During the years 1850 to 1899 Toronto sustained a high mortality rate. It actually rose during those fifty years but children under the age of one constituted 40% of all deaths.
As mentioned in a previous blog the greatest killer at this time was tuberculosis. Due to unsatisfactory census documentation one better way to keep track of deaths was through cemetery records.
Toronto has excellent records for this time period especially those of Toronto Necropolis, St James’ and the Potter’s Field cemeteries. St. Michael’s Catholic Cemetery records have been less examined so the Irish of Toronto are not as well documented at this time.
Causes of death mentioned in these documents unfortunately, quite often describe symptoms rather than actual diagnosis. Doctor’s of the time used terms that could be one of many things.
My great-grandfather’s death certificate said Pulmonary oedema caused by terminal paralysis agitans. This diagnosis was actually quite specific. He died from Parkinson’s Disease or “shaking palsy”. He was however institutionalized at the time and therefore probably better documented than someone who died outside of an institution.
Many doctors just gave descriptions such as ague, bleeding, colic or palsy. Even worse than that, while very descriptive there were such caused listed, as kicked by a horse or a visitation from God.
According to at least one study, suicide was rare early in the period between 1850 and 1867. It rose somewhat during 1868 to 1885 and then declined again as the century came to an end. However, many suicides could have been concealed and drowning was frequent which could in fact, have been suicides.
Toronto’s infant mortality was extremely high in the latter years of the 19th century. The causes of this would most certainly be due to poor nutrition, sanitation and the lack of medicines.
Just recently we are seeing a resurgence of measles due to the refusal of some to have their children immunized. Many of the old diseases, thought to be eradicated, can resurface if no immunization is done. Things like diphtheria, whooping cough, polio and scarlet fever. While immunization has some drawbacks we must weigh the dangers with the benefits and come to a clear decision.
Another cause of infant death could have been due to contaminated cow's milk. It was not required to pasteurize milk until 1918 in Toronto and methods to preserve it was rudimentary. Today all milk in stores is pasteurized.
We no longer see some of the dreaded diseases such as cholera but back then these sicknesses could kill within a matter of hours or days. In the late 1800’s half of those who caught cholera, perished.
Typhoid, another water-borne disease was a major killer until 1870. Due to unsatisfactory water filtration and the general dumping of waste into the city’s sewers and Toronto Bay, these diseases persisted.
In the 1860’s Toronto was thought to be one of the dirtiest and unhealthiest cities in North America.
*Janet "Toots" McEwan, Benjamin McEwan and Emma McEwan