New-York Historical Society

The cure for nostalgia: nineteenth-century coroner’s reports

This post was written by N-YHS intern Audrey Belanger

Coroner's Account, 1850. Y-1850, MS OS.

If you, like me, occasionally suffer from bouts of longing for life in the 19th century (Carriages! Balls! Needlepoint!), there is no better cure than perusing 19th century death records in the N-YHS manuscript collection.  Not only were sicknesses such as consumption, dropsy, smallpox, and hives regular menaces, but death lurked in unexpected places as well. According to a City of New York coroner’s bill from 1850, one might suffer a deadly scalding from coffee or the bath. One unfortunate woman died ominously from “a change of life” and numerous people died from falls.

The Weekly Visitor, or, Lady’s Miscellany helpfully published the city clerk’s weekly list of deaths in New York. From these lists I learned that in 1804 New York it was possible to die from “relax,” or even to just be “found,” say, in a cellar or at the 4 mile stone. Perhaps most disturbingly, one person died from drinking cold water. Apparently this was not an unusual cause of death.

On July 28, The Weekly Visitor reported that “several persons have lately died in consequence of drinking too freely of cold water, during the extreme heat of the day.” Since I often battle the extreme heat of New York summers by adding extra ice cubes to my glass of water, I was understandably distressed. Fortunately, both The Weekly Visitor and Blunt’s Stranger’s Guide To The City Of New York (1817) provide helpful tips for avoiding sudden death from drinking cold water (or cold liquors). I’ve summarized these tips below:

Weekly Visitor or Lady's Miscellany, July 28, 1804. PS1 .L26.

  1. Don’t drink cold water when you’re warm.
  2. If you must drink cold water, drink it in small sips and let it warm up in your mouth before swallowing.
  3. Alternatively, you can try warming the container with your hands before drinking
  4. Or you can cool yourself down first by rinsing your mouth and washing your hands and face with cold water before drinking.
  5. If you have foolhardily neglected these precautions, and are suffering ill effects (such as convulsions or cramps), try dosing yourself with laudanum.
  6. If a hot bath is immediately available, hop in that. If not, you should cover yourself with a blanket and put fomentations of spirits and water on your feet, stomach, and bowels.
  7. Finally, you should mix a pint of 1 part spirits, 2 parts water and inject this into your bowels.

In 1817, there were apparently physicians appointed by the humane society who specialized in these procedures. Since I have not found a similar list of physicians for today’s New Yorker, you may want to avoid cold water altogether, or at least contact your doctor to make sure (s)he is prepared to inject your bowels with a pint of spirits and water at a moment’s notice!

1 Comment to The cure for nostalgia: nineteenth-century coroner’s reports

  1. September 18, 2012 at 7:48 pm | Permalink

    The evils of cold water…. how magnificently weird. Leaves me wondering how people could die of cold water consumption, Convulsions eek!
    What’s the physiological explanation. Is there one?

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