When beginning genealogical research, we learn about the types of records that are likely to contain the information we seek and where those records might be located, i.e. in what repository. What we sometimes fail to appreciate, however, is the value of a stash of family materials – letters, diaries, newspaper clippings – that can hold the answer to our questions. Case in point: my great-grandfather’s cause of death.
As an inquisitive 12-year-old, I once asked my grandmother if she knew how her father had died, since he had passed away four months before she was born. “Oh, he died from the hiccups,” she replied. Really?!? thought I – I’d never heard of such a thing, that couldn’t be true. A bit later I asked my mother about her grandfather’s death. She filled the story in a bit and told me that Fred L. Homer had died in “Indian Territory” while on a trip to the Southwest for his health (he believed he had consumption). He traveled with his uncle Friend Cook and he died after eating a pot of undercooked beans. Hmmm. A bit more believable than hiccups. The mystery lay percolating in the back of my head for several decades.
About five years ago, I found a 1903 newspaper article from the Greenville (Pennsylvania) Evening Record which announced that Fred Homer had died from pneumonia in New Mexico on 31 January 1903. Ah. Now that is more believable! Greenville was the Homer ancestral location and where pregnant Jennie was staying with her two-year-old son while Fred was away.
Then, three years ago, my sister sent me a priceless Christmas present: a box of old letters and other papers. In the box were the weekly letters between Fred Homer and his wife Jennie, written between September 1902, when Fred left Cleveland for the southwest, and January 1903, when he died.
The letters describe Fred’s journey from Cleveland to Norman, Oklahoma, by train and then by horse and covered wagon across Oklahoma Territory, through the Texas high plains region and finally into New Mexico Territory. The almost daily missives paint a picture of a desolate landscape punctuated by occasional towns or outposts, and described the weather (frequent biting wind) and meals, which seemed to consist mostly of beans, coffee, and molasses. When the travelers were lucky, they shot rabbit or quail to add to the pot.
January 16th is the last letter from Fred. On 26 January Friend Cook wrote Jennie that Fred had been sick with bilious fever for some 8–10 days and was too weak to write. At that time, bilious fever described any high fever associated with gastrointestinal symptoms. And Fred had had the symptoms for days: high fever, delirium, lethargy, and then diarrhea, a classic typhoid fever presentation. Friend’s last letter, on 30 January, told Jennie that Fred had developed hiccups and had hiccupped off and on for nearly 12 hours. Further research told me that hiccups in typhoid fever are the first symptom of intestinal perforation. Friend’s last words to Jenny, written in the margin of his 30 January letter, were “Fred passed away at 1:05 am, 31st without a struggle. God help you Jennie.”
So my grandmother and my mother were both correct. Fred did experience prolonged hiccups the day he died. And he probably contracted typhoid fever from something he ate, but perhaps not the beans. And I would have remained clueless without the gift of the family letters.
 “Typhoid Fever Clinical Presentation,” http://emedicine.medscape.com/article/231135-clinical
9 thoughts on “Death by hiccups”
So interesting what comes out of those old thoughts, the hiccups were no doubt so awful that is what was remembered. Although as you say the letters were more descriptive of the actual cause so helpful. In a Cemetery book, when we were researching my husband’s family buried there, one person was said to have died from “teethache.” Took me awhile to think on it but probably the teeth did ache from an serious abscess, no antibiotics in those days to be given to help the abscess go away hence “teethache.” I know what a toothache can be, some of these must have been very painful. We also know from one member of the family in the 1990s how serious a perforated colon can be, if it hadn’t been caught immediately with serious surgery & a good Surgeon saved the person, Thank God!
Fascinating! Conditions in the old days might be recognized as something else today. I am thinking that it is possible that an ancestor who died from a condition of the brain was alleged, by some, to be an alcoholic. Symptoms could include slurring of speech, dizziness, etc., etc. Not saying he never drank but he didn’t die from cirrhosis of the liver or any alcohol-related disease.
Lucky you to have received that box of letters with all the details! It’s interesting how you were able to piece together information from your mom and grandmother, then the newspapers, and finally the letters to get all the details. How very sad for both your great-grandfather and great-grandmother and the children who were left behind. Thanks for sharing.
To return to the beans, this is not as strange as it mean seem. Uncooked or undercooked kidney beans are toxic, due to a protein hemaglutinin (which reacts with red blood cells). The beans cause nausea and vomiting, and this can cause severe dehydration. An intravenous drip is recommended in one on-line report! No actual human fatalities are recorded. Perhaps your great-grandfather (who might not have had access to plentiful clean water) is the first case, or maybe the beans just amplified the typhoid fever effects.
On reading your article I couldn’t help but wonder how many people “died from the hiccups” around the time period you describe. In 1897 my grandmother, Laura Collins (Potter) Harley 1879-1957, traveled with her parents Frederick Oscar and Kate Sickler (Smith) Potter from Waterveliet, New York (near Albany) to visit her father’s relatives in San Angelo, Tom Green, Texas. She was about 17 years old at the time. While she was there she was given a beautiful German music box which I was fortunate enough to inherit. All I was ever told about the uncle that gave it to her was that he was a bachelor, lived in Texas, had red hair and died of the hiccups.
Several years ago I travelled to San Angelo to see what additional family information I could find. I found lots of new information as well as several Potter uncles living in the area at the time but am still not positive which one it was that died of the hiccups. More research needed.
I encourage you to read a book called “The Quack’s Daughter” by Greta Nettleton about a young Midwestern daughter, Cora, of a much maligned and controversial, self proclaimed medical expert mother. Cora was exceptionally gifted in piano, enough to enroll in the music curriculum at Vassar in 1884-1886. Cora’s last name is Keck. There were also references to the name Homer as well in the book. A book I would have never considered reading had it not caught my eye on the list of books offered by the NEHGS for sale from its surplus library collection. Interesting, enlightening, well crafted and an excellent read. worth a peek!
Thank You for this reading suggestion.
Thank you for the hint– I’ll look for the book.