Friday, November 14, 2014

Genealogical Misconceptions

I love Who Do You Think You Are. I really do. But it has given rise to some widely held misconceptions.

(Photo by Tom Coates, posted on Wikimedia Commons)
The first is that all women who said they were seamstresses in the censuses were actually prostitutes.  I'm sure some of them were, but there were plenty of women who had to work as seamstresses or milliners or laundresses, especially if their husband died leaving them with dependent children.

The other, which I have heard several people state, is that if a woman had several children who died young, she must have had syphilis. This comes from the Martin Freeman episode. 

Yes, it is certainly true that many people in Victorian England had syphilis (10% according to Dr Peter Greenhouse), but there are other possible cause for repeated child deaths.

One is deaths due to the Rhesus (Rh) factor. You either have, or don't have, the Rhesus factor on your red blood cells.  If you are O+ (for example), you are Rh-positive.  Someone who is O- is Rh-negative.  If an Rh-negative woman has an Rh-positive baby, and their bloods mix (which often doesn't happen until the birth) the mother will start to develop antibodies against the Rhesus factor, which can attack and destroy a baby's red blood cells. Because this usually happens at birth, the first baby is usually fine. But subsequent children will be born very ill and jaundiced due to the destruction of these blood cells. Nowadays this is managed with blood transfusions.  But in the past most of those babies would have died.

A key point that was made in the Martin Freeman episode was that at first the babies of a woman with syphilis would be stillborn, then they would die shortly after birth, and eventually the children would survive, but perhaps with a disability like blindness.

Then there are other cases like one of my husband's ancestors.  I have no definite explanation for this case.

John Bell & Louisa Lewell had the following children (all events in Wood Dalling, Norfolk):
    1. Mary, bap 10 Oct 1824, buried 28 Aug 1825
    2. John, bap 12 May 1826, bur 8 Jun 1826
    3. Mary Elizabeth, bap 3 Jun 1827, bur 20 Dec 1829
    4. Samuel, bap 5 Jul 1829, died 8 Apr 1896 (my husbands ancestor)
    5. Susanna Mary, bap 15 May 1831, bur 31 May 1831
    6. William, bap 28 Oct 1832, bur 29 Jan 1833
    7. Thomas, bap 8 Dec 1833, bur 15 Dec 1833
So of all their children, only one lived past the page of 3.

Was it bad luck, a congential problem, or something more unpleasant?