Gut Reactions: A 19th-Century Medical Adventure

I’ve blogged already about the Civil War pension records pertaining to Martin Haigney, my great-great-grandfather who served at the Watervliet Arsenal in West Troy, N.Y. Previously I wrote about the joys of discovery, the fun of organizing all that paperwork and the larger social implications of the pension system — all lofty, rewarding stuff.

Today, however, we descend into the bowels of the file. Literally.

It started at the dining room table, which was probably not the best place to be dissecting a Civil War medical record. Still, when I noticed not one, but four diagnoses of cholera in Martin’s medical history, I couldn’t help blurting out my astonishment.

“Cholera? What’s that? Is it serious? Do you throw up?” The eldest daughter suddenly lost interest in her cinnamon Pop-Tarts.

“Four times? That’s highly unlikely,” said Mr. Archaeologist, who in real life is an actuary and keeps track of statistics and stuff.

“Shush, you two,” I said, re-checking the page. [Note: Mr. Archaeologist is a casualty actuary, not a life actuary, so it was OK to shush him. — Ed.]

Yes, there it was on the record, four times. Here is the transcribed list from a War Department memo of 24 January 1899:

  • Aug. 7 to 9 54, Cholera Morb.;
  • Sept. 18 to 20, 54, Diarrhea;
  • Mar. 5 to 8, 55, Pneumonia;
  • Aug. 29 to Sept. 1, 57, Sick;
  • Nov. 13 to 15, 57, Influenza;
  • Aug. 16 to 19, 59, Cholera Morb.;
  • Aug. 8 to 12, 60, Diarrhea;
  • Sept.  6 to 9, 61, Cholera Morb.;
  • Nov. 2 to 4, 61, (no diagnosis);
  • Aug. 20, 62, Diarrhea;
  • Feb. 2 &3, 64, Diarrhea;
  • Mar. 17 to 30, 64, Measles;
  • June 9 to 11, 64, Diarrhea;
  • Aug. 5 to 7, 64, Dysentery;
  • Jan. 23 to 29, 65, Tonsillitis;
  • July 11 to 12, 65, Diarrhea;
  • Jan. 5 to 12, 66, Dysentery;
  • June 29 to July 1, 66, Rheumatism from exposure to cold & rain, ret’d to duty as – Hagney, Corp[? illegible];
  • July 24 to 26, 66, Cholera Morbus;
  • Jan. 19 to 21, 67, Lumbago, ret’d to duty;
  • Nothing further found

“Eeeww,” said the eldest daughter, who had managed to finish her Pop-Tarts anyway.

“That’s some gut,” said Mr. Archaeologist brightly. [Note: Actually, his comments have been somewhat edited — Ed.]

Indeed. But what was going on with all those reports of cholera? Everyone knows how how swiftly cholera claimed its victims. From what I’ve read, it was possible to survive it back in the day, once. But to have it four times and live to get a pension? C’mon.

It turns out this is a classic example of reading a 19th-century list with 21st-century eyes. The clue is in the fourth instance, where the diagnosis is spelled out as “cholera morbus.” A quick Google led me to the Wikipedia entry on gastroenteritis, where my mystery was solved, although I had to scroll to the bottom of the entry for the payoff.

Before the 20th century, the term “gastroenteritis” was not commonly used. What would now be diagnosed as gastroenteritis may have instead been diagnosed more specifically as typhoid fever or “cholera morbus”, among others, or less specifically  as “griping of the guts”, “surfeit”, “flux”, “colic”, “bowel complaint”, or any one of a number of other archaic names for acute diarrhea. Historians, genealogists, and other researchers should keep in mind that gastroenteritis was not considered a discrete diagnosis until fairly recently.

The listing of my great-great-grandfather’s ailments certainly seems to point to a chronic gastrointestinal condition. Or maybe to a chronically compromised drinking water supply.

So consider “cholera morbus” your archaic diagnosis of the day. And since I’m feeling generous, here’s an extensive list of archaic disease terminology to consult at your leisure.

I recommend waiting until after breakfast, however.



NewsClips: 1961: Another Year, Another Birthday Party Story

Today’s clip is another in a series of articles about birthday parties for my great-great Aunt Maggie (Haigney) Roache (or Roach, or Roche). I know — I think it’s a little odd myself, and I used to be in journalism and everything. What can I say; the Troy Times Record just kept covering her birthday parties. I’m beginning to get the feeling she was buddies with somebody on the city desk.

A few months ago I wrote about this article and did a partial quote of it, but to be thorough for my NewsClips project, I’m including the full text here. It’s another engagingly written story with charming details about Maggie’s feisty personality. However, as my notes indicate, it contains inaccuracies, too. You do have to be careful about newspaper stories. But they can be tremendously valuable in pointing out new avenues for research.

Mrs. Roach Notes 91st Birthday


How Ablebodied A Man? The $64,000 Pension Question

You might have noticed me screaming posting about Civil War pension files recently. Blame my great-great-grandfather Martin Haigney, who applied for a veteran’s pension shortly after the enactment of the Disability Pension Act of June 1890.

Martin was not a civilian who joined the great volunteer army of 1861-1865 and fought through its bloody battles — what I think of as a classic Civil War veteran. He had been regular Army since March 1854, when, probably soon after arriving in the United States, he enlisted as a soldier at the Watervliet Arsenal in West Troy, N.Y. And there he served as a soldier, from 1854 until 1867.

Watervliet Arsenal went on to play a vital role in arming Union troops, no doubt about it. However, although Martin was a soldier and was part of an immense war effort, he didn’t dodge snipers at Gettysburg or scramble out of the crater at Petersburg. This left me doubtful when I first started wondering whether he might have gotten a Civil War pension. Was he really pensioner material?

Well, I failed to consider the remarkable scope of the 1890 act. Fortunately, I caught up due to a fascinating and lengthy Ohio State Law Journal article (P. Blanck, Vol. 62, 2001, .pdf file) that examines the Civil War pension system, which began in 1862.

Early on, the U.S. government established pensions for disabled veterans and the widows and orphans of the slain. “Disability” had to be expressed in specific quantities. For example, in 1862 a totally disabled private was eligible for a stipend of $8 per month. From there, it was a matter of determining fractions. Lost a finger or toe? You rated a 2 out of 8, or $2 per month. An eye? 4/8.

As the war went on, the number and magnitude of injuries forced adaptations. Congress passed modifications providing increased benefits for severely disabled soldiers. A 100 percent disabled veteran was defined as one needing “regular aid and attendance” from another person. Measles, malaria and sunstroke were added to the list of  war-related conditions. Then an 1873 act took a big leap forward by compensating claims for subsequent disabilities — conditions which, though related to wartime service, didn’t appear until years later. However logical this might seem by today’s standards, it was pretty radical thinking to some commentators of the day.

But the really radical leap came in 1890. The 1890 act tied the pension system more to the idea of service rather than circumstance. It included new requirements for the length of military service. And it did not require the veteran’s disability to be directly war-related, as long as it was not caused by “vicious habits.”

As in previous acts, however, disability level = a person’s capacity for manual labor. Someone who could not perform one-half of an ablebodied man’s work was a potential pensioner.

Well, I could go on and on, because frankly I’m fascinated by yet another example of how the Civil War sparked big social changes. But for now let’s go back to Martin’s 1890 pension application, and the affidavit sworn before a county clerk in Albany, NY on 4 Sept. 1890  by two of his neighbors, David Fitzgerald and Patrick Lyons.

That we have been well and personally acquainted with Martin Haigney [sic] for 25 years, and 25 years respectively, and that since his return from the Army we certify he has been a man of good temperate habits and that the disability is of a permanent character and same is not due to his vicious habits we are near neighbors of his living only about four or five hundred yards apart and have seen him daily three and four times a week the period since he came to live in our neighborhood, about 25 years ago we have conversed with him during the same time and know that he has suffered from the disability of rheumatism in arms, legs and shoulders

He is married and has a family depending on him for their suport [sic] We know he has not been wholely [sic] confined to his house but has found laboring work wherever he could. At such light labor as he could do working in a carpenter shop sweaping [sic] floors and policing about the building at the rate of one Dollar and 12 cents per day for ten Hours work That we know he has paid what he could afford for medicine to cure his rheumatism and we know he is considerablly [sic] bent over from his disability That he is well advanced in years about sixty years of age He is not able to do a sound ablebodied mans [sic] work for he is not physically strong or sound man and we belive [sic] in propositions to his disability He is impaired fully more than one half

These guys had the right talking points:

1. Martin’s disability — severe rheumatism in arms, legs and shoulders — was real and permanent. Plus, it was severe enough that he could no longer “do a sound ablebodied mans work.” Indeed, he was “impaired fully more than one half.”

2. Martin was a man of “good temperate habits” and his disability was “not due to vicious habits.”

3. He was not averse to work. He was trying to support his family with a combination janitor/security guy job at a carpenter’s shop.

Martin’s neighbors (well, most likely the attorney helping him with his application) knew it was important to stress two key factors: degree of disability and soundness of character. Commentators throughout the post-Civil War era fretted about veterans taking advantage. “There are very few men who could not have got a certificate of disability,” groused the New York Times in 1894. “The door of fraud was thrown wide open to let those in who were not incapacitated for self-support.”

Even in 1890, Martin knew the onus was on him to prove himself the real deal.


Things To Do When The Pension File Arrives

Author’s Note: A Civil War pension file, if your ancestor has one, is a marvelous thing for a nosy descendant. If you’re not sure what one is and how to get one, study up at the National Archives site.

First, the preliminaries: Ask spouse where the mail is. Discover package from National Archives in Washington, D.C., containing your great-great-grandfather’s complete Civil War pension file. Wander abstractedly away from spouse and bewildered children. Tell them there’s mac and cheese in the cupboard, you think.

On to business:

1. Open the envelope. (It will look like something from Land’s End, but heavier.)

2. Don’t hyperventilate at the “Dear Patron” notice, which does look ominous.

This is a standard “We Regret” letter, apologizing in advance for copies that are blurry or faded due to the original document’s age and wear. My file didn’t contain any illegible Xeroxes, although I’ve heard accounts of disappointing copies.

3. Don’t just rummage.

HAHAHAHAHAHA! You are not going to follow this direction at all, I bet. I tried to, for about thirty seconds.  I was going to be all cool and calm and organized and WAIT A MINUTE! THAT’S MY GG-GRANDMA’S BIRTH NAME!! WHEEEE! WHAT ELSE IS IN THERE?????

[****Cue feral genealogy sounds.****]

So. Ahem. After you finish rummaging and have slept off your genealogy buzz (this will perhaps be two days later):

4. Go through the file carefully and put the paperwork in order.

This will take time, because in all likelihood your file will be a mess, whether you rummaged in it or not. The archive folks photocopy what they find and send it along. They cannot be blamed if, over the last 120 years, a succession of clerks was sloppy about filing and re-filing. Do your best to put the file into chronological order, examining the paperwork carefully to make sure that multi-page documents haven’t been mixed up. Be careful with date stamps — they note the date a document was received at its destination, not when it was created. These two dates are usually close together, but not always. Update: Craig Scott, in the comments, makes the good point that it’s not uncommon to find more than one pensioner in a file — a soldier and his widow would be the obvious example. Just another thing to keep in mind when sorting.

5. Make copies of the file.

What sort of copies depends on your style. Some like writing notes directly on paper copies. I prefer making my notes in a separate notebook or Word file, and scan the file pages to my hard drive(s). But whichever way you go, copying is a good idea.

6. Make an inventory of the file.

Just a suggestion, but it can be very helpful.  Here’s what the start of my file summary looks like.

DOCUMENT DATE DESCRIPTION
1. File Label None No. 592-963Veteran: Martin Haigney

Rank: 1st class Pvt.

Service: Ordnance Dept. US Army

CAN no. 12841 Bundle No. 16

2. Declaration for Invalid Pension

Notes: Regular Army enlistment records show Martin’s first enlistment was in 1854, not ’57.

Age given here indicates a birth year of 1833, not 1831, the year he specifies in Doc. #27.

17 July 1890 Initial application for pension under the Act of June 27, 1890. Martin gave his age as 57, his initial enlistment as March 1857. He re-enlisted in March 1864.Reason for applying was inability to earn support by manual labor due to age and rheumatism in shoulders and right leg.

Martin signs with an X, being unable to write his name.

Tabulated information soothes me. It also helps me prioritize. For instance, the first document I worked with was No. 16, the marriage and family questionnaire my ancestor filled out in 1898. It had a couple of birth dates for his children I’d never known, plus information on his spouse and date of marriage. My chart helps me pinpoint discrepancies quickly, and when I’m done with the scanning, it will help me navigate my online files quickly, too.

Finally, the best part:

7. Make a list of all the interesting new ideas you can investigate because of the information in this file.

So that’s what I’m doing with my great-great grandfather’s pension file, and it’s just scratching the surface. What are your tips?

Further reading: I enjoyed this informative group of articles about assessing pension files. One caution, however: the fees quoted for obtaining a complete file from NARA are out of date. But there are very good case studies and tips.


Mary’s Maiden Name: A Research Score Card

Resolving the birth name of my great-great-grandmother Mary (1836-1892), wife of Martin Haigney, has played out like a tennis match in my brain for several years. Here’s the recap, in order of evidence uncovered:

First point: A death certificate for Mary’s second child, William (1867-1930), listed his parents’ names as Martin Haigney and Mary CARROLL. [NYC #1923, 27 January 1930].

Second point: The death certificate for Mary’s first child, my great-grandfather Joseph F. Haigney (1859-1938), listed his parents as Martin Haigney and Mary MAHON [NYC #19507, 10 October 1938].

The refs say: Oh, great. We can theorize away here. (Since William and Joseph were born eight years apart, was their father married twice, each time to a Mary?) But eventually it’s time to stop horsing around and look at the only actual evidence in hand: the death certificates. And both these Brooklyn death certificates, sad to say, are not examples of thoroughness.

The “informant” for Joseph’s is “Hospital Records.” There is no date of birth and his age is given only in years, with the “months” and “days” spaces left blank. (Way to go, guys.) Same situation on William’s age, although at least the informant was an actual person — his widow, Sarah.

But let’s assume that Joseph’s widow, Catherine, was the informant for the hospital records/death certificate. Which widow would likely know more about Joseph’s and William’s birth family in Watervliet, N.Y.? Sarah Haigney (nee Dowd) was born and bred in Brooklyn, according to census records. Catherine Haigney (nee Connors) was born in Watervliet, according to her elder son’s World War I draft registration card.

OK, advantage MAHON. (Assuming Catherine really was the ultimate informant. Sigh.)

Third point: Mary Haigney’s April 1892 obituary. Naturally, this does not provide a maiden name. (You didn’t think it would be that easy, did you?) The point here is its inclusion in a database of death notices compiled by the Troy Irish Genealogy Society (TIGS) from files maintained by employees of the Burden Iron Company — a major employer for Troy and Watervliet. Did a family member work for Burden? There are no Haigneys listed in payroll records available in another TIGS database (including searches under many alternate spellings). No Mahons, either. But there are lots of Carrolls. Hmmm. On the third hand, there are quite a few McMahons.

The refs say: Advantage still MAHON. Where the heck did William’s widow get the idea that Mary was a Carroll?

Fourth point: Sometime after all of this, I acquired a copy of The List, a Haigney family fact sheet compiled by my father’s oldest sister, Catherine. Here, Martin Haigney’s wife is named Mary MAHON.

The refs say: This Catherine is Mary’s great-granddaughter, born in 1914, 22 years after Mary’s death. But she was a young adult when her grandfather Joseph was still alive. And the last of Mary’s children lived until 1964. Catherine’s informant surely was one of Mary’s own children. We can hope that at least one of them knew what her maiden name was. Advantage MAHON.

Color commentary: Shouldn’t I have put this issue to bed by this point? I guess I could have. But I hated that loose end embodied in William’s death certificate.  If only I could get a piece of contemporary evidence, something from somebody in Mary’s own generation. Like her husband? Wouldn’t that be nice?

Fifth and final point: Contemporary evidence arrived on my doorstep just the other day in the form of Martin Haigney’s Civil War pension file. In affidavits submitted to the federal Bureau of Pensions in 1898, Martin asserted that his wife’s maiden name was Mary McMAHON. Ten years later, he submitted a similar affidavit saying Mary’s maiden name was MAHON.

The winner: MAHON. Hurray! Let’s tailgate. Do they tailgate at tennis matches?


NewsClips: Obituary, Raymond F. Haigney

Today’s NewsClip is the obituary of my paternal grandfather, Raymond F. Haigney. Raymond’s sudden and early death from a heart attack removed him from the family picture well before I was born, and until just a few years ago I had not even seen a photo of him.

Coronary disease, sad to say, is a big factor in recent family history — my paternal grandmother also died of a heart attack, as did my father, Peter, at age 59. It being hard to ignore a pretty striking family medical pattern, I thought genealogy research might provide some insights. So I guess you could say that Raymond F. got me into genealogy.

Obituary: Raymond F. Haigney, 1940


Amanuensis Monday: Mrs. Roche Notes 88th Birthday

I’m offering this for Amanuensis Monday, and selfishly including it in my NewsClips file too. It was the most fantastic find from my unexpected bonanza of Troy, N.Y. newspaper clippings.

My great-great-aunt Maggie Haigney Roche and her sibs certainly had their share of publicity over various birthdays, but nothing topped the ink Maggie got in 1958, when a features reporter for the Troy (N.Y.) Times-Record sat down for a talk with her as she turned 88. The result? A personality profile that not only yields the date of Maggie’s parents’ marriage, but also gives an irreplaceable sense of Maggie’s lively personality. I so want to find out who Maggie’s PR rep was.

(Amanuensis Monday is the ongoing initiative by John Newmark at TransylvanianDutch in which participants transcribe family letters, journals, audiotapes, and other historical artifacts.)

For Maggie’s moment in the spotlight, read on:

Mrs. Roche Notes 88th Birthday


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