What can be learned about victims of consumption by studying their obituaries?
When Samuel J. Owen died in early January 1874, he was described as “one of Washington’s best known citizens.” Born in London in 1822, Owen immigrated to the United States in 1831 at age nine, worked with his father in the tailoring business, served in the Civil War in the Union army, and then founded a hotel, Owen House (image) which became a fixture of the city’s social scene. Owen’s death from tuberculosis at age fifty-two followed a “long illness,” and he was remembered in the Evening Star newspaper as “generous to a fault,” and “a steadfast friend” who was “exceedingly popular with all who knew him.”
Owen’s death in 1874 is just one example of the impact on nineteenth century American society of tuberculosis, the single greatest cause of death throughout this period. A research project on the history of tuberculosis has identified more than five thousand individuals victims of tuberculosis in the United States in the four decades from 1870 to 1910, the peak years of mortality from this disease.
The victims were identified through newspaper obituaries that listed their cause of death of consumption, the most common name for this disease in the United States and around the world in this era. The shading in this map of the United States indicates the distribution of victims located through this research method, with New York, Indiana, Minnesota, Texas, and California providing the most number of consumption victims. This distribution is broadly similar to the patterns revealed in the census, as shown in the map showing death rates from consumption by region for the 1890 census year.
Yet this research project also reflects both the availability of newspapers in digital form (essential for keyword searching) and the relative attention that newspapers devoted to consumption victims. The Indianapolis Journal and the St. Paul Daily Globe are both available digitally for many periods and provided extensive reporting on individual deaths from this case. As this project moves forward, more newspapers from a broader range of states will be added, with the goal of providing more extensive documentation of lives lost to this disease.
Two photographs of Owens, both taken during the Civil War, about a decade before his death, help to provide some more features to the individual victims of consumption. The photograph of Owens napping during the Civil War has nothing to do with consumption, but rather illuminates the human experience of war. While photographs of only a fraction of consumption victims are available, it is important to keep their humanity in mind as the project continues to document the effects of the disease across American society.
- Rawle, William Brooke. History of the Third Pennsylvania Cavalry, Sixtieth Regiment Pennsylvania Volunteers, in the American Civil War, 1861-1865. Philadelphia: Franklin Printing Company, 1905, pg. 519
- Waud, Alfred R. , , Artist. Owen House. [April, 1865] Image. Retrieved from the Library of Congress, https://www.loc.gov/item/2004660400/. (Accessed August 02, 2016.)
- Evening star. (Washington, D.C.), 03 Jan. 1874. Chronicling America: Historic American Newspapers. Lib. of Congress.
- Historic American Buildings Survey- Heritage Conservation and Recreation Service. The Occidental Restaurant (Owen House) Photographs Historical and Descriptive Data. Washington, D.C. 20243: Department of the Interior. http://lcweb2.loc.gov/master/pnp/habshaer/dc/dc0100/dc0191/data/dc0191data.pdf
- Ewing, Tom. “A History of Tuberculosis.” A History of Tuberculosis. Accessed August 02, 2016. http://ethomasewing.org/tbhistory/.
- Map No. 20, Map of the United States showing the Relative Proportion of Deaths due to Consumption, from Report on the Vital and Social Statistics of the United States at the Eleventh Census: 1890, Part I. Analysis and Rate Tables (Washington, D.C.: United States Government Printing Office, 1896). Available from Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Vital Statistics of the United States, US Census: http://www.cdc.gov/nchs/data/vsushistorical/vsush_1890_1.pdf
- Gardner, Alexander. “Westover Landing, Va. Lt. Col. Samuel W. Owen, 3d Pennsylvania Cavalry, Caught Napping.” Digital image. http://www.loc.gov/pictures/item/cwp2003000099/PP/.