Census, Death and Burial

Cause of Death for James Hourigan?

A couple of family connections have told me that James Hourigan, son of Thomas Hourigan and Julia Moran, died in the Great Fire of 1870. Their source of information was apparently Alec Lunney’s “My Maternal Ancestors,” which I posted here.1

But looking closely at Alec Lunney’s “My Maternal Ancestors,” I can’t help but notice that he doesn’t actually say that James Hourigan died in the Great Fire of 1870. Rather, he refers to James Hourigan as “James who died as a youth of 18 in the year of the Great Fire of 1870.” Well, details, details…but so much of genealogical research has to do with the details; and there is a difference, after all, between dying as a direct result of a catastrophe, and dying of some other cause altogether around about the time that the catastrophe occurred.

James Hourigan baptism.
Baptism of James Hourigan, son of Thomas Hourigan and Julia Moran, 12 Dec 1852. Basilique Notre Dame d’Ottawa (Ottawa, Ontario), Register of Baptisms, Marriages and Burials, 1852-1855, image 35 of 244, B. 271, James Hurrigan [Hourigan], database, Ancestry.ca (http://www.ancestry.ca/: accessed 19 February 2013), Ontario, Canada, Catholic Church Records (Drouin Collection), 1747-1967.
I have not (yet) found a church burial record for James Hourigan, though I do have his baptismal record (see above). Nor have I discovered an Ontario civil death registration, and this document I do not really expect to find: for the province of Ontario, the registration of deaths only began on 1 July 1869, and for the first decade or so after its inception, the record-keeping was quite spotty.

But James Hourigan died within the twelve months preceding a census enumeration. And as it turns out, his death was recorded in the “Nominal Returns of the Deaths within last twelve months” for the 1871 census of Canada/Ontario/County of Carleton/Township of March:

1871 Census of Canada record for James Houricane [Hourigan], Ontario, Carleton, March township, Nominal Return of the Deaths within the last twelve months.
1871 Census of Canada record for James Houricane [Hourigan], Ontario, Carleton, March township, Nominal Return of the Deaths within the last twelve months.
Note that three deaths in the above census schedule are directly attributed to the Great Fire of 1870: John Hogan, age 35, religion Catholic, born Ireland, along with his sons John J. (age 9, born Ontario) and Michael (age 2 months, born Ontario), are recorded as having “burnt to death on the night of the Great Fire” in August 1870. There is no such “Great Fire” notation for the death of James Hourigan, who died October 1870, apparently of “Inflammation on the lungs” (possibly pneumonia?)2

On causes of death and genealogy, I have to say, I’ve recently seen some, in my opinion, somewhat inflated claims about the predictive value of medical genealogy: trace your family’s health history into the past in order to save your life tomorrow, and so on. Leaving aside the extremely complex issue of genetic versus environmental factors (while certain genetic traits are obviously inherited, the environment can change quite radically over time), I suspect that most  family history researchers, no matter how careful and diligent, will have trouble finding useful medical information for their great-grandparents, never mind going back any further than that.

For pre-twentieth-century ancestors, it can be very difficult to find reasonably accurate information about causes of death, or even to find any information at all. First, there is the problem of a paucity of records. And second, even where a record has survived, there is often the problem of translating an archaic medical term into a diagnostically meaningful modern equivalent.

  1. From Alec Lunney’s  “A Collection of Family and Ottawa Area Information.”
  2. At Rudy’s List of Archaic Medical Terms, the modern term for “inflammation of the lungs” is given as pneumonia. On inflammation as a term, Rudy’s List cites the National Genealogical Society Quarterly (December 1988, Volume 76, Number 4) as follows: “In the last century, cause of death often was listed as inflammation of a body organ – such as, brain or lung – but this was purely a descriptive term and is not helpful in identifying the actual underlying disease.”