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Mendocino Mortality a Century Ago

As a historian I’m the first person to admit I can start a project writing about one planned topic, influenza in Mendocino County in 1918, and get totally sidetracked and end up writing about how people died a century ago. This column comes with a reader’s advisory…if you don’t like knowing how people pass away this isn’t for you.

I couldn’t have developed such a deadly topic if I hadn’t been consulting a set of books I consider essential to research on the Mendocino Coast. “Births, Deaths and Marriages on California’s Mendocino Coast” is a multi volume work of dedication by Eugene M. Lewis and the now sadly vanished Mendocino Coast Genealogy Society. Lewis sat down with a century of Fort Bragg Advocate News newspapers and wrote down every birth, death and marriage…in alphabetical order…decade by decade…with interesting side notes and each volume contains a decade.

I had volume 2:1910 to 1919 and was reading it to see how many folks locally died of influenza during World War One. This column will be forthcoming in the AVA but I got distracted reading the multitudinous ways life could end a century ago. Starting with the normal ways to die the newspaper just often said “died”. The wives and children that died were often not listed with a first name. The deceased was Mrs. John McDonald, a child was the three month old infant son of J.C. Smith. This was common in newspapers of the time. If you died of a specific illness it might be listed.

Normal deaths were things like your cow falling on you or your horse kicking you. Your horse might throw you when it was surprised by the sound of an automobile. Men accidently shot themselves cleaning firearms, or fell down flights of stairs when drunk. Women died in childbirth. Children succumbed to childhood diseases.

Men drowned when their boats capsized when fishing, when they fell in a mill pond or “while swimming after consuming a big meal.” World War One was killing local boys on the battlefields of Europe or they were missing in action. One military man died in a submarine that sank off the Hawaii coast and another passed away from pneumonia after having measles. A local soldier cut his throat upon learning his brother had been killed in battle, another died in the coal bunker of a battleship after it exploded.

In my mind there were a huge number of suicides reported of both men and women in that decade. The coast was full of single immigrants and there was no medical help or family support available for troubled minds. One man stood on the railroad tracks and waited for the approaching locomotive to kill him. A young man shot and killed himself when he wrecked the car his father owned. Another man shot himself on his parent’s grave in despair. A young man leapt from a 75’ cliff to his death. He was assumed insane. Folks hung themselves, strangled themselves, ingested illuminating gas and drank chloroform.

Women didn’t fare much better. Along with the woes of disease and childbirth they died at the hands of their husbands, in auto accidents and stagecoach wrecks. A woman interred in the state hospital for the insane in Ukiah tore her sheets into strips and hung herself out a third floor window.

Babies and children often lived short lives. A baby one day short of its first birthday drowned in a tub of water. A four year old fell in a cauldron of hot milk and died of scalding burns. Kids had accidents around cook stoves and fell in wells. A six year old died from a thrown piece of stove wood. This child was a victim of continual abuse by the mother who was taken away to the state asylum. A ten year old boy was killed by an insane father who promptly shot himself to death.

Working in the woods was deadly and the single biggest cause of death outside of natural causes for young men was “crushed by a log.” There were dozens of accounts of men being killed by logs or falling limbs. In the lumber mills they were electrocuted, and dragged into the machinery or scalded to death when a boiler exploded. Other woodsmen fell off logging trains, dropped dead of sunstroke, and died in forest fires.

Railroads killed people right and left. Railroad track layers were killed by rolling boulders and black powder explosions. Railroaders slipped on moving trains and were run over when they fell off. A steam shovel operator working on the Greenwood Railroad hit soft earth and the machine fell over and crushed him.

The last category of deaths I’d call death by “misadventure.” Like being struck by lightening or found dead under “mysterious circumstances.” A woman died in a Northwestern Pacific train station in Longvale. She was waiting for the train to arrive and take her to a hospital in Ukiah. A landslide closed the tracks and she died. A man was shot and killed riding in a caboose on a moving train. A 14 year old boy was learning to shoot and choose to shoot at the caboose. A drunk drowned in a ditch “under the influence of strong liquor.”

Mrs. J.W. Smith was found frozen to death at the Garberville gate to the Harris Road in late November 1914. She was involved in a robbery with her husband in Willits and the husband was sent to San Quentin prison. Released on parole they were headed to Humboldt County on foot when the husband deserted her on the side of the road in a snowstorm. In another sad case a woodsman self-medicating used creosote to plug a cavity in a bad tooth and was consequently fatally poisoned.

Your trusty correspondent assumes that at this point you have read enough about death on the Mendocino Coast. BUT, if you really wanted to know more these volumes on births, marriages and deaths are in select museums and libraries in the county.

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