The Victorians found many unusual ways to meet their demise. Consider Jane Goodwin, a 22-year-old who died in church from having her corset laced too tightly, or the young lady from Liverpool who died after eating too much of her own hair (the postmortem showed a two-pound hair ball inside her that had ulcerated her stomach). Then there’s the tragic case of poor Sarah Smith, a pantomime artist in London who died on January 24, 1863 of terrible injuries received when attempting—in a very flammable dress—to extinguish the flames that had enveloped another actress at Prince’s Theatre.
Along with such Gothic-sounding horrors were many disease names that are rarely seen today—cholera infantum, delirium tremens, phthisis—and causes of death that almost have an air of the poetic: opium inebriety of the heart, melancholia, “‘mental alienation,” or simply “tired of life.”
You can see many of these antiquated causes of death in the undertakers’ ledgers at Brooklyn’s Green-Wood Cemetery, established in 1838 as one of America’s first rural cemeteries. Each day, the Green-Wood undertakers recorded who they had buried, along with details such as where the deceased had lived, how old they were, where they died, and just how they came to meet their maker. Here are some particularly notable causes of death from the Green-Wood ledgers.
1. SUICIDE PARIS GREEN
Paris Green was one of the most fashionable colors of the 19th century, a vivid blue-green that was used in many household paints, wallpapers, and fabrics. It was also highly toxic, being made with arsenic. (Some think that Napoleon may have been killed by the poisonous vapors emitted from the Paris Green wallpaper in his St. Helena home.) Widely available in hardware stores, it was also used as an insecticide and rat poison.
Paris Green also provided the means for a young Brooklyn girl to take her life in 1882. The New York Times told the tale under the headline “A Strange Suicide”: Louisa Cruikshank, aged just 18, and living “surrounded with every luxury” in her family home on Pacific Street, “frequently expressed a wish to die,” according to her mother’s later testimony. One February morning while walking with her sister to the Brooklyn Public Library, Louisa slipped into a hardware shop and bought some of the popular paint. The next day, Louisa was playing a waltz on the piano when she fell suddenly ill. Her last words were chillingly calm; “Mama I may as well tell you. I have taken Paris Green. I have done what I said I would do.”
2. EXHAUSTION AND MENTAL ALIENATION
When 57-year-old Harriet Dillon passed away, her cause of death was recorded as “exhaustion and mental alienation.” During the Victorian era, mental anguish, melancholia, and exhaustion were terms sometimes used to describe what we now might call mental illness. Doctors who specialized in the study of mental pathology were often called “alienists,” studying those who were deemed “alienated from society.”
3. BY BEING STRUCK BY A TRAIN OF CARS OF THE LONG ISLAND RAILROAD COMPANY THAT THE SAME WAS CAUSED BY HIS OWN VOLUNTARY ACT WHILE TEMPORARILY INSANE
One of the more detailed deaths in the ledgers belonged to Thomas Hunter, who committed suicide in January 1892 by throwing himself in front of the Long Island Railroad at Sag Harbor. Hunter was from Milford, Pennsylvania, and left behind a wife and child. The record in Green-Wood is remarkable for its level of detail.
4. INDISCREET USE OF LAUDANUM
Overdoses of laudanum are a common occurrence in the undertakers' ledgers. The addictive tincture, with its high concentration of morphine, was widely available and used to treat all manner of Victorian ailments. Used as a cure-all pain suppressant for everything from coughs and cramps to sleep disorders, it was even given to teething children. Often cheaper than gin, laudanum addiction was rife in the Victorian era, and even first lady Mary Todd Lincoln was rumored to have suffered from it. But of all the laudanum overdose cases in the undertakers’ ledgers of Green-Wood Cemetery, none is more emblematic of the period than the death of one William J. Dryer, who died of “indiscreet use of laudanum” aged just 38. What is most remarkable about Dryer is that he overdosed at the headquarters of one of the most infamous and corrupt political organizations in New York, Tammany Hall.
5. KILLED BY INDIANS
The ledgers for the second week of December 1865 begin fairly routinely: congestion of the lungs, a case of debility of the heart, until one entry stands out—Horace Frederick Merwin’s cause of death simply says “killed by Indians.” Though native to Brooklyn, Merwin worked as an express messenger out of Atchinson, Kansas. Just one month short of his 21st birthday, Merwin was crossing the plains of the Colorado Territory in November 1865 when he was shot and instantly killed by a Cheyenne. His body was delivered from Monument Station to Brooklyn and his parents for burial at Green-Wood. His death was used to advertise for the Traveler’s Insurance Company of Hartford, Connecticut, with whom he had taken out a policy; upon his death a sum of $10,000 was paid out to Mrs. Lucy K. Merwin of Brooklyn.
6. DIED OF A BROKEN HEART
Edward and Edna Price, a married couple in their mid-60s, were visiting Brooklyn from Somerville, New Jersey. Edward Price died in February 1892 of diabetes, and is recorded in the undertakers’ ledger as being buried in plot 3683. On the line immediately underneath Edward is entered the death of his wife, Edna, who is described as having died of “heart failure depending on shock of husband’s death.”
7. STRUCK BY LIGHTNING
In July 1857, Brooklyn resident Robert McKnight left his home in the evening to go buy some groceries. A worker at the Brooklyn Navy Yards, he was walking down Lafayette Avenue in the Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood when he was caught in a thunderstorm. Taking shelter in a doorway, the unfortunate McKnight was struck by lightning.
While still a somewhat common way to go today (there are roughly 30 deaths each year by lightning in the US), McKnight’s sudden death is notable for showing the style of newspaper reporting at the time. The Brooklyn Daily Eagle reported how the lightning struck the house, breaking out all the windows at the front before “entering the brain of the deceased over the left eye.” The occupants of the house were unscathed, and the owner, a Mr. Jackson, “went to the front door to look out when he discovered something in flames up on the sidewalk. He stooped down and discovered it to be a man.”
Strangely, for a Navy Yard worker running an evening errand to the corner store, McKnight was reported as carrying $101 in gold.
8. COUP DE SOLEIL
This French, and quite poetic-sounding, cause of death was used by the undertakers when the unfortunate victim had died of sunstroke. In the brutal heat of a New York summer, in overcrowded tenements without the luxury of air-conditioning, sunstroke could be as deadly a killer as outbreaks of cholera. In the space of just five days in 1866—between July 15 and 20—there were 32 burials at Green-Wood in which the deceased was recorded as having died of coup de soleil.
Three years earlier, 20 deaths from sunstroke—and 50 cases of those "prostrated by the intense heat" were recorded by New York’s police and coroner offices in a matter of days. As The New York Times reported, “the hospitals are rapidly filling up with men, women and children who are suffering from the effects of the exceedingly warm weather.” And during the height of summer in 1853, a decade prior, nearly 200 people succumbed to the searing heat in just three days. Under the headline “The Oppressive Heat—Awful Mortality,” the Brooklyn Daily Eagle reported that “a continuous line of funerals traversed Hamilton Avenue to Greenwood during the whole of yesterday … the receptacle of an unusual number of dead. Such was the demand for funeral equipages, that nearly every livery stable in the city was exhausted of its stock of horses and carriages.”