Michigan State University

Death, Dying, Illness

The death of children from illness was so common in the nineteenth century that is difficult for the modern reader to grasp. Infectious diseases were increasingly common as cities began to grow and yet medical science had little understanding of them let alone effective ways of treating or preventing their spread (smallpox was a notable exception). Epidemics of cholera or yellow fever and typhoid were common. The childhood diseases routinely swept through homes. Adult, childhood, and childbirth mortality rates remained quite high until the end of the century.

Death was more probable, more familiar. Illness, the deathbed, or the scene of dying, was a common feature of nineteenth century literature. Books for children were no exception and religious books on the subject sought to place death in within established tenets or common beliefs. Death was typically seen as a culmination and, therefore, confirmation of the meaning of one's existence. Most explicitly in this vein, the collection contains Osmon C. Baker's The Last Witness which offers the dying words of famous Christians (mostly Protestant e.g. Luther, Wesley) and Infidels (e.g. Voltaire, Rousseau) as proof of their respective faith and impiety. (There are some oddities here. The libertine poet of the English Restoration, John Wilmot, Earl of Rochester, who died of syphilis at 33, accepting religion on his deathbed, is reported under the pious-only his testimony of faith is mentioned.) Many of these texts relate the death of children in religious contexts (e.g. Little William or The Golden Ringlet: or, Lizzie Dies To-night) in an attempt to show the ideal condition in which one should meet one's end. In other words, the deathbed was not only a scene of death but also a scene of instruction. This holds true for biographical accounts of death such as Religion as it Should Be: or, The Remarkable Experience and Triumphant Death of Ann Thane Peck. The themes expressed in these scenes typically took the form of consolation in the face of loss and pain and suffering. The brevity of earthly existence was emphasized over and against the immortality of the soul. The notion that death was an end to human suffering and sin, that one was being "called home" to heaven, or that illness was a sign of incipient grace, that a child or parent was "ripening for glory" were commonly invoked. Sometimes doctrinal issues would emerge, as in Catharine Helfenstein which stresses how the dying girl admitted her innate depravity as proof of her readiness for salvation. Other texts will argue for infant salvation and the increasingly commonplace understanding of the inherently angelic nature of children.

— Stephen Rachman, Department of English, Michigan State University

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