Victorian Illness and “The Good Death”

Throughout the nineteenth century, tuberculosis or consumption was a common cause of death among Americans. It was a disease that was not constrained by class boundaries and every year it siphoned strength away from its victims and the death toll rose. In the mid-19th century, when young Louisa was taken from the disease, there was no public outcry or social campaigns to fight it. Although death of a child was most distressing and considered the biggest test of those of Christian faith, child death was common for all classes in the mid-nineteenth century.

The Everett letters highlight how common consumption was among their peers. Elizabeth Everett informs Otis Blake of the deaths of their neighbors, friends, and family and consumption was the main cause of death.  Increased urbanization and industrialization in Boston saw increases in smallpox, cholera, diphtheria, and, most of all, tuberculosis. Although tuberculosis had been present in Boston since its founding in 1630, it didn’t acquire its deadly reputation until Boston became heavily crowded due to industrialization. By the time Louisa Everett contracted consumption, it was considered a disease for people with weak constitutions and unhealthy habits. The victims usually died at home surrounded by their families, in what was called The Good Death.  

Elizabeth Everett tells Otis Blake that an aunt and a family friend are ill.

23 September 1851: “Aunt Mary Curtis has been very sick, bleeding at the lungs, and we are still anxious for her lest she should have a return of the complaint, but she is now out of immediate danger and we hope will entirely recover. Anna Adams has had a similar attack and for many days was given over by the physicians, but they now feel encouraged again, and if she does not go into a rapid consumption they think she may get well.” Image courtesy of the South End Historical Society.

Unfortunately, by the next letter Elizabeth Everett wrote to Otis Blake, Anna Adams had died of tuberculosis. Elizabeth noted in October 14, 1851, “Anna Adams died a week since of quick consumption. She is a great loss, and her death is much felt by all her acquaintance.” 

The Good Death was seen by Victorian Americans as a test of courage and virtue and took place at home and surrounded by one’s family. Death was considered an artform and was governed by rules of conduct called ars moriendi that had been in place since the fifteenth century. Family members were in attendance to assess the state of the dying’s soul because their behavior in death defined whether or not the family would be reunited in heaven. Solemn farewells and last words were of particular importance. Last words were thought to be the truth of one’s soul and gave meaning to the dying’s life which allowed them to continue living through the survivors.  Elizabeth writes of the Good Death of Aunt Mary Curtis in a letter to Otis Blake:

Elizabeth Everett describes the "Good Death" of Aunt Mary Curtis.

21 November 1853: “For the past week I have been nearly all the time with Aunt Mary Curtis. She died yesterday morning. I was with her at the time. Her sickness has been short for consumption, and apparently suffered but little, though she was so happy and uncomplaining that she made light of pain, which another would have made much of. She is a great loss to the family, but she talked so cheerfully to them all about parting with them that she made the thought so familiar to them that they were in some measure prepared.” Image courtesy of the South End Historical Society.

 

Next: Percival Lowell Everett, 1833 – 1908