Friday, November 1, 2013

Mere Mortals: Lifespans and the Livingstons

This all started when I heard someone say it:  "She died at 76, and that was old back then."  Oh no!  Another senseless generalization, growing ominously into an historic house myth. 

I know you've heard it said, "Life in the old days was nasty, brutish, and short," but as usual this generalization blurs the truth.  It sounds juicy and exciting so it gets repeated over and over.

Well for one, if you've read my blog before, you know my feelings about the phrases "back then" and "the old days."  These whitewash phrases ignore the change over time, suggesting that there was little difference between life in the 17th and 19th centuries of Colonial through Victorian life--even though it is a time period of three hundred years!  These phrases also oversimplify and generalize everyone's lives within one time period, regardless of region, financial status, and lifestyle. Finally, this myth also gets generalized to women with the idea that most of them died horribly in child birth, which will also be addressed briefly in this article.

Alright.  Let's examine this myth with the set of information that I have the best access too: the Livingston Family Genealogy.  With a dull thud, the heavy red book hit my desk yesterday, and I spent a couple hours flipping through with a pen and a calculator to get a good sampling of the first six generations of Livingstons and their lifespans.  Now mind you, this is the Livingston family (and a few spouses), a primarily New York-dwelling family of great wealth with birth dates ranging from 1654-1867 in total (although I did also subdivide within that time span).  The Livingstons were primarily city dwellers with second homes in rural areas that they traveled to in the summers.  These rural areas however were generally well-established settlements and not frontiers.

My sample's not totally complete within the Livingston group--whoever's family lines I could trace adequately to know what generation they fell in, and it yielded a good 193 people (along with about two dozen who's dates were unknown or incomplete).  Nevertheless, it's enough to give us a pretty good feeling for what lifespans were like for the Livingston family.  And here's the first breakdown for the whole 213 year span:

Age at death              # of People            % of total (rounded to nearest whole number)
1-2                              6                             3%
3-10                            9                             5%     
11-18                          5                             3%
19-30                         18                            9%
31-50                         32                            17%
51-70                         47                            24%
71-90                         61                            32%
90+                            6                               3%

Not too shabby.  A full of third of the Livingstons made it to their 71st birthday.  Discounting child mortality (during the particularly vulnerable years 18 and under), the numbers look like this:

19-30                     18                               11%
31-50                     32                               19%
51-70                     47                               28%              
71-90                     61                               36%
90+                         6                                  4%

A full 40% of adult Livingstons during this time period could expect to make it into their 70s and later.  Of course, that also means that more than half could expect to be killed earlier by accidents, wars (General Montgomery, at right, was killed in the Revolutionary War at 37), and assorted illnesses.  Even so it was not at all rare to live much later.  The Chancellor's brother John lived to 97 and so did their sister Catherine.  In fact, with the exception of one sister who died at age 5, all of the Chancellor's nine siblings made it past age 60.

So where did this idea come from that people of the 18th and 19th centuries were just dropping like flies?  Probably because death was very present in everyday life.  Life was uncertain, and as late as the Victorian era, even children were taught that death might strike at any time.

Many children encountered the loss of a parent or sibling when they were young.  For instance, four of Margaret Beekman Livingston's ten children were old enough to be aware of the death of their sister Catherine in 1752, and Walter Livingston's children eleven children were all under the age of 30 (the youngest was 11) when he passed away in 1797.  Children grew up knowing that death could strike at any time, at any age.  Young as we are we may decay/ Our souls to live in endless day”  Particularly in the 18th century, American society reminded its members about the universality and imminence of death on a regular basis, even including dire warnings on headstones and mementos of the dead, such as that at left which includes "Remember to die" in the decorative border.

Actually, in doing these numbers, I was surprised to see that the Livingstons' child mortality rate seemed to be quite low.  Whether this is because their better resources and good luck meant higher survival rate or because poor records meant some losses were not preserved in history, I cannot be certain.  As I mentioned earlier, some Livingstons have no birth or death dates at all beside their names, and it stands to reason that some children lost in infancy may not have made it into our books.  Quite simply, some Livingstons were better researched than others.

Nevertheless, looking at the records I do have, I see that 15% of the known Livingston children in the first three generations did not make it past age 10, and most of those were lost before they turned 2 years old.  The risk of losing babies was simply a hard a fact of life.  Alida Livingston lost one infant to fever in 1692 and seven years later lost another toddler to unknown causes.  In later generations (the fourth through sixth generations, who were mostly having their children after the 1790s) things seemed to improve only a little for Livingston parents: 12% of their children still died before age 10.  Betsy Livingston (the Chancellor's daughter, seen at left) and her husband Edward Philip had the hardest go of it, losing 4 children before age 10 and then two teenagers on top of that. 

This then leads to the question of maternal mortality.  Without much in the way of birth control, women had children with much greater frequency than they do now.  For many of the Livingston women of the 18th century, childbearing could represent a period of up to 20-25 years of their lives, and many gave birth to 7-10 children (or sometimes more).  For many complex reasons, the birth rate dropped for wealthy families of the 19th century, but families with four or five children were will not uncommon.  Birth was fraught with challenges, and increasing its frequency in a single woman's life did increase the chances of life-threatening complications.  Nevertheless, in comparing the death dates I have for mothers with the birth dates of their children, I found that most long past their child bearing years, making it impossible for complications from child birth to have killed them.

I took a much larger (and more informal) sampling from the genealogy, skimming past hundreds of women for whom I could find the necessary dates.  I found only four women who died the same year that a child was born (one of the was John Henry Livingston's first wife Catherine Hammersley in 1873).  I stretched this a little further and guessed that if the child also died, it may not have been recorded at that time, and I still found only 6 women who died within 1-3 years of their previous child (one of these was Margaret Maria Livingston, the Chancellor's daughter).  Since causes of death were rarely recorded, it is impossible to show with great certainty, but amongst the Livingstons, childbirth does not appear to have proven fatal to a very great percentage of women.

This doesn't mean that birth wasn't frightening, painful, and full of risks.  Mary Stevens Livingston, the Chancellor's wife, suffered from a limp throughout her late life that may have come from complications with the birth of her second child.  Other non-Livingston women recorded their anxiety in letters and diaries as they approached the ordeal of birth.  But childbirth was by no means the leading cause of women's deaths during these periods.  Midwife Martha Ballard recorded great success during her decades of work in rural Maine in the late 18th century, apparently losing only one mother in delivery and another five during their lying-in period--this is out of nearly 1,000 births that she recorded.  Certainly that 1 in 198 mortality rate is higher than current 1st world standards, but it is not so high as it often gets made out to be.

I also found it interesting that I started out dividing this group of six generations into two halves.  But when I looked at them, the numbers of people who made it past their 51st birthday changed very little: 60%  in the first three generations and 57% in generations 4-6.  The numbers instead saw changes in the rates of people who died very young: children and mid-lifers.  Curiously, while a great percentage of children were lost in the first period (15% of total deaths), it was more frequent during the second period (encompassing the late 18th and early 19th centuries) to lose people during their prime years of 19 to 50 (28% of total deaths).  At this point, I don't have a good guess for the shift, but I'm not drawing any big conclusions because of the relatively small sample size.  (Montgomery Livingston at right was killed at age 39, most likely by tuberculosis)

From an early age, most people were aware of death on a particularly intimate level.  Most people experienced the death of a close family member early in life, and many were physically acquainted with the processes of death when the body was laid out in their very homes.  And in some ways this exposure developed a level of familiarity with the the process and events of death and grief.  For instance, in 1822 a New England teenager was comfortable enough to describe her grandfather's end as passing “sweetly into the arms of death, he expired without a groan or a struggle, or even the utterance of one word.”

Even so, the death of a young person was still conjured reactions of surprise.  The same teenager who described her grandfather's passing so gently later came to obsess about the difficulties of death, frequently writing about the passing of friends and neighbors with distress and sorrow.  One contemporary Schenectady resident wrote a poem describing the perceived "untimeliness" in the death of a young person:

There was an open grave, and many an eye
Looked down upon it.  Slow the sable hearse 
Moved on, as if reluctant to bear
The young, unwearied form to that cold couch. 
The Livingstons were certainly not immune to the specter of early death, and they lost many family members in the years that might now be considered "their prime."  Nevertheless, a full 69% of Livingstons lived well past their 51st birthday in the 18th and 19th centuries, and of those, most made it into their 70s and 80s.  
So life may have been fraught with perils that could have resulted in an early death, it didn't necessarily make you "old" in your 50s.  While some people were lost to "untimely deaths," older relatives in their 70s, 80s, and even 90s were served as reminders that life could be much longer.  Death was a universal prospect--and it still is--but life still went on in the mean time.

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