Suicide or Toothache?

I don’t know much about my 3rd g-grandparents, David M. Wilson and Elizabeth Long.  Just a few facts:

David M. Wilson, son of Thomas Wilson and Jane [unknown], was born in Ireland.

David Wilson

His family immigrated to New Brunswick, about 1830, when he was six. There he met Elizabeth Long, an Irish immigrant, daughter of Alexander Long, who arrived in New Brunswick about 1840, at the age of seventeen.

Elizabeth Long

They were wedded Tuesday evening, 20 July 1847, by Rev. Wm. Harrison on who was affiliated with St. Luke’s Anglican Church, Main Street, Saint John, New Brunswick.

David and Elizabeth marriage

Two known children James Alexander (b. 27 Feb 1850) and David M. (b. 3 Jan 1852)  were born in Saint John, New Brunswick.

David, Elizabeth and James were enumerated in the 1851 Canadian census.

1851 census

The family immigrated to Boston, Massachusetts, between Jan 1852 and Mar 1853.  David was a painter and paper hanger who for the next 25+ years reported being born in either Maine or New Brunswick, most likely to avoid discrimination, which was rampant in Boston,  because of the Irish Potato Famine,  a period of mass starvation, disease and emigration between 1845 and 1852.[1]

Four known children were born in Boston, Eleanor “Ellen” (b. 21 Mar 1853), Annie Elizabeth “Bessie” (b. 12 Nov 1855), Charles L. (b. abt 1857) and my 2nd g-grandmother, Roxana Aurelia “Anna” (b. 12 Oct 1859).

The family moved frequently, finally settling first at 9 South Margin and then 177 Bennington, both in East Boston for a number of years.


Bennington Street, East Boston, ca. 1915-1930


On 31 August 1879, David died.  His death certificate lists the cause as “Phithisis” [defined as: pulmonary tuberculosis or a similar progressive systemic disease].

End of story, right?  In 1879, obituaries were nonexistent or limited to a one liner listing nothing more than the decedent’s name.

I spent a day at the Boston Public Library last week searching through old copies of the Malden Evening News for about 30 of my ancestors who lived in that town from 1890 – 2013 – including David’s widow Elizabeth (Long) Wilson.  Her obituary didn’t say much:


I was tired, it had been a long day, my eyes were shot from looking at microfilm too long – a blizzard had started outside, the MBTA (my ride back home) was closing early because of the anticipated weather, I wanted to relax and have a beer (that’s what you do during a blizzard, right?).  I asked the librarian if she thought it was worth it to look for David’s death in the Boston papers. Her opinion was that I would likely find nothing, but added as I walked away, “it doesn’t hurt to look”.  I returned to the desk – I knew I wouldn’t have a chance to get back to the BPL for a few months, so expecting to find nothing, I looked.

To my surprise, there were three articles!

The first, from the Herald, stated that David, while on a job site painting, had attempted suicide by drinking laudanum.


The second, a local East Boston publication, stated that he may have taken laudanum to relive the pain of a toothache. But why did he lock himself in another room to drink the potion?


The third, claimed “He Accomplished His Object”, he is dead”


How awful for his wife! Did he really commit suicide or was it a toothache?

According to Wikipedia:

“A drink of laudanum was made of 10% opium and 90% alcohol, and flavoured with cinnamon or saffron. It was first used by the ancient Greeks, and in the 19th century mostly used as painkiller, sleeping pill, or tranquilizer. It was cheaper than poppy oil and could be drank like you’d drink scotch. It took a while for the Victorian to figure out the negative side effect, only in 1919 the production and export of opium was prohibited, and in 1928 a law was passed that prohibited use.

[Wikipedia’s list of laudanum-users is so incredibly long, it makes no sense to copy it. Here’s some notable users: Lord Byron, Kate Chopin, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Percy Bysshe Shelley, John Keats, Lewis Carroll, Charles Dickens, Edgar Allan Poe.]

So, it was a pretty popular drug. In fact: innumerable Victorian women were prescribed the drug for relief of menstrual cramps and vague aches and used it to achieve the pallid complexion associated with tuberculosis (frailty and paleness were particularly prized in females at the time). Nurses also spoon-fed laudanum to infants.

My thinking is that David had a toothache, but I struggle with this theory, only because the newspaper stated that he locked himself in another room after taking the drug.  I guess we’ll never know the real truth.  Was he depressed?  There are a few cases of mental illness in my family.  David’s daughter Roxana married Ephraim Augustus (my 2nd g-grandparents) – who was declared insane in 1916 at the age of 62 – my grandfather Charles Hall had breakdown as a young man – was it from genetic causes on both sides of the family or only Ephraim or was it unrelated? One of  David’s  granddaughter’s (Clara Rebecca Pratt, daughter of Bessie) was also committed. In 1930 she was found as a patient at Brattleboro Retreat where she remained until her death in 1970.  The Brattleboro Retreat provides specialized diagnosis and treatment services those suffering from a wide range of psychiatric and addiction challenges since 1834.

Poor Elizabeth, in 1879 she loses her husband, the newspaper publicized his death as a suicide – true or not, publicly humiliating her family.   Her young blind son, Charles, died suddenly, less than a year later, on 31 Mar 1880, with inflammation of the bowels.  Six years later she buried her eldest sons James (d. 14 Sep 1886, consumption) and David (d. 20 Jun 1886, meningitis).  Elizabeth herself passed on 25 Feb 1897.  Anna and Ellen lived only until 1910 leaving poor Bessie as the only surviving child (she died in 1932).

3 responses to this post.

  1. Posted by Lynn goucher on February 18, 2013 at 3:18 PM

    You don’t know much about them??!! Sounds like you know way more than I could ever accomplish!! How did you learn to research so well? I gleaned some info from but I just get so bug-eyed and confused by all the dates and names …. Im starting to think im dyslexic!! Can I hire you to trace my family tree??!!



    • Thanks Lynn! I still feel like I don’t know anything about their lives other than their birth, marriage, death dates, places of residence and jobs. I want to know so much more – what were their personalities like; did they all get along; what did they do in their free time; why did they come to Boston?; did they have any relatives in Ireland or New Brunswick that they stayed in touch with?; did they have favorite recipes; the list goes on and on!! I am honored that you wish to hire me, but these days I am just doing my own tree (and it is so much more fun to do it yourself!!). If you haven’t done so already, start with the free classes on FamilySearch – this is a great resource with every imaginable topic! Then read my blog post entitled “My Education Plan” – I was right where you are just a few years ago! I have found that there are so many people out there who will help you learn, I made lots of mistakes (still do) and learn from them…. It has been a fun trip! But, if you really want to hire someone to help you, consult the APG website for someone who specializes in the area where your ancestors lived:



  2. […] I know of Roxanna’s parents can be found in my blog post: I have not located their birthplace in Ireland.  I don’t know if Roxanna had aunts or uncles […]



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