Monday, August 20, 2012

Women's Lives and Male Control: A Surprising Genealogical Find

There's an oft-repeated maxim among genealogists (well, the sort who actually care about the facts) that you should be prepared to find anything when you set out on a quest to track your family history.  In fact, there seems to be an inbuilt karmic thing in genealogical research which assures that you will quite definitely discover the opposite of whatever fool myth you decide to prove when you begin your search.

That long, old story in your family of Mayflower descent for your Smith ancestors?  What to do with it when you find the immigrant ancestor was actually a 19th-century Lithuanian Jewish fellow with an unpronounceable name the customs officers decided to render as Smith for convenience's sake?

The pure-white-blood myth of every white Southern family I've ever known?  Avoid the real records, the ones that count as genealogical evidence, if you hope to sustain that story.  

Stories I could tell . . . .  And this actually does have quite a bit to do with what I posted earlier today.  Bear with me as I explain.

Recently, I've been doing all I can to fill in family lines of one of my ancestral families for which I coordinate a research project.  By "fill in," I mean find actual proof of each link in the chain of each line descending from one ancestor down to the present insofar as I can find the documents.

This has been a fascinating and at times tedious and even saddening project--so many lives, so much struggle, so much hardship, so few eagles among the turkeys (not to mention the growing suspicion that I'm among the latter and not the former).  The project has also required that I work with death certificates that have now been made available online for some states.  And it's in these that I find the incendiary information that I regard as "be prepared to find anything."

Recently, for instance, by following one chain, I suddenly realized I was actually studying two interlinked chains: two first cousins of my father from opposite sides of his family had married, and I knew immediately the identity of the husband as I followed the wife's line down, though somehow it had escaped my notice up to that point that this was one of those "double-cousin" situations that adorned the family trees of many Southern families for generations, as people married within families to keep land firmly held by certain families.

What I wasn't prepared to find, however, was a death certificate telling me that the husband, my father's first cousin, had died in jail of a heart attack attributed to alcoholism.  I say I wasn't prepared, though I wasn't at all surprised, since my mother had often told me that branch of my father's family was characterized by "bad" alcoholism--as opposed to the "good" alcoholism of her own family, I was supposed to understand, where people managed to hold jobs while drinking incessantly.  "Bad" alcoholics go through one job after another until no one will hire them.  They sell their shoes or watches to buy liquor.

And they often end up in county jails, dying young of mysterious causes that have everything to do with heavy drinking and the savagery they've often exhibited when drunk.

That death-certificate find was, as I say, not surprising, if unanticipated.  But last night, one I came across another one that absolutely stuns me.  It takes the cake among surprising genealogical finds I've made in the recent past.

This was another death-certificate find.  It's the death record of a woman who is, according to my genealogical software, my third cousin once removed.  She died in 1975 at the age of 76 in a Catholic hospital in a large city in her state.  The death certificate states that she was a teacher.

And in the section providing the cause of death, the doctor, whose signature is clearly visible on the document, has written: "gangrene of leg; arteriosclerosis; & diabetes."  Then off to the side he has also written: "abortion."

This is the death certificate, I repeat, of a woman 76 years old.  She cannot have died of a botched abortion.  She cannot have had an abortion for many years prior to her death.

And so, assuming that this information is correct, why include it in the death certificate as a cause of death?  Why mention it at all?  And how did the doctor even know that this woman, who did bear two children, had had an abortion?

The only possible explanation I can provide for this notation on this death certificate (and I hope that readers will chime in with other possible explanations, if you have them) is that 1) prior to her death, the woman told  either the doctor or some other medical authority that she had had an abortion at some time in the past, 2) this fact was recorded in her medical records, because she had disclosed it to her family doctor, or 3) the doctor who acted as coroner did some kind of examination that led him to the conclusion that at some point in the past she had had an abortion.

Even so, none of this explains why he thought it necessary to record this information on the elderly woman's death certificate, when it could have had nothing at all to do with her death.  What would her children have thought about this annotation when they saw her death certificate, I wonder?  As they were likely to do, since closing her estate would surely have necessitated having a copy of it . . . . 

I can't avoid the inescapable conclusion that the doctor who recorded this information on this woman's death certificate did so to give her one final smack on the face, post mortem, for having made a decision with which he didn't agree.  I honestly can't think of any other reason for his choice to record this particular piece of information on the woman's death certificate.  People who die at the age of 76 have, after all, in the normal course of circumstance had many illnesses and perhaps not a few medical procedures, and I've never seen a death certificate that lists all of the non-contributory illnesses or medical procedures when it lists the causes of death.

Doctors who are attending physicians in large hospitals and who fill in death certificates when a patient dies are rarely the family doctor of a person who has died.  They usually can't have any inkling of the reasons people have made certain medical choices in their past--e.g., whether a woman who has had an abortion made that choice because she had no other medical choice when her own life was at stake, for instance.  

I'm inclined to think this particular doctor penned the word "abortion" in the section of her death certificate reserved for stating the cause of her death for one reason and one reason alone: to leave behind a permanent record of a decision of which he disapproved, which she had made at some point in her life for reasons I doubt he knew.  Just because.

Because he could do so, as the physician attending her when she died.

And I wrong, I wonder, to conclude this?

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