[APG Public List] Cause of death question

Ray Beere Johnson II raybeere at yahoo.com
Fri Sep 24 18:22:04 MDT 2010

     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 categories.)
     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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