[APG Public List] Cause of death question

LBoswell laboswell at rogers.com
Fri Sep 24 20:29:38 MDT 2010

There is a condition known commonly as "night terrors," which is more 
widespread than previously thought, and is now considered to be related to a 
type of sleep apnea (sleep apnea in turn is linked to higher risk of heart 
attack).  Anyone suffering from this particular type of 'waking nightmare' 
would likely have been known to suffer from them, and a subsequent death in 
the night could easily be attributed to that, even if not directly caused by 
the episode.

The episodes are incredibly terrifying though, enough to cause severe 
emotional reactions which would be well known by family members.

So obviously not literally death from a nightmare, but in the eyes of people 
who were aware of the deceased suffered in this way, maybe it would seem a 
possible explanation, rightly or wrongly, if the individual died during the 
night.  Literally people act as if they are frightened to death, and report 
that they thought they were going to die.

interesting cause of death to have on the family tree though!

  ----- Original Message ----- 
  From: Ray Beere Johnson II
  To: Janey Joyce ; APG Posting
  Sent: Friday, September 24, 2010 8:22 PM
  Subject: Re: [APG Public List] Cause of death question

       Three thoughts.
       First, I suspect the most likely interpretation of this phrase would 
be that he had a nightmare which frightened him to death (terror brought on 
a heart attack, for example). There were certainly theories like this 
floating around throughout the nineteenth century (the eighteen hundreds). 
And, of course, this type of death was a cliche in fiction by then.
       Second, although the literal idea of "death by nightmare" was not a 
mainstream medical concept in 1853, the word nightmare comes from the 
folkloric belief that such a dream was caused by a literal visit from a type 
of spectral mare. And there was certainly folklore which persisted to around 
this period or later which warned that the night mare would try to smother 
you. If it was a small town, and an eccentric doctor, or even one who had 
only the training common at the time, which was to serve for a time as 
"apprentice" (this was not what it was usually formally called) to a doctor, 
he might have considered this a valid cause of death. If the doctor was 
trained in any of the medical colleges that then existed, probably not - 
unless he was _very_ eccentric. :-)
       In fact, this is something we often forget in our research. Older 
beliefs survived in some places even as they died out in most areas. 
Individuals clung to practices ridiculed by everyone else. Once an idea or 
practice was conceived of, we can never entirely rule it out, even after it 
has gone out of fashion. (I'm speaking of information generated by 
individuals, of course, not data derived from standard, specified 
       Third, given the popularity of this conceit in literature, it is also 
possible that your article drew its "facts" from the fevered imagination of 
the reporter or editor. You don't mention much about the newspaper where you 
found this. Whenever a newspaper account seems especially odd, it is 
worthwhile to look through a number of issues, just to see what's normal for 
that paper. We also forget that in those days, newspapers were often owned, 
and their content written or controlled, by individuals. As a result, most 
papers had their own "personalities".
       If the paper seems given to printing a lot of lurid speculation, I'd 
imagine that is the explanation. If this item seems unusual - even for the 
paper it appears in - then I'd assume either the conclusion comes from the 
doctor, or the circumstances of this man's death really were striking and 
odd. Perhaps both. A doctor who wouldn't normally leap to such a conclusion 
might do so if faced with an especially bizarre situation.
                                    Ray Beere Johnson II

  --- On Fri, 9/24/10, Janey Joyce <jejoyce at sbcglobal.net> wrote:

  > Hope one of you can solve this mystery.
  > I have found an ancestor's "sudden death" notice published in a
  > Wisconsin newspaper in 1853 that says: "It is supposed he died of a
  > night-mare." I know nightmares can be terrifying, but I am not aware of
  > anyone actually perishing as the result of one.
  > Does anyone know if nightmares could have really been considered a cause
  > of death back in the 1850s?

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