Death and Family History

Sleepy 005Over the years researching family history I have read stories of terrible deaths.   There are murders, accidental deaths, and of course medical issues that run in families.

Murders are the most sensational.  In my own family, there was William Walker Norvell who came home one afternoon and stabbed his wife to death in Beaumont, Texas in 1928.  This became the O.J. Simpson trial of that part of the country as  Norvell was tried and then declared insane, retried, sent back to the insane ward, released again to be tried and finally let go.   Other Norvell family lines have poisonings, members who are gunned down, and stabbed as above.

Accidental deaths take many forms.   There is death in battle,  which touches almost every family I have researched.   There are the sad deaths of children.  Sometimes these are very poignant.  In one case, a newspaper story reported the accidental death of a young girl who had suffocated when she hid in an old refrigerator playing hide and seek.  Her family found her lifeless body– she was unable to get the door open — entombed in the yard.   Sometimes they involve  children and adults.  The train wreck of 1906 which killed the husband and two sons of Emily Norvell Belt near Washington DC is one example.    Fire was also one of the most common ways to die.  My cousin’s aunt died a small girl when she played with matches and set her dress on fire.  Other stories tell of whole families who perished when a chimney fire ensued.  Then there were accidental drownings which seem to take children frequently in the 19th century. Carriage accidents also were a common form of death in this period as well as steamboat explosions.   I have come across several Norvells who died as a result of a carriage mishap and at least one who died when a steamboat boiler exploded.  Interestingly, I have read of no Norvells at this point who died in an airplane crash, but many have died in automobile accidents.

Finally there are medically related deaths.   In the 18th and 19th century it was rare for a family not to have members who died of cholera, diphtheria, or small pox.  Early in the 20th century, the great Spanish flu epidemic of 1918-1919 took my great-grandmother Mary Dean Redfield Norvell.  If a person died during this period, there is a good chance that flu was the cause.  My wife had an uncle Arthur who died of the flu.  A young man, he seemed to recover, but took a turn for the worse and then was gone.  One of his brothers died of diphtheria, about the same time.   There were many, many ways to die in the 19th century.

Some medical issues run in families.   Long before genetics, family histories tell of person after person in one family who died of cancer.   My maternal aunt’s husband died at the age of 54 of cancer, his mother had died of cancer, and all of his siblings died of cancer. Heart issues seem to run in other families.  Sometimes something as innocuous as psoriasis, which I have and my grandmother had, can lead to a worse situation.  My sister also suffered from this condition.  It is an auto-immune disease which can lead to more significant problems as arthritis and in her case a complete immune system failure leading to her death.   I suspect that there are immune system issues going back a long way in our maternal lines.

If this story seems morbid, it is not.  Death of course is part of the story of a person.  You cannot tell  the beginning of the a person’s life with the end of the story as well.

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About jenorv

John E. Norvell is a retired Air Force Lt Colonel, decorated air combat veteran of the Vietnam War, and former Assistant Professor of American and Military History at the U.S. Air Force Academy. He has written freelance for the Washington Post, the Middle Tennessee Journal of Genealogy and History, and for several newspapers around the country.
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