Benjamin Franklin once wrote, perhaps cribbing from the English author Daniel Defoe, that “in this world nothing can be said to be certain, except death and taxes.”
While some do find ways, legal or not, to avoid the latter; the former is most certainly assured.
How people die, however, has changed over the years. During the grim 1860s, people on Galveston Island died in ways still common, and in ways now all but vanquished.
Death, too, then as now, took the very young and the very old — and all in between. The oldest to die on the island during that dismal decade of war and disease was one Rubin Kennedy, who died on Oct. 28, 1868, three days shy of departing on All Hallows Eve.
He was 105 years old, and the cause of death — as recorded in the Record of Interments of the City of Galveston by a church sexton identified only as M. Cahill — was, not all that surprising, “olde age.”
The youngest was an infant who died on Nov. 29, 1867, a mere “one hower old.”
While the good sexton’s spelling often was, well, call it inventive — he recorded coroners’ determinations that people had died of yallow fevor; nervis fevor; disease of the hart; soar throath; tetnas; jaundes; hepatis and hepatities; diarrhe and diarahea; and that others draund, drownded and dround; and still others were murded — his comprehensive records reveal a remarkable diligence.
That rigor was apparent on one particularly deadly day, which arrived Jan. 1, 1863, the day of the Battle of Galveston in which the Confederates retook the island, but at a high cost to both sides. Twenty combat deaths were recorded that day, each on consecutive lines in the registry; all, Sexton Cahill noted, had been “shot.”
Six of the deceased were sailors with the U.S. Navy; many of the rest were rebel soldiers with the Seventh Texas Regiment. In all, the rebel dead included eight from Anderson County; four from New Braunfels; two from Galveston, including the regimental surgeon, Dr. A.L. Fischer; and one each from Clear Creek and Goliad, the latter where 342 Texans had been massacred on March 27, 1836, during the Texas Revolution.
Yet, that New Year’s Day was far from the deadliest day chronicled in the Record of Interments.
Sexton Cahill often recorded large numbers of victims who had succumbed to one or another of the various yellow fever epidemics that periodically swept across the island.
One such scourge arrived in July 1867 and didn’t let up until a freeze arrived that October. In those few months, some 1,100 people died of yellow fever.
Fewer, but still significant, numbers of islanders died of maladies such as “opium poisoning” and “bad whiskey” and the more ambiguous “whiskey exposure.”
One 10-month-old child’s cause of death was listed as “freightened.”
Transportation, as it does still today and will tomorrow, killed its fair share.
In 1861, 66-year-old John Brock died as a result of a “fall from buggy,” and 17-year-old J.W. Poulian’s cause of death was a “fall from horse.”
The following year, on April 26, James O. Donnell, 32, was “jammed between r.r. cars.” Several unfortunates were run over by the same.
Others in that bitter decade died of lockjaw, dysentery, diphtheria and measles, conditions that kill few Americans today.
Yet others died of diseases and conditions that still kill, among them pneumonia, stroke, asthma, suicide and murder — the last including one John Lade, who at the age of 39 died as the result of a “pistol shot in the hands of his wife.”
A few, thankfully, died of old age. Others, who knows?
Perhaps the most mysterious of all entries in the sexton’s ledger of mortality was a single listing regarding “17 negro men” recorded as having died on Feb. 9, 1863, the causes “not known;” their residences “not known;” their places of birth “not known.” What is known is that they all died at Government Hospital and were laid to rest in Galveston’s potter’s field.
Some causes of departure were mysterious for other reasons.
There were, for instance, Henry Kidd, who “died for love,” and Thomas Dean, whose cause of death was “ladies complaint” and a 6-year-old whose death was ascribed to his being a “dirt eater.”
Then there were cases that baffled even those charged with determining causes of death, whatever they may be.
One coroner, on Jan. 22, 1867, apparently threw up his hands in hopeless surrender when confronted with the death of a 2-month-old child, whom the sexton dutifully recorded as having died of “no telling.”