Friday, January 8, 2010

Age at Death

It's common knowledge that children under the age of 5 suffered terrible mortality rates in the 18th and 19th centuries. Recently, I have been wondering whether infants were commemorated with gravestones at a rate proportionate with the frequency of their deaths. I'm still not sure whether they were, but I have been crunching some numbers.

Plymouth's Burial Hill holds 2,161 gravestones/cenotaphs commemorating over 3,000 individuals. The following graphs show the age at death for 2,102 of them (I omitted the records of those who died before 1701, after 1850, as well as records with incomplete information).

Age at Death, 1701-1750 (207 gravestones):

Age at Death, 1751-1800 (577 gravestones):

Age at Death, 1801-1850 (1,319 gravestones):

These numbers do not show the age of death for all Plymouth residents, only those residents who received a gravestone robust enough to survive.

It seems that fewer infants received gravestones in the first half of the 18th century than in the second half of that century and the first half of the 19th century. Of course, this may reflect a lower infant mortality rate in 1701 than in 1801, but that seems unlikely. My next step will be to compare cemetery records with Plymouth's death records.

Another trend that needs explanation is the different shapes of graphs 2 and 3. Graph #2 seems to show a fairly flat curve between ages 20 and 80 (with one anomalous bump in the early 40s that compensates for shortfalls in the late 30s and late 40s). Graph #3 seems to show a distinct elevation in death rate in the 20s and early 30s, as well as in the 70s, with a corresponding depression in the 40s and 50s. What does this mean? Is it just a question of insufficient data? I suppose I should run some significance tests to see whether the fluctuations might be random.

In any event, these numbers are clear on one point: early American graveyards are filled with infants and toddlers.


Anonymous said...

Is the spike in the 20s and 30s attributable to men dying in wars and women dying in childbirth?


Caitlin GD Hopkins said...

It's quite possible, though it's probably death at sea rather than war deaths that elevates the death rate for Plymouth men in their 20s.

Of the 248 individuals who died between the ages of 20 and 29 in the 1701-1850 era, 147 were women and 101 were men. Though it's possible that the death rate was higher for women due to child birth, I think that this discrepancy probably indicates that many men died at sea and were not commemorated in the graveyard.

Of the 101 men in the sample, 35 died at sea or in foreign ports.

Lori Stokes said...

I have read that infants who died were buried on the family homestead rather than in graveyards, which might lower the number of stones for them. Does your research support this idea?

Bryan said...

I wonder how the age of death compares with today's statistics. Interesting data you have provided.

Anonymous said...

Did families possibly bury babies more often at home, or without a gravestone? Was infant mortality higher among lower income families or consistent across socio-economic lines?

Caitlin GD Hopkins said...

It is possible that some babies may have been buried at home, but that was probably more common in rural areas than in coastal towns like Plymouth. Common graveyards in urban areas often had vaults set aside for poor, stillborn, and unnamed infants — the most famous of these was at Boston's Copp's Hill Burying Ground. I suspect that the lack of gravestones for infants during the 1st half of the 18th century does not stem from a lower infant death rate or a tendency to bury infants at home, but rather from the cost of gravestones. So many babies died — it would cost a lot to bury them all individually. When young children do have gravestones, the monuments often commemorate multiple children from the same family.

I suspect that infant mortality was probably higher among the poor and enslaved, but it is very hard to tell from the available information about Plymouth. Regardless, infant mortality was very high across all economic categories.