Marasmus

Until today, I’d never heard or read the term “marasmus.”

But this morning I had some free time before going to work so I was searching Findagrave.com and the birth and death records on the West Virginia Archives.

I do this sometimes, putting in a family surname and narrowing the search by county and date. Yes, this is a random way to approach genealogy, but I occasionally use the tactic anyway because it can yield interesting, albeit sometimes tragic, results.

Today was one of those times.

Findagrave.com popped up with a memorial for thirteen-day-old baby. When I placed her on my family tree, she turned out to have been my father’s cousin (my grandfather’s brother’s daughter).

Melba Jarushire Bird (as FIndagrave lists her) was born at the very end of December 1929 and died on January 9, 1930.

She was either twelve, thirteen, or fourteen days old (depending if you believe the death certificate, Findagrave, or the death register). Her name wasn’t actually Melba Jarushire either, at least not according to the legal documents. It was Melva Jearline.

Cause of death was listed as marasmus, which Healthline defines as: “… a form of severe malnutrition. It can occur in anyone who has severe malnutrition, but it usually occurs in children. It typically occurs in developing countries. Marasmus can be life-threatening, but you can get treatment for it.

Well. That gave me pause.

To think Dad’s cousin, born three years after him in nearly the same place, died of what sounds like starvation … I can hardly wrap my brain around it.

Although Melva’s death technically happened during the Great Depression, I’m not sure that was the root cause. The Depression started in the US with the stock market crash in October 1929. Would two months of inadequate nutrition at the end of a pregnancy be enough to cause malnutrition severe enough that the child would die?

I don’t know.

I do know Melva’s parents had a son born in 1932, before losing another child in 1939, a daughter who lived only a day.

It’s impossible to imagine the grief they must have felt both with Melva and their second daughter, which makes the fact that their son lived until the age of 73 seem almost a miracle.

My grandparents raised my father and his sister during these years. In the 1930 census, the two families are on the same page, making them neighbors as well as relations. Melva’s father was a laborer, as was my grandfather.

It seems incredible that only now am I beginning to see the struggle these young families went through trying to survive.

Grandma was always extremely strict about not wasting anything. As a child, I didn’t understand. Later, as an adult, I barely thought about it.

Now, however, I think I begin to understand.

To have lived through such times, where these couple’s (and I’m sure many others’) very survival — and worse, the survival of their children — may have been in doubt, would leave a person forever determined to never live that way again.

Also, and this may seem a bit of a stretch to some, reading about this happening in my own family gives me empathy for parents around the world who take what seems to us to be ridiculous chances to migrate somewhere that seems to promise a better future. And I can tell you this, if I’d seen one of my children die of malnutrition, I think I would be quite likely to take any risk necessary to help make sure I didn’t lose another the same way.

Addendum: Since writing this, several friends have pointed out malnutrition could have been caused by issues other than lack of food — cleft palate inability to digest milk, or any number of physical maladies. I was viewing my father’s cousin’s death through the lens of a person raised much later, when such issues would have been problematic, but not life-threatening. Still, however it happened, it’s clear this family suffered their share of tragedy.

Genealogy Fact #1: A Census Is a Beautiful Thing

To the genealogist, a census is a beautiful and useful thing.

For example, here are just a few facts I’ve gleaned from these documents.

  • My grandfather was earning a wage at thirteen.
  • My great-grandfather was a U.S. RFD contract mail delivery man.
  • The rest of my ancestors were mostly farmers, though I can also claim a few coopers, carpenters, servants and joiners.
  • My 2x great-grandfather couldn’t write.
  • The majority of my family members were born in Pennsylvania, Ohio, Virginia, and, later, West Virginia. But one was listed on three censuses as being born in three different states.

This brings me to my next point.

The census is not always accurate, and apparently, many census takers couldn’t spell. In addition, old-fashioned handwriting can be difficult to read, so indexes are not always correct. Still, if you find something repeated in enough censuses, you can probably accept it as fact.

It’s also useful to pay attention to neighbors because they were often the source of marriage partners. Say you have a great-grandfather named Andrew Warren Bird who was married to your great-grandmother Clara Olive Summers, and in earlier censuses you find a Byrd family living near a Summers family, it’s probably the right families, even if the names are spelled differently, and there is no Andrew listed. And if, a generation later, you discover that a Lang man married a Byrd woman, and his sister married a Byrd man, well, you’ll begin to realize just how small the marriage pool was. (Children of these two marriages are double-first cousins, and they share as much DNA as siblings.)

Something else you need to understand is that counties were divided to make new counties (and in the case of West Virginia, one state was divided to form two). You may discover a family that lived in Monongalia County in the 1840 census was in Marion County in 1850. And they didn’t move.

Alternatively, a family can be listed in once census, disappear entirely in the next, and reappear back in the same place in the following one.

Go figure.

Occasionally, someone appears in a completely unlikely place.  I have an ancestor who — after she was widowed — turned up in Oklahoma. At first I ignored that return on a search for her name because, well, she couldn’t be there.

She was. Her son-in-law was working in the oil fields, and my ancestor was living with him and her daughter.

In earlier censuses (1790-1840), women and children (and later, slaves) were listed only as hash marks, unless the woman was a widow and therefore head of the household.

BirdAdam1810

Copy of 1810 Census 

Still, the census, especially the later ones can provide a wealth of information including some, but not always all, of the following.

  • Name (occasionally misspelled and/or nearly illegible).
  • Age (from which you can generally guess about birth year, which you can use to find other resources).
  • Profession/occupation, and sometimes how many months they worked that year.
  • Race.
  • Value of property.
  • Place of birth.
  • Year married.
  • If the person attended school in the last year.
  • If the person could read or write.
  • If the person suffered from certain infirmities.
  • If their parents were “foreign-born.” In later years, this information is more detailed with the census asking parents’ place of birth.
  • Relationship of the person to the head of the family.
  • Whether the person was single, married, widowed, or divorced.
  • The Special Schedule of the 1890 census tells whether or not the person served in the “war of the rebellion” or was a widow of a soldier, sailor, or marine. (Note: If your ancestor isn’t listed, it doesn’t always mean he didn’t serve. I have several for whom I have Civil War pension records, and they don’t show up on this schedule.)

BirdAndrewWarren_Clara1910

  • How many children a female ancestor has given birth to, and (this one always gives me pause) how many of those children are still alive.
  • Year of immigration and mother tongue.
  • The 1900 and 1910 censuses also has a separate census for “Indians.”

So, what’s stopping you? Go to this page on FamilySearch.org and see what your ancestors were doing in 1940.

Or pick any decade. You might be surprised at what you learn.