevalence of death in the letters and in the lives of these Scots, both home and overseas.

May 1861

On 20 May 1861, Elizabeth Gilchrist wrote a letter from her home in Scotland to her sister Janet (Gilchrist) Shearer and their siblings in Otanabee, Canada. In the introduction, Elizabeth explains that her mother had received their letter six weeks earlier, that they were all happy to hear that everyone was fine, and that this is her first letter to them. Several references to events that happened three years ago indicate that they have not been in contact for over three years.

Elizabeth immediately launches into a summary of the state of family and friends that would be of interest to her siblings in Canada.

‘My mother is in ordinary health for her age but failing fast.’

‘John and his wife are still in Burnside but we have no correspondence with them but no family yet.’

19th century Scottish families tended to be large and the Gilchrist and Shearer families were no exception. Elizabeth’s comment suggests that John and his wife are having difficulty conceiving, which could have been due to any number of reasons.

‘Thomas and his family are still at Longridge. The have eight daughters alive and Agnes died of consumption three years ago aged eleven. They have three sons.’

Consumption, now known as tuberculosis or TB, is a highly contagious, potentially fatal disease that mainly affects the lungs. It was the cause of one in every seven deaths in Europe at this time and was the number one killer of young people in the United States by the end of the 19th century.

January 1862

In January 1862, James Shearer writes his brother Gavin (Janet’s husband?) in Otanabee with some terrible news. First, he apologises for not writing sooner after reading of Gavin’s son’s death. Then he explains that he has been coping with the death of his own son:

‘I have the heavy news to write to you that my son Thomas Shearer died on the 18th December of croupe. Some of the rest of us were also affected but all got round again. Your good brother William Brownlee and Agnes Gilchrist had four of their family buried of the same disease last week. William their son was buried on the 13 Jan. and Thomas, Elizabeth, & John on the 18th of the same week. They are now disconsolate having only one son named Peter left of five of a stout family.’

Croupe is a viral infection of the larynx which is considered a minor childhood disease today, but in the 19th century it was associated with diphtheria, a highly contagious and potentially fatal upper respiratory disease that was at its worst in the winter months, as the letter sadly demonstrates. What a devastating blow to that family.

May 1869

Elizabeth’s letter to Janet from 17 May 1869 gives her recipient (and us) some updates on the family’s overall health.

‘Mother was very glad to hear from you. She is in better health now than she was a year ago. She came here a year past… and turned unwell and was many the night I thought she would not see morning but she came round a little in spring. She went away home in July. She was here this winter again and is away home. … The rest were very attentive in coming to see her when she was unwell.’

‘John and wife are well. They have one daughter between four and five years old but there is no appearance of any more.’

Now we know that the couple were able to have a child, but such a gap, as Elizabeth points out, indicates that things aren’t quite normal.

We see some much-wanted positive news about Agnes and William:

‘Agnes and husband and family are in good health. They are still in their little farm. They have done very well in it but the lease is nearly done. They have two sons and two daughters living and three sons and one daughter dead. Agnes is in better health than what she was some years ago.’

Elizabeth is referring to the four children they had lost due to diphtheria.

Perhaps the most interesting and rather sad news that Elizabeth includes in the middle of her letter is her own:

‘John Wark and me took up house nearly six years ago. I have had twice twin sons and a single one but there is but one of the twins and the single one living.’

This leads us to believe that they have not communicated in six or more years, during which time Elizabeth has married and had children. She doesn’t indicate if the deceased children were stillborn, died due to complications with delivery (which is very possible with twins at this time), or if they died at a later date. Parish records would help fill in the missing information here.

There were likely several hundred midwives practicing in Scotland by the end of the 19th century and a lying-in hospital had been established in Glasgow in 1834, but training and education, experience, and hygiene practices meant mother and baby faced many risks.

September 1871

Elizabeth’s mother dies in Muirhead, Scotland, on 1 July 1871. On 23 September, Robert Davidson wrote his wife Helen Gilchrist’s (and Elizabeth’s) sister Janet to inform her of the news:

‘Respected Kinsewoman, I have just been requested by Thomas Gilchrist your brother to inform let you know that your mother died at Muirhead…’

Robert is writing from Cayuga, near Oneida in Southern Ontario. Therefore, it has taken approximately two months for Thomas in Scotland to inform his sister Helen and her husband in Cayuga about their mother’s death, and they are now writing more family in eastern Ontario to inform them of the sad news.

October 1889

Finally, in a letter written by James’ son James Shearer Jr. in Kansas to his Uncle Gavin Shearer in Otanabee on 20 October 1889, we see that James Senior and his wife are now living in Kansas, but they have also suffered some loss:

‘Dear Uncle: It is my sad duty to inform you and the friends with you that my brother George died on the 19th of last September. He always had breathing trouble but got some better when he came here but never was hardy although the biggest and strongest of us all – he had several bad attacks of asthma each year, especially in the fall of late years. He had to use a great deal of laudanum, morphine, and chloroform to counteract the asthma. He was sick for three days at the last and after the asthma came neuralgia of the stomach which probably reached the heart, [and he] dropped down and died in five minutes time – when the doctor had pronounced him considerably better.’

‘Our older brother Archy died two years ago – our old sister Agnes died last March – her husband Andrew Barrie having died the October before. Her five youngest children came here last June & are with my father. … he is not so hardy these last few years.’

‘Mother is pretty well and all the others at date. We have had some ups and downs since we saw you – some poor health at times etc. – but still keep on…’

The last letter gives us some insight into 19th century treatments for asthma and also notes that George’s asthma had improved after emigrating from central Scotland to Kansas. Many of the deaths about which the writers went into detail involved breathing problems or illnesses that affected the lungs. The constant presence of death in these letters are a vivid reminder of how large a role modern medicine has played in shaping and lengthening our lives and the lives of our children.

The whole of the letters reminded me of an old family song. In my family, we sing a lot! Many of the songs have been passed down through the generations and several, much like the letters, centre on death. One in particular, Letter Edged in Black, stands out:

I was standing by the window yesterday morning without a thought of worry or of care,

When I saw the postman coming up the pathway with such a smiling face and jolly air.

He rang the bell and whistled while he waited. Tipped his cap, said ‘Morning to you, Jack’.

But he little knew the sorrow that he brought me as he handed me the letter edged in black.

With trembling hands I took the letter from him. Broke the seal and this is what it said:

Come home my boy, your dear old father wants you. Come home my boy your dear old mother’s dead.

The last words that your mother ever uttered were, ‘Tell my boy I want him to come back.’

My eyes are dim. My poor old heart is breaking as I’m writing you this letter edged in black.

-Hattie Nevada, 1897

Suggested Reading:

R.E.M. Lees, ‘Epidemic disease in Glasgow during the 19th century,’ Scottish Medical Journal 41 (1996): 24-7.

The Open University, Health, disease and society: Scottish influence in the 19th century (The Open University, 2016)

Micheal Lynch, ed., ‘Health, Famine, and Disease,’ The Oxford Companion to Scottish History, p. 287-8.

National Records of Scotland, ‘Safe Delivery: A History of Scottish Midwives

Geoffrey Chamberlain, ‘British maternal mortality in the 19th and early 20th centuries’, Journal of the Royal Society of Medicine 99 (Nov 2006): 559-63.

3 thoughts on “Disease and Death in the Gilchrist-Shearer Letters

  1. Pingback: Travel and Immigration: Insights from the Gilchrist-Shearer Letters | Isles Abroad

  2. Pingback: Farming and the Land in the Gilchrist-Shearer Letters | Isles Abroad

  3. Pingback: Employment Opportunities in the Gilchrist-Shearer Letters | Isles Abroad

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