Friday, April 14, 2017

Causes of death and Uncle Joe Slattery

One of the rewards of this enterprise is hearing from those who read it --- then share additional information. So thanks to Bill Baer, here's a postscript to a post earlier this week entitled, "First death, then the judgment."

That post, about the death during April of 1877 at age 35 of Austin Wayland (left), included the "judgment" of Chariton Leader editor Dan Baker that "A passion for strong drink had been the curse of his life, and doubtless contributed largely to his death."

Keep in mind that Dan was neither an attending physician nor a medical examiner --- just opinionated.

Bill is descended from Austin and Miranda (Threlkeld) Wayland via their son, Bert, who was only five when his father died and subsequently was adopted by Joseph and Jennie Sanborn and took their surname.

Austin was a house painter by trade and, according to Bill, family stories attribute his death to the high lead content of the paints he had used in great amounts while practicing his profession during the dozen years after he returned home from Civil War service.

And that's entirely possible --- no one at that time had any idea how hazardous lead-based paint could be, particularly to those who applied it on a daily basis. I found myself wondering, too, if the death of his brother, Elijah, at Vicksburg might have had an impact on Austin's emotional well-being. The twins served in the same company and it's entirely possible that Austin was present when Elijah was killed. 

Just as the hazards of lead were not understood at that time --- and for many years thereafter --- neither were the implications of we call today post-traumatic stress disorder.


Writing about Austin brought to mind my uncle by marriage, Joseph Slattery (1854-1894), who is buried in the same section of the Chariton Cemetery as the Waylands. His death, too, was attributed at the time to one set of circumstances but may have been the result of others not well understood at the time.

Uncle Joe (tombstone photo above) has a large lot all to himself --- except for a very big tree --- toward the west end of one of the cemetery's oldest sections.

Son of John and Elmira Slattery, he was a native of Vinton and we really have no idea how he met my aunt, Adalaide Myers, some 10 years his junior. He was by trade an amalgamator, working in the Black Hills mining industry to recover fine gold --- using mercury in the process.

They were married on Sept. 26, 1889, at the Myers home in Benton Township, then set forth immediately to make their home in Lead, South Dakota, where their son, Fremont, was born two years later.

Not long after Fremont's birth, however, Joseph's health began inexplicably to fail and the family moved back to Lucas County, purchasing a farm southeast of Chariton in the neighborhood still occupied by descendants of Adam Rosa.

Joseph became critically ill during June of 1894 and Aunt Ada brought him into town for treatment, but he became so ill that he could not make it home and was taken to the D.Q. Storie home just east of the Presbyterian church where he was cared for until his death on Friday, June 15, age 40. After funeral services Saturday at the Methodist Church, he was buried in the Chariton Cemetery.

The immediate cause of death, according to his physician, was erysipelas of the face and head and heart failure. An autopsy was conducted, however, and abdominal tumors, "probably cancerous," also were found and cited as a contributing factor.

As the years passed and the dangers of exposure to mercury were better understood, the family began to wonder if his constant exposure to it as an amalgamator might not have been the root cause of all the health issues that plagued him. We'll never know for sure.


There also were a couple of comments from others regarding the Wayland post that referred to the way newspapers used to deal with death --- interesting to me because I remember the transitional period when death stopped being "news" and became a source of revenue.

Back in the day, anyone who died in Iowa generally was assured a free obituary in both the local weekly and the regional daily, if the latter were desired. Death was considered news.

There were a couple of catches, however, especially when dealing with daily newspapers, including the ones I worked for. The newspaper established the rules --- and a fairly common one was a matter of style --- one simply died, one did not pass away, ascend to one's heavenly home or depart on the wings of any other rhetorical flourish.

And the newspapers generally required a specific cause of death. Usually this was not a problem, but when suicide was involved it could become a major bone of contention. Deaths from AIDS, as they began to occur, complicated the obituary process, too --- some families were deeply shamed by the misfortunes of their gay sons. I've fielded a few angry phone calls from families in my time, too.

Commerce eventually resolved the issues. Scratching harder for revenue, it occurred to newspaper policy makers that families would be willing to pay for obituaries --- and for the privilege of eulogizing their loved ones with minimal editing and without embarrassing questions.

Today, many newspapers continue to offer all comers a free basic death notice but charge for anything else. Generally, the weekly fees are not excessive. The same can't be said for a regional newspaper like The Register, which has priced itself out of affordability for many. 

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