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Shadows in the Valley: A Cultural History of Illness, Death, and Loss in New England, 1840-1916

Author(s):Swedlund, Alan C.
Reviewer(s):Murray, John E.

Published by EH.NET (March 2011)

Alan C. Swedlund, Shadows in the Valley: A Cultural History of Illness, Death, and Loss in New England, 1840-1916.? Amherst, MA: University of Massachusetts Press, 2010.? xiii + 246 pp. $29 (paperback), ISBN: 978-1-55849-720-7

Reviewed for EH.NET by John E. Murray, Department of Economics, University of Toledo.

This is a book about sickness and death; not so much about quantitative measures of death and illness rates, but about the setting thereof.? Its geographic focus is limited to Franklin County in central Massachusetts, and its towns of Shelburne, Greenfield, Deerfield, and Montague.? Alan Swedlund, an anthropologist at the University of Massachusetts, has been studying the subject of disease and death in this area for decades, so the book serves to sum up nearly a career?s worth of insights into a very broad topic.? Tables and figures that might appeal to more quantitatively oriented readers appear in an appendix.? Their value for the narrative is that the author can point back to his previously published (in article form) quantitative studies to note which patterns were representative and which unusual but still noteworthy.? The book?s points then are both reliable and interesting.

Due to its universality and finality, at least in physical terms, death is a fascinating subject.? Swedlund?s focus on cultural practices and beliefs that surround death reinforces what we can learn from mortality rates and life tables; combined with the detailed explication of these cultural practices, the whole is greater than the sum of the parts.

A particular feature of the book that economic historians might employ too rarely is visual images: woodcuts, daguerreotypes, photographs.? An arresting pair illustrates the development of the Connecticut River valley itself as well as its image in the minds of locals.? The first is Thomas Cole?s wonderful painting, The Oxbow (1836), which shows a bend in the river as seen from Mount Holyoke.? To the left, a gray storm covers the forested hill; in the distance a few lone trees sprout among cleared fields around and within the oxbow of the river.? It appears that settled agriculture and the wilderness are mutually exclusive.? The next image shows a different kind of progress.? From the perspective of a nearby hill, the same scattered trees inhabit otherwise cleared fields, but a railroad bridge crosses the river, carrying a train that puffs towards Deerfield and Greenfield.? The towns appear as a cluster of homes and churches in the distance.? We know that this region developed economically over this period, but the visual power of the two images brings that point home in an unusual and engaging way.

Another pair of photographs illustrates not only the burden of high child mortality rates, but the limitations of technology.? The first photo shows a small boy, and the second, taken in 1867, shows the same boy, now deceased and lying in his coffin.? Swedlund notes that photographing the remains of family members was a common middle-class practice at the time, in part for technological reasons.? Of course the family wanted a keepsake out of it, but the time required to keep the shutter open made it rather difficult to photograph living people — especially children who were not likely to sit still for long anyway.? Thus the memento mori may have been the only opportunity to take a picture of a young one.

Historians of medicine often lament the lack of first-person information about the experiences of sick people in the past.? Here Swedlund provides insightful commentaries by family members in diaries and letters.? On the other side of the sick bed, it is also easy to wonder about the physicians who ministered to the Connecticut Valley people, such as Stephen West Williams, about whom we know quite a bit.? In particular, we might ask what John Harley Warner asked in The Therapeutic Perspective (Princeton University Press, 1997): What did the physicians think their courses of therapy were doing to their patients?? Warner notes in several places that the aim of heroic therapy, in the physician?s eyes, was to disrupt the development of the disease — really, as violently as possible, since the greater the violence the clearer the proof that the course of therapy was working.? Williams and other physicians whose work is described here might have had similar thoughts about what they believed they were doing.

Swedlund approaches the broader aspects of death in the nineteenth century imaginatively.? Even a cultural history of death must address its causes, and Swedlund carefully describes and analyzes infectious disease, especially tuberculosis, puerperal fever, industrial accidents, and causes of death during the Civil War.? The section on war-related deaths is particularly informative.? For example, it is well known that only a minority of deaths during the war were due to wounds; the majority was killed by typhoid fever due to miserable living conditions, related to the mingling of drinking water and waste at campsites.? But Swedlund also emphasizes the devastating effects of a new technology, the mini? ball.? The mini? ball was not a ball at all but a round of ammunition shaped in a familiar bullet form.? Named after its inventor, it was used in firearms with rifled barrels and so was accurate at longer distances than a spherical round.? It also created much more damaging wounds than previous forms of shot.? In addition, I had previously understood that embalming was introduced during the war so that bodies could be sent back to hometowns for burial.? Introduced, though, is too strong a word.? Swedlund notes that embalming was very much in an experimental stage during the war.? One result of the experiments was embalming technologies that were too effective.? The point of embalming is to stop the decay, essentially by filling the corpse with poisons that will kill the microbes and scavengers that would otherwise consume it.? A physical anthropologist once described to me his work on remains from this period that had been preserved with arsenic.? In a superficial sense, the bodies were in great shape, but they were extremely difficult to work with since the arsenic had lost none of its toxicity over the years.? More familiar methods, for example, formaldehyde, were not used until after the war.? As a result most men were buried where they fell; that?s why, for example, Lincoln was at Gettysburg to deliver his Address, to dedicate the cemetery.?

Shadows in the Valley does an excellent job of describing the context of death and disease that readers of this review might ordinarily study through quantitative measures.? It deserves a wide readership among scholars of demographic history and nineteenth century New England.

John E. Murray is professor of economics at the University of Toledo, and, from August 2011, Joseph R. Hyde III Professor of Political Economy at Rhodes College.? His studies of morbidity and mortality have appeared in Bulletin of the History of Medicine and Demography.

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Subject(s):Historical Demography, including Migration
Social and Cultural History, including Race, Ethnicity and Gender
Geographic Area(s):North America
Time Period(s):19th Century
20th Century: Pre WWII