Many of the families of my ancestors had large families, very large families. Often the men lost a spouse and remarried to have a second brood of children.
This was all due to the lack of effective birth control and death during childbirth. Both were very common occurrences at that time.
My great-great-grandfather, Richard Knight, (1824 – 1892) had two wives and fifteen children. His first wife died during childbirth.
John McEwan, great-grandfather, (1841 – 1917), had only one wife but again thirteen children.
Simeon Ostrom, great-grandfather, (1859 – 1942), three wives, my great-grandmother was the first, which he abandoned, the second died. He had fifteen children.
James Ryder, great-grandfather, (1835 - 1886), had two wives, (the first died most likely during childbirth) and thirteen children.
William Bell, great-grandfather, while he only had four children, he had three wives, two who died during childbirth.
Even my grandfather, Benjamin McEwan (1879 -1951) two wives, again the first died during childbirth, and ten children.
It was not easy during those times to raise such large families. Fortunately, in my family most of the men were able to support their wives and children through their trade.
During the late 19th and early 20th century the only methods of birth control were: coitus interruptus, the rythmn method or total abstinence. The only effective method was the latter, and most unlikely as proven by the number of children produced.
During the 1800’s childbirth was one of the major reasons for death among women of childbearing age, second only to tuberculosis. Most children were born at home with the help of a midwife and the idea of a sterile environment was not well followed. Even when doctors were present this was often overlooked.
While on my search for ancestors, I found the death notices very helpful and I would often encounter terms such as puerperal fever, or acute nephritis causing cardiac failure.
The description of puerperal fever as given by Donna Huff Granbau, graduate of the University of Michigan is as follows:
“Also called child bed fever, puerperal fever, puerperal exhaustion, metritis or purpura. Puerperal means "childbearing." Death is caused by bacterial infection during and after the process of birth. In the late 1800's the disease was considered to be a common and dreaded consequence of motherhood.”
Infection, post partum, were common. They could be cause in several different ways, such as the trauma of the birth, a septic environment or even the fact that hand washing while dealing with a patient was not considered that important, even if a doctor was present. If a caesarean section was needed the mortality rate for the infant was almost 100% and for the mother if she did not die as well she was most often compromised health wise.
In the case of my grandmother after reading some information I think she might have suffered from preeclampsia that lead to eclampsia. According to one source preeclampsia formerly called toxemia develops during pregnancy causing high blood pressure. Eclampsia is the result if it is not treated. Eclampsia is serious for both mother and baby and can be fatal. Both of the conditions can cause seizures, and liver and kidney failure, as well as bleeding and clotting disorders. There is also the chance it could have been HELLP syndrome which even today can be misdiagnosed in early pregnancy. HELLP syndrome when misdiagnosed, which it certainly would have been back in the 1880’s increased the risk of liver failure and morbidity which was noted on my grandmother’s death certificate as seen below:
McEWEN, Fanny, Gertrude, f, married, 5 Jan. 1910. 26 years, 10 mos., 25 days, Port Hope, Ontario died at Oak Avenue, Toronto, cause - acute nephritis duration 11 days, causing cardiac failure, housewife, father's name Ostrom, mother's name unkown, Toronto twp. (York Co.) 001107-10. Name of attending physician T. B. McDonald, 469 Parliament St. Toronto.
The other causes of death in childbirth were hemorrhaging and post partum blood clots in the legs.
The fact that women had so many children one after the other could also have been a reason for the high mortality rate. The woman hardly had time to gain back her strength and she was yet again pregnant. In the case of my grandmother she had three children in the first three years of marriage starting in 1900 and when she died in 1911 in her twenty-seventh year she had given birth to six children. Three of those children died in infancy.
One last comment about childbirth in the 19th century. While chloroform was introduced in the middle part of the century it was rarely given to women as it was felt that women would bond better with the newborn if the infant if none was used. The pain would make them love the child more. This gave childbirth a sense of being a noble feat.
As quoted in The King James Version of the Bible after Eve had eaten the apple God spoke to them and said.
Genesis 3:16 Unto the woman he said, I will greatly multiply thy sorrow and thy conception; in sorrow thou shalt bring forth children; and thy desire shall be to thy husband, and he shall rule over thee.
*William Bell's other wives Catherine Bovell-Bell and Catherine Coventry