Civil Records, Death and Burial, Medical Records, Wills

“Did an operation precede death”? (Ontario civil death records)

Death records often supply interesting (and occasionally rather gruesome) details about an ancestor’s cause of death. And while the information found in early Ontario civil death records is often a bit scanty, once we get into the twentieth century, the records become much more detailed, and therefore much more valuable to the family historian. Please resist the temptation to record only the place and date of death, and then call it a day: if you read every row, every column, every box on the form, you just might find something interesting (if possibly rather gruesome!).

Take, for example, the Ontario civil death registration for Michael Galligan.

Michael Galligan (1858-1933)

Map inset showing the 50 acres owned by Denis Galligan/Gallaghan Senior at Concession 3, Lot 3, Township of Fitzroy, County of Carleton. From Belden’s Illustrated historical atlas of the county of Carleton (including city of Ottawa), Ont. (Toronto: H. Belden & Co., 1879). Digital Collections Program, McGill University.

Michael Galligan was born about 1858 in Fitzroy township, Carleton Co., Ontario, Canada, the son of Denis Galligan (abt. 1815-1888) and Margaret Cahill (abt. 1820-1893), and the grandson of Denis Galligan (abt. 1782-1846) and Ann Kelly (abt. 1785-1866).

In 1889, after the death of his father, Michael inherited half of his father’s 50-acre homestead at Concession 3, Lot 3 in Fitzroy township, Carleton Co., Ontario, with his older brother Denis inheriting the other half of the farm. So the two brothers each inherited a 25-acre lot; but they also inherited some pretty serious financial obligations toward their unmarried sisters. In brief, in his last will and testament (transcription here), Denis Galligan Sr. bequeathed two hundred dollars to his daughter Ann, and eighty dollars apiece to his daughters Elizabeth and Margaret. And the money that he bequeathed to his unmarried daughters was to be paid “by each of my two sons Denis and Michael and to be a charge on their respective shares hereinafter mentioned.” The two brothers were to pay their three sisters within three years of their father’s death.

While $180 (the amount, in total, that each brother had to pay his unmarried sisters) might not sound like much in today’s values, in 1889, this would have been a significant cash burden against the income of a 25-acre farm.  Not surprisingly, it seems that within less than a decade after the death of their father, each brother had sold his inherited 25-acre lot. In 1901, we find Michael, still single, listed as a “labourer” in the household of William Storey (Fitzroy township, Carleton Co., Ontario). His older brother Denis, meanwhile, had moved on to Arnprior (Renfrew Co., Ontario), where he had a grocery store. Denis died of “consumption” (tuberculosis) in 1897, leaving his wife Elizabeth Tierney a widow with three children (another child, Annie, had died in 1896 at the age of seventeen months old).

In 1919, at about 60 years of age, Michael finally married a Bridget Lavelle (daughter of Austin Lavelle and Mary Rowan), who was about 47 years old. Not surprisingly, given their ages (in 1919, after all, 50 was not the new 40! and both bride and groom would have been seen as fairly advanced in age), the couple had no children. Bridget died in 1922, apparently of endocarditis, for which she was treated by her husband’s first cousin once removed, Dr. John Brady Galligan (son of Thomas Daniel Galligan, also a doctor, and of Catherine Brady).

Michael Galligan died 11 years later, on 6 April 1933.

Death of Michael Galligan

Nowadays, diabetes is a manageable, though still quite serious (and possibly life-threatening), illness. In 1933, it was far less manageable, and therefore even more serious, and more life-threatening.

In his Ontario civil death record, the “cause of death” for Michael Galligan is given as “Diabetes:”

And “did an operation precede death [No. 18 on the death registration form]?” Yes. On 13 March 1933, at the Ottawa Civic Hospital, doctors performed an amputation (possibly of a foot or a leg?) for diabetic gangrene. Michael Galligan died three and a half weeks later.

Whether he died of “diabetes,” as per his death record, or of complications (e.g., infection) from surgery to treat that diabetes, is now impossible to say. But according to Robert Tattersall,

In the 1930s nearly 50 percent of diabetics having an amputation died in the  immediate post-operative period.1

One reason for the high mortality rate, writes Tattersall, is that often it was inexperienced surgeons who did these “hopeless” operations. Another reason is that, very often, poor or “ward” or “charity” patients “initially refused amputation and gave consent only when extensive gangrene and infection had set in.”

A nasty and gruesome way to go, in any case. No, I’m not going to post any photos, but you can google “diabetic gangrene” if you don’t believe me.

My point is: none of this is revealed in the first few lines, rows, columns, numbered boxes of his Ontario civil death registration. It’s not until No. 18 on the form that we begin to apprehend the awful death that befell Michael Galligan.

Always read the entire record (while giving thanks for the discovery of antibiotics, and for related advances in the theory and practice of medicine!).

  1. Robert Tattersall, Diabetes: The Biography (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009).