Today’s post is written by archives technician Ingi House.
Going through records, sometimes it’s a surprise what you can find right off the bat: a cool name, a weird event, or even an interesting story. But what lies underneath the obvious is sometimes even better. All you need is a spark to start your mind turning about how documents and collections can be used, even if that spark is morbid.
The first NARA records digitized by Ancestry.com at their office in Silver Spring, Maryland were multiple series of death records that span the 19th and 20th centuries:
- Record of Death Notices of United States Citizens Abroad, 1835 – 1855 (ARC ID 1227672)
- Death Notices of United States Citizens Abroad, 1857 – 1922 (ARC ID 1227673)
- Death Reports in the State Department Central Decimal File, 1910-1963 (ARC ID 302021)
- Reports of the Deaths of American Citizens, 1963-1974 (ARC ID 613857)
One responsibility of NARA employees in the Silver Spring office is preparing the records for digitization, which involves going through each document and ensuring that they can be safely imaged by an Ancestry camera operator. As you might imagine, this activity can become monotonous. To keep things interesting while prepping the death records, we paid special attention to the causes of deaths listed, which included homicides, natural disasters, and ‘softening of the brain.’ The medical terminology was sometimes archaic and led to many head scratches, so much so that a book was bought simply to look up these odd medical terms. A list was created of interesting deaths, and you could often hear hoots and hollers from the staff when a particularly strange case was found.
When new staff members started, sometimes they would shout out what appeared to them as odd at the beginning, such as ‘consumption.’ The more seasoned staff would tut-tut such a ‘common’ old disease and explain that the new employees would see a lot more of those to come, along with other ‘common’ diseases such as ‘dropsy’ and diphtheria.
It’s these common diseases that could end up being the most interesting. By looking up some of the older names we can see how modern diseases have evolved: consumption is now called tuberculosis and putrid fever is typhus. This allows us to see the change in how the medical field viewed and diagnosed diseases—progressing from simply describing symptoms to gaining more knowledge and naming the disease for the types of bacteria and viruses that might have caused the illness. An entire project is just waiting for a researcher to come along and look more fully into these records, and others like it.
I became fascinated with the common disease of consumption that killed hundreds in the late 1800s and early 1900s. By looking up its common name now, tuberculosis, I quickly found a wealth of information. Tuberculosis killed thousands in the United States and worldwide, but then seemed to go into remission after the development of antibiotics. Unfortunately, the disease has evolved and returned, along with a rise in HIV, homelessness, and unclean living conditions. Diseases of the past don’t always stay in the past.
These records were created because U.S. Foreign Service posts were required to report the deaths of American citizens occurring within their districts to the U.S. Department of State. Now, they’re being used by many for genealogical research. I found these records interesting because they offer a glimpse into our medical history. Who knows what other possibilities these records hold? Maybe you’ll be the one to find out!