There’s something very sad about reading a death certificate. It doesn’t matter if you knew the person or not or if he or she died over 150 years ago. Reading the details of a person’s death fills me with a sense of poignancy and, over the last few years, I’ve read so many relating to Christiana Edmunds' nearest and dearest. But there’s one death certificate that has really stood out and not because it had me in floods of tears. Louisa Edmunds, one of Christiana’s younger sisters, allegedly died from having a heavy period and there’s something a little bit WTF about a death attribution like that. In fact, her death certificate cites “menorrhagia for some months” as the primary cause of death and lists “exhaustion and effusion” for five days as the secondary causes.
Menorrhagia is a term still used by doctors to denote heavy menstrual bleeding but I can’t find any modern references to show that death is a possible consequence. That’s not to say that menorrhagia isn’t potentially dangerous but it’s not the period that’s the problem, it’s the underlying cause. We now know that menorrhagia has a wide range of causes, from fibroids and endometriosis, to thyroid disease and cancer. It is very possible, then, that Louisa had some sort of underlying gynaecological complaint but such knowledge has come a century too late.
Louisa wasn’t the only person with a cause of death to make you scratch your head. Yorkshire Archives have recently released the notebooks of Thomas Taylor, who was the county’s coroner from 1852 to 1900. They list the causes of death for over 17000 people and include:
And, my personal favourite:
Sarah Hughes, a lady who was frightened to death as a result of a “riotous mob.”
They sound ridiculous, I know, but they demonstrate the importance of never accepting a death attribution at face value. They are, however, extremely useful in giving us a glimpse into the Victorian medical mindset and, sometimes, a bit of a giggle.