Death by Downturn

Edward H. Harris, Sr., 1880-1937. (click to enlarge)

Economic downturns don’t necessarily cause an increase in the mortality rate.  In fact, depressions and recessions tend to increase the overall health of the general population. This seems counter-intuitive to me.

My great grandfather, Edward H. Harris, Sr., died on October 27, 1937.  He was 57 years old.  The newspapers reported that he died of a glandular ailment, but I’ve always wondered if the increased stress of managing a newspaper through the midst of our country’s worst economic downturn may have hastened his death.

Edward’s maternal grandfather, Edward Shaw–the source of his name if not any longevity genes–lived into his nineties in an era when the average lifespan of the American male was around 45.

On the other hand, Edward Harris, Sr.’s paternal grandfather may also have been a victim of economic downturn.  Henry Martin Harris spent his life trying different businesses and speculating in real estate.  The Panic of 1857 devastated his finances:  in 1850, the census valued his real estate at $1,100; in 1860, the value was $400.  Then the next major economic downturn hit–The Great Depression of 1873.  It took six years for the country to recover, and Henry didn’t live to see it.  He died a poor man in 1876.

Jonas Harris Mill

The mill Jonas Harris built on the Saint Joseph River in South Bend, Indiana during the 1830s. (Click to enlarge).

Henry’s own father (Edward H. Harris, Sr.’s great grandfather) Jonas died in 1843, as the Panic of 1837 was ending. Jonas was a pioneer who had moved from Virginia to Ohio to Wayne County, Indiana to South Bend, Indiana.  He arrived in South Bend just before the Panic of 1837 began.  He built a grist mill that became an important part of the growing community for years to come, but unfortunately he died only a few years into its operation, leaving many debts and a complicated estate for his heirs.

None of these deaths can be tied directly to economic downturns, but the coincidence seems striking.  My great grandfather, his grandfather and his great grandfather were all business owners and all died during our nation’s most crippling recessions.  I can’t prove the economy was responsible, but it seems likely.

In the end, national economic crises may or may not have contributed to my ancestors’ deaths, but in one case the reason is clear.  Henry C. Shaw was my great grandfather’s uncle.  Economic crisis caused his death, but it wasn’t the nation’s–it was his own.

Henry found himself in a tough spot.  He had worked several jobs, but he hadn’t been able to make enough money.  He had survived the Panic of 1893, but by 1900 he felt crunched.

Headline from the article announcing Henry Shaw's death in the Richmond Evening Item on Saturday, November 17, 1900. (click to enlarge).

On November 16, 1900, Henry took a lethal dose of laudanum.  The note he left for the coroner was printed in the next day’s newspaper:  “Dr. Eber K. Watts, Coroner.  Dear Sir, I have made up my mind to take my own life.  Not that I am tired of it, for no one enjoyed life any better than I did, but I am cornered financially and cannot get out…”

The note he left for his wife explained his thinking in more detail:

I went away last Sunday morning a week ago, and did not tell anyone about it…a hope that I might yet be a man and save money was the sole cause of me going away.  I did not think it would take so long.  Now, since I have turned my face homeward, the thought of what I have done, and the debts contracted with no hope of getting them paid out any time soon, has caused my nerve to fail me, and I can go no further. I see nothing for me but the fact that I must get off the earth.  I have worried over them until my reason is shaken.  I am not right.  I have no one to blame for it but myself, so do not grieve.

The newspaper went on to say that Mrs. Shaw and the children were “prostrated” by the loss.  Saddest of all, the paper reported that Mr. Shaw’s most intimate friends said “his financial troubles of which he speaks were more imagined than real.  His indebtedness, while undoubtedly a source of much worry to him, was not of great magnitude.”

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7 Responses to Death by Downturn

  1. Priya says:

    He must have been an honourable man, Mr. Shaw, who believed he could not get past the debts. It is a sad thing to have happened. I never stop feeling amazed at how much you know about them, and how beautifully you present the facts.

    Anyhow, such talks remind me of my increasingly stronger belief that money may just have been the worst invention of all.

    • Love of money is certainly the root of all evil. But whether you love it or not, money causes such complications in our lives. Finding and holding onto a proper perspective on money is one of the keys to the good life, in my opinion.

      Thanks for reading and commenting!

  2. I love that you have not only pictures, but also newspaper clippings, and even the actual words from a handwritten note! What a showcase for your story.

    And I often find myself wondering similar things, when I look at gravestones, or read accounts of when people died. What was it about the fabric of the time that may have contributed to their deaths? What is there, that I can’t see in the black-and-white words, that flew over them, breathed through them, inspired and frightened them.

    I think people are a lot less scared of money, these days. Sure, there are those who will still choose the “laudanum route.” But I think there are too many options for those in debt now, to provoke such a singular feeling of despair. Options that were not around 100 years ago.

    Regardless, it was a joy to read your post, and to see you wondering into the same things.

    • I agree that there are too many options for debts these days. People have lost all respect for debts. I think it’s part of the reason our world economy has ended up where it has. Eventually reality catches up with us all.

      There’s no question that our culture and environs have a huge impact on who we are and how our life develops. I think it’s impossible to really understand a person’s life until you know where, when and how they lived. It’s part of what makes family history interesting.

      Thanks for reading and commenting!

  3. Damyanti says:

    That last paragraph is so meaningful and heart-wrenching in so many ways. Thanks for sharing this post.

    • It is heart-wrenching. It’s hard to imagine you could get so deeply into despair that you wouldn’t think about the people left behind. Henry left a wife and two daughters alone to face the world. A sad suicide indeed.

      Thanks for reading and commenting.

  4. Pingback: A startling coincidence or something else? | Arbor Familiae

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